Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer has a habit of adopting a phrase and sticking with it. This season, after Tech's chances of landing a bid to a Bowl Championship Series bowl game started to wane, he mentioned time and time again how he's "never been to a bad bowl."
While there's nothing insincere about Beamer's words, it seems the phrase is one Tennessee's coaches, players and fans could get behind even more than the Tech faithful heading in to Thursday's Chick-fil-A Bowl. After missing out on a bowl game last year for the second time in four seasons, and hiring Lane Kiffin in the offseason, Tennessee (7-5) has to be pleased just to be back on the postseason map.
Entering bowl week in Atlanta, here's a look at some of the top storylines to watch in preparation for the second Tech-Tennessee meeting in 72 years:
1Monte Kiffin does defense right.
After returning to a college sideline this season for the first time in 27 years, Tennessee defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, 69, has shown his NFL-proven philosophies are well-equipped to stop college offenses as well. Kiffin, who counts Newport News native and Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin among the assistant coaches who worked under him during his days as an NFL defensive coordinator, has led Tennessee to the nation's 10th-best passing defense (165.9 yards per game) and 18th-best total defense (309 yards). Still … it has to be weird working for your 34-year-old son.
2Tennessee's surging offense vs. Tech's improving defense
Tennessee's offensive players had to be sad to see the regular season end. In winning four of its last five games, Tennessee averaged 33 points and 410 yards per game. Virginia Tech's defense has been just as stout down the stretch. Since losing Oct. 28 to North Carolina, No. 12 Tech (9-3) has surrendered 8.8 points and 267 yards per game during a four-game winning streak.
3Momentum-builder for Tennessee?
With news that coach Urban Meyer will be taking a leave of absence from coaching duties at Florida, fans in Knoxville must see an opportunity. Heading in to next season, Florida could be vulnerable. Georgia will be coming off a down year and coach Mark Richt will be on the hot seat. Could Tennessee, which may feature eight returning defensive starters, be the surprise of the SEC East? No better way to get a jump on the 2010 season than by getting Lane Kiffin's first win against a top 15 ranked opponent.
4Williams goes for school-record
With an Atlantic Coast Conference and school freshman-record 1,538 rushing yards already to his credit, what could Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams do for an encore? One significant statistical goal remains within reach: Kevin Jones' school single-season rushing record. Williams, the ACC's Rookie of the Year, needs 110 more yards to surpass Jones' total of 1,647 yards amassed in 2003.
5Taylor looks to cap strong junior season
Last season, Hampton High graduate Tyrod Taylor finished his sophomore season by passing for 140 yards and an interception and running for 47 yards and a touchdown in Tech's 20-7 win against Cincinnati in the Orange Bowl. Taylor, who threw two touchdown passes and seven interceptions last season, has passed for 2,102 yards, 13 touchdowns and five interceptions in his junior year. He'll face a Tennessee secondary led by the nation's top defensive back — Jim Thorpe Award-winning safety Eric Berry.
6Speaking of Berry
It could set up as the perfect college swan song for Berry, who returns to his native Atlanta for this game. Berry, a junior who has 83 tackles and two interceptions, could be a top-10 draft pick if he opts out of his final season of college eligibility. Could a Tennessee victory represent enough of an ideal conclusion to his college career to inspire Berry to make the leap ... or will he have unfinished business? He plans to make an announcement after the bowl game regarding his plans.
7All eyes on Virgil's replacement
With cornerback Stephan Virgil sitting out because of academic ineligibility, Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster will go with freshman Jayron Hosley and sophomore Cris Hill in Virgil's place. Hosley has eight tackles and Hill has seven this season. Virgil had 36 tackles and an interception this season while struggling with a knee injury. Expect Tennessee quarterback Jonathan Crompton to try to capitalize on Tech's inexperience.
8The quest for 10
Since the UNC loss, Tech coach Frank Beamer has talked about his team setting its sights on reaching the 10-win mark. If the Hokies can beat the Volunteers, Tech will join Texas as the only teams in the country to have 10 or more wins in each of the last six seasons.
Chick-fil-A BowlChick-fil-A Bowl WHO: Virginia Tech (9-3) vs. Tennessee (7-5).
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday.
WHERE: Georgia Dome, Atlanta.
TV: ESPN.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun