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Sugar Bowl preview: Exciting game lurks beneath BCS controversy

No. 11 Virginia Tech (11-2) vs. No. 13 Michigan (10-2)Jan. 3, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Even now, with kickoff approaching, it is difficult to understand exactly why these teams were matched. Not how, but why. One could argue neither team deserved a BCS berth, but the at-large pick of Virginia Tech was the more surprising -- and irritating. The Sugar Bowl passed over higher-ranked Boise State and Kansas State. And hey, the Broncos and Wildcats might have been a pretty good matchup.

Instead we've got the Validation Bowl. While Michigan's selection is iffy, it's what bowls do. The Wolverines have a large fan base, and they'll draw plenty of eyeballs for TV. The program is also on the upswing in Brady Hoke's first year, back in a BCS bowl for the first time since 2007. The Wolverines have plenty of motivation to show they're ready to return to relevance. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech lost only two games, but both were blowout losses to Clemson -- including in the ACC Championship Game. And the Hokies don't have a signature win, unless you count Arkansas State.

The program's resultant struggle to sell tickets might have Sugar Bowl honchos second-guessing, but all of the griping has the Hokies revved up. "We have to go out there and win the game to make it something positive," Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas said. "We have been down in the hole all year. Ever since the end of the Clemson game, people were doubting us. It's kind of a redemption game to go out there and play as well as we can."

1. Tie up 'Shoelace.' There's no question the potential game-changer is, as always, Michigan's Denard Robinson. The junior quarterback hasn't run as much this year under Hoke and Al Borges, but he has been almost as effective when he has. Plus, he's healthy. "I told him from the beginning, from Day One, that he wasn't going to rush for 70, 80 yards (a game), because we're going to keep him in one piece if it killed us," Borges said. Passing remains an adventure with Robinson (18 touchdown passes, 18 interceptions, 56.1 percent completion rate) but he is still extremely dangerous and is the key to the Wolverines' offense. Robinson's load was lightened by the emergence of sophomore running back Fitzgerald Toussaint, who rushed for almost 700 yards in the last five games of the season.

Virginia Tech's defense has been good as always under Bud Foster -- some things never change -- especially against the run (opponents have averaged 107.8 yards) but also the pass (206.2-yard average), and is allowing less than 18 points a game. Though the Hokies have faced dual-threat quarterbacks, Robinson remains perhaps the most exciting and explosive -- in positive and negative terms -- quarterback in the college game.

2. Pay special attention to this guy. Virginia Tech running back David Wilson might be as well known for his flamboyance off the field as his production on it. He wears a shirt and tie to class -- every class, every day. He drives a 1978 T-bird -- orange, with ostrich-leather seats. We'll have to stop there for space reasons. But Wilson is, well, "Just different, which I think is a good thing, to be able to stand out from the crowd in positive ways," Wilson said. He's also pretty darn good at standing out from the crowd during games. The junior rushed for 1,627 yards this season and needs 29 to grab the school's single-season rushing record. He'll face a decision after the game about whether to leave for the NFL.

Michigan's defense made dramatic improvement this year under Greg Mattison, cutting its points allowed from 35 to 17. The run defense has been especially stingy, allowing 129.1 yards per game. Perhaps as important, the Wolverines have regained some swagger. "We know what we're capable of," defensive end Craig Roh said. "We know we are a good defense." Wilson will present a big challenge. He probably studied the video from Clemson's 38-10 romp in the ACC Championship Game. Wilson rushed for more than 100 yards in 10 games, but in the league title game he managed only 32 yards on 11 carries. "I really don't know what they did, but whatever they did, they did a good job at it," Wilson said. "It seemed like there was an extra defender everywhere I went."

3. Go for it, Frank. Beamer sent kicker Tyler Weiss home the other day for violating curfew -- and Weiss was the replacement the Hokies had been counting on. The starting kicker, Cody Journell, had earlier been suspended after an arrest for an alleged home invasion and didn't make the trip to New Orleans. Justin Myer, who regularly kicks off, will handle placekicking duties. Myer missed both field-goal attempts this season.

Quarterback mobility could be very important, because both defenses have done a good job getting pressure. It's nothing new for Virginia Tech, of course, which averaged almost three sacks this season (38 in 13 games, 12th-best nationally). Michigan averaged 2.3 (28 in 12 games, 26th-best). Both teams allowed only 15 sacks.

If we quit worrying about whether these teams should be playing in a BCS bowl -- I know, we won't stop, but go with me -- this could be a pretty entertaining matchup. Both teams have good defenses. Both offenses like to run and feature dual-threat quarterbacks. Virginia Tech's Thomas, at 6-foot-6, 254 pounds, brings a much different skill set. The converted tight end has a strong arm and is a much better passer than Robinson, but he's an effective runner who uses his size and strength to extend plays. If the Hokies can get Wilson going, Thomas' job becomes easier. Virginia Tech has only blocked one punt this year, but with a Beamer team there's always the possibility to inflict special-teams chaos.

In the end, though, Michigan played a more difficult schedule, and comes into the game riding an upswing. In bowl games, especially between evenly matched teams, there's sometimes nothing more important than motivation and outlook.

Michigan 27, Virginia Tech 21