No. 5 Stanford (11-1) vs. No. 12 Va. Tech (11-2)Jan. 3, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
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.
1. Farewell to the Farm? The Orange Bowl could be the Stanford finale for Luck and coach Jim Harbaugh, the two men most responsible for the Cardinal's historic transformation from pushover to powerhouse. Luck, a redshirt sophomore who was the Pac-10's offensive player of the year after throwing for 3,051 yards and 28 touchdowns, is projected by many as the No. 1 overall pick in April's NFL draft. Luck has said he'll wait until after the Orange Bowl to weigh the pros and cons of turning pro, but it would make little sense for him to turn down the NFL. His stock won't get any higher, and it's hard (but not impossible) to envision Stanford making a run at a national championship next year, a goal some players use as a reason to return to school. The Cardinal fan base will not be shocked if Luck decides to go pro.
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 recruit Luck to Stanford, grilling the quarterback on the finer points of the rollout pass. Should Harbaugh leave Stanford, the program should wish him well for engineering a remarkable turnaround, no matter how difficult that might be. But there is a chance that won't be necessary.
2. Hey Bud, don't forget about the run. Virginia Tech's Bud Foster has one of the finest reputations among assistant coaches in the nation, as the Hokies have consistently churned out tough defenses in his 16 years as defensive coordinator. This is not one of Foster's best units, but the Hokies have 22 interceptions and feature an All-American in cornerback Jayron Hosley. And while this play-making secondary makes for an interesting matchup with Stanford's spectacular Mr. Luck, it might be Foster's run defense that decides the game. Stanford features a physical and talented line, led by All-America center Chase Beeler. Fullback Owen Marecic, who also starts at linebacker and finished 10th in the Heisman voting, can create holes for 1,000-yard rusher Stepfan Taylor and force defenses out of formations designed to slow Luck. Stanford ran the ball 59 percent of the time this season, even without last year's Heisman runner-up, Toby Gerhart.
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.
3. Can Tyrod Taylor channel some final Michael Vick magic? The comparisons to Virginia Tech's most famous quarterback started in Taylor's freshman year, when the athletic signal-caller became the Hokies' starter. Taylor is from Hampton, Va., which is not far from Vick's home of Newport News. Taylor was quick, had a strong arm, was tough and could turn a broken play into a big one. No one had a knack for doing that more than Vick, and Hokies fans were hoping Taylor could give them the same thrills. Taylor proved he belonged in the same class as Vick this season, becoming the winningest quarterback in school history, earning 2010 ACC player of the year honors and serving as the catalyst of the Hokies' third ACC title in four years.
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, an ability that has Harbaugh concerned. Oregon's Darron Thomas, the best duel-threat quarterback Stanford faced this year, lit up the Cardinal for 238 yards passing, 117 yards rushing and four touchdowns. Virginia Tech will presumably need to score often to keep up with Stanford's high-powered offense, and it will be on Taylor to make that happen.
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.
SI.com NFL draft analyst Tony Pauline shares his thoughts on the top pro prospects in this matchup:
Stanford: QB Andrew Luck* -- We've written glowingly about Luck's skills since August, and he's done nothing to disappoint. Luck is the most complete college quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning -- except he's bigger and has a stronger arm. Luck lines up under center on passing downs in Stanford's pro-style offense and has all the makings of a player who can carry an NFL franchise. He'll be the first player selected if he turns pro. Grade: First-round prospect.
Virginia Tech: RB Ryan Williams* -- Williams has struggled with injury this season after a brilliant freshman campaign in 2009. He's a creative ball carrier who eludes defenders and shows the ability to beat opponents into the open field. Williams still needs to complete his game and is not a sure thing yet, but offers a good degree of upside. Grade: Second- to third-round prospect.
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.
The Pick: Stanford 34, Virginia Tech 29
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