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This Cinderella has the roughest road yet

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© St. Petersburg Times, published January 4, 2000

NEW ORLEANS- History says Virginia Tech will not beat Florida State. America has a romantic eye for underdogs, but suddenly sexy contenders aren't good at becoming national champions.

When, after all games are played, we have a No. 1 stunner, it's an unexpectedly bountiful season by some school with a highly familiar old football name, like Colorado or Georgia Tech or even Michigan or Tennessee.

Never was there a more unlikely NCAA king than in 1984, when only BYU had an undefeated record and our Januarys were not yet graced by made-for-television BCS lollapaloozas.

That year, poll voters wound up asking, "Who else?" Not much was demanded of Brigham Young in the post-season, with the Cougars mandated to the Holiday Bowl for ho-hum beating of a mediocre 6-5 team from Michigan.

Virginia Tech, thus, is shooting for a moon that no legitimate Cinderella has strolled. With an 11-0 preamble, the Hokies were invited to New Orleans, ascending the most demanding of stages, attempting to outdo the mightiest possible opposition, a Florida State program that hasn't finished outside the Top 4 since 1986.

But, of course, it's a new century.

These adorable Hokies are too good to stink up the Superdome. Far better, much deeper than 11-0 upstarts from West Virginia who earned a Sugar Bowl opportunity six years ago, plus a shot at No. 1, before melting 41-7 against the Florida Gators.

"Frankly, we don't figure to ever become a Nebraska or a Florida State," said Virginia Tech's president, Paul Torgersen. "Being this prominent, year after year, that's the stuff of which only a mighty few are capable. This season, for us, may be a bit of an anomaly."

Don't get the wrong idea. Tech's boss is a world-class dreamer, if also a feet-on-the-ground realist. In his next breath, Torgersen was speaking of wanting to become "like a Penn State, with a solid academic reputation while being highly competitive in athletics." Talking about one of America's shiniest programs, with two national football championships in the unsubsiding era of coach Joe Paterno.

All emotions most understandable.

Hokies don't wish to be presumptuous. At least not brainy ones like Torgersen. Their desire is to enjoy this ultimate moment. Being a finalist for the biggest of college football prizes. Sure they hope to do it again sometime. But in case they don't, the Hokies intend to absorb every delight from a magic ride.

Colorado, a more renowned football school, went 11-1 in 1989 and then embraced a share of the national championship with an 11-1-1 the following season. Since then, the Buffaloes haven't been close to No. 1.

Getting here is a big job.

Don't take it for granted, FSU.

BYU finished on top that one time, then settled back to the usual Cougars level of efficiency. Being an exciting show in the Mountain Time Zone. Hoping to make the Top 25.

Northwestern became a romantic, one-year wonder in 1995, but then, quite predictably, faded back among Big Ten Conference also-rans. Pittsburgh was No. 1 in 1976, but have you checked Panthers rankings lately?

Getting here is a load.

Find yourself a listing of national champions. Run a finger across the years. There's a load of Alabamas, Nebraskas, Oklahomas, Penn States, Michigans, Notre Dames, Tennessees, Georgias, Clemsons, Miamis and Southern Californias. But not a lot of strangers from the category of a Virginia Tech, where built-in advantages are few, forcing such an upstart to win everything from scratch.

Last school to work its way from so deep down the NCAA social scale to eventually have its moment as America's best, plus maintaining the excellence, is Florida State University. Virginia Tech, in a way, is straining to at least partially emulate tonight's opponent.

It took years, even decades, of being a consistently big winner for FSU to gain massive prominence. To get constant identity. To be automatically mentioned among the studs. It was harder for the 'Noles than for any Irish, Trojans, Gators, Yellow Jackets, Hurricanes or Wolverines.

To me, Virginia Tech has long operated at a respectable but non-legendary football level. Something like a Southern Mississippi. Having many winning seasons. Producing some extraordinary athletes. Ever heard of Brett Favre or Bruce Smith?

But the Hokies, like the Eagles, never became bona fide regulars among America's high-ranked blue-bloods. Just before this season, the AP poll ranked Tech at No. 13, the school's highest standing in August.

Oh, yes, this is rare.

Tonight, the Hokies, nee Gobblers, get their crack at the heavyweight championship. If a Buster Douglas can upset a Mike Tyson, why can't a Virginia Tech startle a Florida State?

But don't bet on it.

I see the Hokies as having maybe a 1-in-4 chance, which is pretty good. Two captivating reasons: (1) a quick, ferocious, well-orchestrated defense, plus (2) an unflappable, multidimensional, fearless freshman quarterback named Michael Vick.

My pick: FSU by 34-24.

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