Anyone associated with Virginia Tech football is entitled to what-if Tuesday's Sugar Bowl loss to Michigan with family, friends and therapists. For days, weeks, months, however long it takes to purge the images.
If, indeed, they can be purged.
What if the Wolverines hadn't converted an aborted field goal attempt into a first down with a fluke pass?
What if aliens hadn't temporarily kidnapped Frank Beamer and called a fake punt that failed miserably and set up a Michigan field goal?
What if the Pacific 12 officiating crew had upheld Danny Coale's 20-yard touchdown in overtime? ACC supervisor of officials Doug Rhoads believes they should have.
And that's merely a sampling of the myriad moments that could have turned a maddening 23-20 defeat into a landmark, come-from-behind victory in the first Sugar Bowl since 1945 without a top-10 team.
But those invested emotionally, financially and/or personally in Tech's program ought not lose sight of several remarkable efforts, some of which bode well moving forward.
Start with sophomore quarterback Logan Thomas. He outpassed, outrushed and outplayed his more acclaimed counterpart, Denard Robinson, affirming his NFL potential.
Thomas threw an interception, and the Wolverines converted the turnover into a touchdown, but linebacker Frank Clark merits more applause for the play than Thomas does blame. Thomas passed for 214 yards and rushed for 53, most notably converting a late fourth-and-11 with a 13-yard scramble.
The performance gave Thomas 3,482 yards total offense in his first season as a starter, breaking Tyrod Taylor's school record of 3,402, set last year.
Linebackers Tariq Edwards and Jack Tyler, and end J.R. Collins, sophomores all, were the top three tacklers on a defense that limited Michigan to a season-low 184 yards. Moreover, junior linebacker Alonzo Tweedy and sophomore end James Gayle were among those whose disciplined containment of Robinson held him to a season-low 13 yards rushing.
Several Hokies distinguished themselves in their final college games, none more than seniors Coale and Justin Myer.
Coale matched his career-high with eight receptions and was agonizingly close to a ninth in overtime. But after field judge Kevin Kieser ruled his spectacular end-zone stab a touchdown, replay officials Jim Fogltance and Cleo Robinson overturned.
I watched the video several times and can't remember a tougher call. That's what makes the overturn surprising — the indisputable evidence needed for such a change was not apparent, regardless of the original call.
For what it's worth, Rhoads said via email that he agrees with me and is awaiting an explanation for the reversal from the Pac-12.
Coale accepted responsibility for losing 7 yards on the fake punt that gave him a run-pass option. But that's on Beamer for foolishly calling for any shenanigans midway through the fourth quarter of a tie game in which his team owned the momentum.
Pressed into full-time place-kicking duties for the first time in his college career, Myer made 4-of-4 field goals in regulation, only to push a 37-yarder wide right after the Coale overturn. Only the heartless could resist not feeling for Myer.
But sitting stoically (dazed?) in front of his locker, he graciously answered every media question, some more than once.
"Making the first one got rid of a lot of nerves," Myer said. "It's not an end-of-the-world type thing. It sucks right now, but eventually I'll get over it."
Junior cornerback Jayron Hosley also answered the paramount question, confirming his intention to declare for the NFL draft. Hosley did not play as well this season as last, but Tuesday was his best game.
He broke up a season-high four passes and created good field position for the offense with a 24-yard punt return and 29-yard kickoff return. Officials overturned a Hosley interception on replay, correctly saying he didn't have possession, and nullified another with an iffy pass interference flag.
Though most expect him also to turn pro, junior tailback David Wilson was more cryptic about his plans, saying an announcement is imminent. He rushed for 82 yards against a rugged defense to finish the season with a school-record 1,709 yards.
In short, Tuesday was nothing like last season's Orange Bowl loss to Stanford, in which no one wearing maroon played well. But it was another BCS disappointment for a program and conference in need of validation.
Also discouraging: The crowd of 64,515 was the Sugar Bowl's second-smallest in the last 60 years — the 2001 game between Miami and Florida drew 64,407.
The defeat will ease national expectations for the 2012 Hokies but not among a fan base that craves headliner non-conference victories. Even with an offensive line that returns one starter, a non-league schedule that toughens with Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, and an ACC road that includes Clemson and Florida State, the faithful will bank on a ninth consecutive 10-win season, and then some.
Since Bud Foster's defense should be lights-out, and since Tech always seem to find a quality tailback — freshmen J.C. Coleman and Michael Holmes are the leading candidates — the Hokies again figure to rate as ACC Coastal Division favorites.
Such notions were far from Beamer's mind early Wednesday morning.
"I'm about half sick right now," he said. "But I'm proud as can be of our players. I'm proud of how we battled back. I'm proud of what we are as a football team. It wasn't lack of effort here at all. It wasn't, again, lack of preparation. … Our guys played their heart out."
Sometimes that's not enough.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun