Only two college football teams in the last 40 years went wire-to-wire atop the national polls. Virginia Tech under Frank Beamer played them both.
The Miami Hurricanes’ most recent national champions produced 38 NFL draft choices, 17 first-rounders. Beamer’s Hokies darn near beat them.
Miami’s first unbeaten team, coached by Jimmy Johnson in 1987, included Michael Irvin, Bennie and Brian Blades, Steve Walsh, Melvin Bratton and Daniel Stubbs. And yes, Virginia Tech was among their conquests.
Yet this week Beamer proclaims the Alabama squad his Hokies face in Saturday’s season-opener the best he’s ever faced.
If he’s right and/or sincere, Tech has NO shot Saturday in the Georgia Dome.
If he’s wrong and/or managing expectations — the latter is quite probable — perhaps the Hokies can hang.
Regardless, the true measure of Alabama won’t be clear until season’s end.
The best team Beamer and Virginia Tech have faced? Based on overall performance, not just against the Hokies, four candidates emerge. Here they are in chronological order:
* 1987 Miami (12-0): Humbled would be a stretch for swag-personified characters such as Irvin and Johnson, but after losing to Penn State in the previous season’s national title game, these Hurricanes had something to prove. The schedule gave them every opportunity.
Florida, Arkansas and Florida State, all nationally ranked, were the first three opponents, and only the Seminoles stayed close, falling 26-25 when a late 2-point conversion — this was before college football adopted overtime — failed.
Similarly, Miami closed the season by beating ranked opponents South Carolina, Notre Dame and No. 1 Oklahoma, the latter 20-14 in the Orange Bowl. As good as Walsh, Irvin and Bratton were, the Hurricanes were better on defense, allowing more than 16 points only to Florida State as Bennie Blades and Stubbs earned consensus, first-team All-America honors.
Hampton University defensive coordinator Bernard Clark, a reserve linebacker, was MVP of the Orange Bowl, filling in for the suspended George Mira Jr.
How Hokies fared: Virginia Tech was 1-8 and riding a five-game losing streak headed to Miami, where, shockingly, the Hokies gave the Hurricanes a game. With Jon Jeffries grinding out 73 yards on the ground, and throwing a touchdown pass to Nick Cullen on a halfback option, Tech headed to the fourth quarter tied at 13.
But Bratton scored from a yard out with 4:51 remaining, and Walsh threw a final-minute touchdown pass to give Miami a 27-13 victory.
* 1999 Florida State (12-0): The Seminoles became the first team since Southern California in 1972 to start the season No. 1 and remain entrenched throughout. This also was the only undefeated team of Bobby Bowden’s Hall of Fame coaching career.
Three Florida State starters — receiver Peter Warrick, defensive tackle Corey Simon and kicker Sebastian Janikowski — were selected in the first round of the subsequent NFL draft, and receivers Ron Dugans and Laveranues Coles went in the third. Oh, and quarterback Chris Weinke won the Heisman Trophy a year later.
The Seminoles defeated five ranked opponents, including No. 3 Florida on the road to conclude the regular season, but their closest scare was a 17-14 escape at unranked Clemson.
How Hokies fared: Quarterback Michael Vick tormented Florida State for much of the national championship game in New Orleans, and No. 2 Tech led 29-28 entering the fourth quarter. But Weinke threw two subsequent touchdown passes as the Seminoles pulled away to win 46-29.
* 2001 Miami (12-0): How great was this team? Vince Wilfork, Frank Gore, Kellen Winslow and Sean Taylor — all NFL first-rounders except third-rounder Gore — were backups.
Among the starters were receiver Andre Johnson, offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie, tight end Jeremy Shockey, running backs Clinton Portis and Willis McGahee, linebacker Jonathan Vilma, cornerback Phillip Buchanon and safety Ed Reed. All but Portis, a second-round slacker, were drafted in the first round, and all have made the Pro Bowl. Quarterback Ken Dorsey, a Heisman finalist, wasn’t NFL-caliber but defined efficiency.
The Hurricanes defeated five top-25 teams, including Syracuse 59-0 and Washington 65-7 in consecutive outings. Their defense allowed only 13 touchdowns and scored eight. The average margin of victory was 32.9 points, and Nebraska was no match in the BCS title game, falling 37-14.
How Hokies fared: With a 20-3 halftime lead, top-ranked Miami appeared headed for another rout at No. 14 Virginia Tech in December. But two short Jarrett Ferguson touchdown runs and a special teams score — Eric Green blocked a punt, which Brandon Manning returned for a TD — drew the Hokies within 26-24 midway through the fourth quarter.
Beamer elected to go for two, but sophomore Ernest Wilford, who left Tech as the school’s career receptions leader, dropped Grant Noel’s pass.
After a Miami three-and-out, Tech took over at the Hurricanes’ 49 with 5:05 remaining. But Reed’s second interception of the game, the fourth thrown by Noel in only 16 attempts, ended the threat.
* 2004 Southern California (13-0): The Trojans’ national title was vacated because of Reggie Bush’s NCAA issues, but there’s no erasing their excellence. The wire-to-wire No. 1s had an embarrassment of riches at the skill positions with Heisman quarterback Matt Leinart, running backs Bush and LenDale White, and receivers Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith.
Meanwhile, the defense boasted four first-team All-Americans in end Shaun Cody, linebackers Matt Grootegoed and Lofa Tatupu, and tackle Mike Patterson.
USC’s regular-season schedule was comparably tame — California and Arizona State, both at home, were the only top-25 opponents — but in the national title game the Trojans embarrassed Oklahoma 55-19.
How the Hokies fared: Leading 10-7 midway through the third quarter at FedEx Field, unranked Tech drove to a first down at USC’s 44. Bryan Randall then connected with Josh Hyman for 32 yards along the Hokies’ sideline, only to have the completion overturned by an offensive interference flag on Hyman.
Beamer went nuts and writes in his soon-to-be-released autobiography that it’s among the worst calls he’s ever seen.
Tech was forced to punt, and two plays later Leinart hit Bush for a 53-yard touchdown to give the Trojans a 14-10 lead. USC won, 24-13.
I saw all four of these teams in person and would rank Miami 2001 the best, followed by USC ’04, FSU ’99 and Miami ’87.
If Alabama ’13 can crack that group, wow.
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