VIRGINIA TECH didn't exactly command the nation's respect over the past year and a half. In the spring of 2003 the Hokies were snubbed by the ACC, which extended an invitation to join the conference only after talks with Boston College and Syracuse collapsed. Then, in their first year in the league, the Hokies were picked to finish in the bottom half of the ACC in the preseason preview magazines. In their opener against top-ranked USC in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, they were a 17 1/2 point underdog despite having a virtual home field advantage.
The more people dissed the Hokies, says defensive lineman Jim Davis, "the more we pulled together." A closeness developed, and the coaches had a motto printed on orange rubber wristbands: TEAM UNITED.
Now, they can call themselves something new: ACC champions. Virginia Tech upset fellow Big East transplant Miami 16--10 last Saturday to earn a spot in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 3 against Auburn, a clash of unlikely conference champions.
The Hokies started the season on a good note, giving USC a scare (despite their underdog status) before losing 24--13. The defense showed promise, but the lack of a big-play tailback was apparent in a 17--16 loss to N.C. State on Sept. 25, which left Tech at 2--2 and apparently no better than many had expected the team to be.
But then the Hokies began to improve. The defense held Tech's next three opponents to a total of 23 points, while junior running back Mike Imoh emerged as a threat, rushing for 243 yards and two touchdowns in a 27--24 win over North Carolina on Nov. 6. A 24--10 victory over rival Virginia three weeks later was Tech's seventh straight win and set up the showdown with 8--2 Miami for the ACC championship.
The Hokies carried plenty of attitude into the Orange Bowl last Saturday--"We realized that this was our time," says senior cornerback Eric Green--and their seasonlong persistence paid off. Virginia Tech took the lead on a 39-yard pass by senior Bryan Randall to freshman Eddie Royal with 11:29 remaining. On Miami's final drive, which started with 1:14 left, it appeared as if Hurricanes senior quarterback Brock Berlin would lead his team to victory, as he had many times before. But it was the Hokies' defense that pulled off the late magic, as Davis and fellow tackle Darryl Tapp combined to bat down three straight passing attempts to seal the victory.
In the visitors' locker room, where Hokies players pumped orange-banded arms and tossed sugar packets like confetti, ACC commissioner John Swofford offered congratulatory words. "I told 'em how proud I was to have them as an ACC team," says Swofford. Over a euphoric din, that belated acknowledgement could barely be heard. --Kelley King