Hokies eyeing second straight ACC crown

When the ACC decided to expand in 2003, the jewel in the conference's eyes was the Miami Hurricanes.

The enthusiasm for Virginia Tech's inclusion was less than unanimous. Only some backroom dealing and politics got the Hokies a place in the bulked-up ACC.

But although the Hurricanes have struggled some since jumping from the Big East, Virginia Tech has dominated. The Hokies have won 14 of their 16 conference games and the 2004 league championship.

On Saturday night in Jacksonville, Fla., fifth-ranked Virginia Tech (10-1) is a heavy favorite to make it two ACC titles in a row when it meets slumping and unranked Florida State (7-4). Before the Hokies arrived, the Seminoles ruled the conference, winning 11 of 12 championships from 1992 through 2003.

So have the Hokies overtaken the Seminoles as kings of the ACC?

"Not by far," said Darryl Tapp, a Virginia Tech senior defensive end.

"Florida State has national championships, Heisman Trophy winners, division and league championships. They've done so many great things, and we've only won one ACC championship. So we're nowhere near them, but we're taking some right steps."

Virginia Tech has managed to bounce back from its one misstep this season
-- a humiliating 27-7 loss to visiting Miami on Nov. 5 -- to earn a Coastal Division championship and a spot opposite FSU in the ACC's inaugural title game.

The Hokies' hopes of defending their conference crown appeared dashed after the loss to Miami. But instead of crumbling, Virginia Tech put together a pair of impressive victories against Virginia and North Carolina, and Miami lost to unranked Georgia Tech, costing the Hurricanes the division title and a berth in Jacksonville.

"One loss is not going to kill anyone's season," said Tapp, who finished fourth in the ACC with nine sacks. "We had a lot to play for regardless of that loss. We wanted to go out on a high note, and the seniors pulled everyone together. Now we have a second opportunity."

Although quarterback Marcus Vick is the center of attention in Blacksburg, the team's defense is what has Virginia Tech one win from a probable encounter with Big Ten champion Penn State in the FedEx Orange Bowl on Jan. 3.

Led by Tapp and safety Jimmy Williams, a pair of All-ACC first-team performers, the Hokies lead the nation in in total defense (236.7), pass defense (142.2), scoring defense (10.6) and are second in pass-efficiency defense (204.6).

The 117 points permitted during the regular season are the fewest since 1999, when Michael Vick led Virginia Tech to the Nokia Sugar Bowl, where it lost the national championship game to Florida State.

Good defense is nothing new under Bud Foster, the Hokies' defensive coordinator for 10 seasons. Foster has kept the Hokies' defense among the nation's leaders since he was named coordinator in 1995.

Foster, 46, is one of six finalists for the 2005 Broyles Award, given annually to college football's assistant coach of the year. Foster was also a finalist in 1999 and 2001.

"It's about time he won that thing," Beamer said this week.

But if it's defense that wins games at Virginia Tech, it is Marcus Vick that fans come to see play. Vick, runner-up by one vote to Wake Forest's Chris Barclay for ACC Player of the Year this week, was often spectacular in his first season as a full-time starter.

The redshirt sophomore was first in the ACC in passing efficiency (150.0) and third in touchdown passes (14). A second-half slump -- Vick threw seven interceptions and four touchdowns in his last six games after passing for 10 touchdowns and two interceptions in the season's first half -- has curtailed neither the comparisons to his older brother nor Beamer's confidence in him.

"Marcus is very much responsible for this team being where it is," Beamer said.

On Saturday, Marcus could accomplish something Michael didn't by beating Florida State. Virginia Tech has lost 11 consecutive games in the series, including six straight under Beamer.

Which might be why the Hokies, 14-point favorites, aren't quite as certain as everyone else that they will waltz through Saturday's game against a Seminoles team that is looking to avoid a fourth straight loss, which would be a first in coach Bobby Bowden's 30 seasons at the school.

"Since I've been here, we're 0-6 versus Florida State," said Beamer, who was named ACC Coach of the Year for the second straight season. "We haven't beaten them since 1975, so I'm not sure this is a great opponent for us if history has anything to do with it."

On paper, though, the game is shaping up as something of a mismatch. FSU's once-imposing defense has given up 116 points in its last four games, one fewer than Virginia Tech has permitted all season. The Seminoles' offense hasn't done much better, scoring 36 points in its last three games combined. FSU was averaging about 36 points in its first eight games before injuries began to take a toll on the team's depth.

With a victory against Florida State and another in their bowl game, the Hokies would set a school record with 12 victories and could finish in the top 5.

"There was some controversy about whether we were going to come [into the ACC] or not," Beamer said. "But now that we got here, you want to make people feel like this is a good addition. Hopefully, the people in the ACC feel that way right now."

Jorge Milian covers the ACC for The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post.