On the morning of Sept. 12, unheralded Stanford checked the new Associated Press poll and discovered it had climbed from No. 25 to No. 19. That same day, Virginia Tech was unceremoniously dumped from the rankings after losing at home to James Madison. Nearly four months later, the two teams make an unlikely pairing in the Orange Bowl. The Cardinal put together the best regular season in school history, finishing 11-1 and producing their second straight Heisman Trophy runner-up, this time quarterback Andrew Luck. The Hokies rebounded from their disastrous 0-2 start to tie a school record with 11 straight victories in a season, a streak they capped with a win over Florida State in the ACC Championship Game. The two teams from opposite coasts have never met, giving the Orange Bowl a chance to stage an intriguing matchup between schools looking to add a final chapter to their already historic seasons.
Harbaugh's future is more uncertain. The former Michigan quarterback and brother of Ravens head coach John Harbaugh inherited a 1-11 team in 2006 and won four games, then five, then eight and now 11 over his four years. His stock, like Luck's, will never be higher, and his name has been linked to Michigan should Rich Rodriguez get fired and to Stanford's NFL neighbor the 49ers, who are looking for a new coach after firing Mike Singletary. Harbaugh reportedly has a lucrative contract extension waiting for his signature, leading to more speculation that he plans on leaving. One factor in Stanford's favor is Harbaugh's appreciation for carrying on Bill Walsh's legacy at the school. Upon his hiring, Harbaugh spent as much time as he could with Walsh before the two-time Stanford coach passed away in 2007. Walsh helped Harbaugh
Virginia Tech's final two games were its two best efforts against the run this season, as the Hokies held Virginia and Florida State to less than 2.0 yards per carry. The Hokies will be without starting linebacker Lyndell Gibson, who broke his shoulder in the ACC Championship Game. Freshman Jack Tyler will get the start, and Tariq Edwards will also get some time. Breaking in a new linebacker against an offense that scored an average of 40.3 points is not ideal. If the run defense struggles, it will be a long night for the Hokies.
Taylor was phenomenal against Florida State in the ACC title game, completing 18 of 28 passes for 263 yards and three touchdowns and running for another. He continually kept plays alive with his feet,
Virginia Tech is 1-26 all time against teams ranked in the top five, beating No. 2 Miami 31-7 in 2003 when both teams were members of the Big East.
On paper the advantage lies with Stanford, which won eight of its games by at least 23 points and has a future NFL first-round pick at quarterback. There are factors working against the Cardinal, however. How much of a distraction will Luck's and Harbaugh's futures be as the team prepares for the game? How will Stanford handle traveling 3,000 miles to Miami? And how will a defense that got hammered by Thomas fare against Taylor? Incentive is an oft-analyzed factor in bowl games, and both teams seem similarly motivated. Stanford wants to cap its record season with its first-ever BCS bowl win, and Virginia Tech has a chance to record its 12th straight victory after being written off in the wake of its fluke loss to JMU. If Stanford can maintain its focus, it should be able to put an exclamation point on its stellar four-year turnaround.