TAMPA — The Virginia Tech Hokies and the Boston College Eagles needed a move to the ACC from the Big East to change a challenging, annual game into a sizzling, annual rivalry.
Heightened stakes will do that.
For the second straight year, the Coastal Division-winning Hokies (8-4) and the Atlantic Division-winning, No. 18-ranked Eagles (9-3) meet in the ACC Championship Game that, for the first time, will be at Raymond James Stadium at 1 p.m. today. The winner earns the league's Bowl Championship Series spot in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1.
"We've played a bunch of times, but when you're playing for a championship, it takes on new meaning," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said.
Today's renewal might lack the glitz and glamor that's generated from two highly ranked teams (in three of the past five meetings, including last year's title showdown, both were in the Associated Press top 13) or a marquee name (Boston College had quarterback Matt Ryan a year ago).
Still, the Hokies and Eagles tend to put on a show.
Especially these days.
"We're familiar with each other, and our kids love to compete against them," Eagles coach Jeff Jagodzinski said. "I think we bring out each other's best."
Defense never rests
Despite just four returning starters, the perennially stingy Hokies defense hasn't missed a beat. It's sixth nationally in total defense (274.5 yards) and 16th nationally in scoring (17.92).
Cornerback Macho Harris has 42 tackles and six interceptions, while defensive ends Orion Martin, a onetime walk-on who transferred from Norfolk State, and Jason Worilds have been stellar.
BC has been every bit as tenacious and dominating on defense. The Eagles are eighth nationally in total defense (276.67 yards) and 14th in scoring (17.58 points), led by tackles B.J. Raji (6 feet 1, 323 pounds) and Ron Brace (6-3, 324) and playmaking linebacker Mark Herzlich, the ACC's defensive player of the year.
"It'll be a good matchup because both of them have good defenses," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said.
Beamer knew he'd be relying on youngsters at running back and receiver but didn't anticipate quarterback issues. He initially decided to redshirt dynamic sophomore Tyrod Taylor, who has returned to the mix with senior Sean Glennon. Taylor had 137 yards passing and a touchdown and ran for 137 yards last week against Virginia — a must-win to make it back to the title game.
Meanwhile, freshmen receivers Jarrett Boykin, Danny Coale and Dyrell Roberts are coming along nicely, and freshman tailback Darren Evans has emerged as a star (998 yards, nine touchdowns).
"With the schedule that we had," Beamer said, "and then the young kids we were playing and young kids all at the same position and then a couple key injuries we got, it's a credit to our coaches and our players that we're in this ball game this particular year."
The Eagles had to replace Ryan, the No. 3 pick in the NFL draft, and then, in the first half of their 11th game, at Wake Forest, they lost senior Chris Crane and turned to redshirt freshman Dominique Davis, a former Lakeland Kathleen standout. And he has led his team to a pair of must-wins. Perhaps just as remarkable has been the play of freshmen running backs Montel Harris and Joe Haden, who together have 1,237 yards and six touchdowns.
"Matt Ryan was a real special player, but we've had to count on everybody," Jagodzinski said. "This is actually the best team chemistry I've ever been around."
Beamer's teams are renowned for nonoffensive scores (defense and special teams), and this year's group is no different. Harris has returned a pair of interceptions for touchdowns, cornerback Stephan Virgil returned a fumble for a touchdown, and linebacker Brett Warren returned a pick for a score against BC.
The Eagles have their own Boston-brand of BeamerBall. They have scored eight nonoffensive touchdowns (five interception returns, a fumble return, a punt return and a blocked punt return), tying Alabama and Kansas State for tops in the nation. More impressive, they've had such a score in seven straight games, beginning with Rich Gunnell's 65-yard punt return against the Hokies.
"It's like Virginia Tech," Jagodzinski said. "They've won a lot of games like that."
Brian Landman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3347.