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Stakes changed but not lowered

It was supposed to be huge.

Tonight's Big East showdown in Blacksburg, Va., between Miami and Virginia Tech would have it all.

Two unbeatens, both in their final season in the conference before leaving for the ACC, ranked 2-3 in the BCS standings, marching toward a Sugar Bowl bid and possible national title with the ESPN cameras showcasing the game to the nation.

But West Virginia had other ideas.

At home in front of a raucous Morgantown crowd, the Mountaineers shocked the Hokies, and many college football followers, 28-7 on Oct. 22. The upset dropped Virginia Tech to No. 10 in the AP poll and out of the BCS and took some of the luster off tonight's game.

Or did it?

A win by Miami would set in motion a November stretch run toward the national championship game at the Sugar Bowl. A win by Virginia Tech would throw everything up in the air and could help Florida State get back in the championship picture.

A lot still is at stake.

"I personally like these type games," Miami coach Larry Coker said. "The teams that we play that are supposed to be tuneups, I don't like those games. Those are the really hard games to prepare for. The Virginia Techs are harder to win, but you feel really strongly that you're going to be into it."

The 'Canes (7-0, 3-0) have all the streaks on their side, including 27 straight Big East wins. Miami's last conference loss was to the Hokies on the road in 1999.

But Virginia Tech (6-1, 2-1) has the home crowd as well as the big chip of proving that its previous game was an aberration, a mixture of overconfidence, mistakes and a better-than-the-record-shows opponent. After all, West Virginia had Miami on the ropes, too, before the Hurricanes pulled out a 22-20 win on a field goal with 11 seconds remaining.

"We've just got to get ourselves back in the picture because after the West Virginia game, a lot of people looked down on us," Hokies cornerback Eric Green said this week. "This game right here, we can pretty much clean everything up.

"Anybody can clean anything up once you beat Miami. I think this is our opportunity."

Still, a hallmark of Miami teams has been the ability to come up big in proportion to the importance of the game. The 'Canes know they can't afford a November loss and still have a realistic shot at playing in their third straight national title game.

"We thrive on big games," Miami defensive end Baraka Atkins said. "It's a national event, everyone's looking at us and we want to perform well."

The Hokies' biggest weapon is quarterback Bryan Randall, who is a dual threat with his arm and his ability to run. The 'Canes saw that firsthand last season when Randall rushed for 132 yards on 25 carries in a 56-45 shootout at the Orange Bowl.

"They run the ball very well, and they run the option," Coker said. "A running quarterback just creates problems."

"He did a pretty good job (last year)," Atkins said. "We're going to have to contain him because he has the ability to run with the football as well as throw it."

Tailback Kevin Jones was considered a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate for the Hokies before the season, but he has been slowed by injuries and has been inconsistent when healthy.

Virginia Tech ranks 20th nationally in rushing offense, but Miami's defense is ranked 32nd against the run. The 'Canes have stopped top backs in Boston College's Derrick Knight and FSU's Greg Jones.

"This is a big game," 'Canes defensive end Thomas Carroll said. "It makes or breaks both of our seasons."

_ Information from Times wires was used in this report.