While there’s controversy surrounding the fact that two SEC schools will play for the BCS championship in New Orleans, there’s also some about the game taking place at the Superdome six days earlier.
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The Sugar Bowl will pit No. 13 Michigan and No. 17 Virginia Tech in a matchup of marquee programs that received invitations to Tuesday’s contest ahead of higher-ranked teams.
The decision by the Sugar Bowl to bypass teams like No. 8 Boise State and No. 11 Kansas State in favor of Michigan (10-2) and Virginia Tech (11-2) has sparked anger from those that were snubbed. These high-profile programs are expected to draw interest to a game that will be overshadowed by the Jan. 9 championship between LSU and Alabama.
"We thought every team we had an opportunity to select presented us with certain unique credentials," Sugar Bowl chief executive officer Paul Hoolahan said. "In the final analysis, we just felt the two teams we have chosen really give us in the long run the best opportunity to put together a matchup that will provide a very exciting football game."
The Sugar Bowl’s choice has caused both teams to defend their place in the game as they get ready to meet for the first time.
"That’s the computer’s job. They picked us to go there," Virginia Tech safety Eddie Whitley said. "Fans can talk whatever they want to talk, but we’ve got to focus on Michigan and be ready."
Michigan went 5-7 in 2009 and 7-6 last year before this season’s turnaround under first-year coach Brady Hoke.
"We felt we deserved this spot," defensive end Ryan Van Bergen said. "It’s huge. It establishes national relevance for Michigan as a program. It puts us back on the map, so to speak, as a national powerhouse."
Organizers may have felt the Hokies would be a good draw, but they have had trouble selling their 17,500-ticket allotment. The school has started a plan for fans who cannot attend to buy tickets and donate them to charitable organizers.
"The Sugar Bowl has put great confidence in us, and I know our fans are going to respond," coach Frank Beamer said. "We need to show up and show up big."
This matchup includes two of the better defensive teams in the country. Virginia Tech ranked 13th nationally in the regular season by allowing 313.9 yards per game while Michigan was 18th at 317.6 after finishing 110th a season ago.
The Wolverines showed more balance on offense this year with Denard Robinson joined by running back Fitzgerald Toussaint as a 1,000-yard rusher. Robinson’s numbers are down from last season, but he threw for 18 touchdowns for the second straight season as Michigan increased its time of possession by nearly five minutes per game.
"I think the biggest thing has been everyone else’s opinion on what Denard was," Hoke said. "And we never put any limitations on what he is."
The Wolverines were happy that Robinson took part in every game despite a staph infection he got early in the season that hampered his throwing arm. He showed no ill effects as he ran for 170 yards and two scores and threw for three more in a 40-34 win over archrival Ohio State on Nov. 26 that ended Michigan’s seven-game skid in that series.
"He had a staph infection, he had a lot of different problems he went through during the course of the season," Hoke said. "His elbow, his hand, I mean, he had an abdominal problem. He’s a tough guy. He played with it. I just think he was so much healthier and more confident at the same time."
The Virginia Tech defense has something to prove after the Hokies fell 38-10 to then-No. 21 Clemson on Dec. 3 in the ACC title game for their second 2011 loss to the Tigers. They are eager for a chance to slow down Robinson.
"We need a marquee win. This is a game where we can put our name up there with the most prestigious teams in the country," Whitley said. "It would be a big win for us."
Virginia Tech’s offense is led by ACC player of the year David Wilson, who averaged 125.2 yards rushing for the nation’s sixth-best mark. Wilson, however, put up a season-low 32 yards against Clemson.
"We just want to go out there against Michigan and just play a complete game and feel good when we walk off that field," Wilson said.
The Sugar Bowl could be the last game for the junior, who is thinking about leaving early for the NFL. Classmate and starting cornerback Jayron Hosley has apparently already decided to forgo his senior season.
The Wolverines have lost five of their last six bowl games, and players seem motivated for a better showing than last season’s 52-14 loss to Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl.
"We went down to Jacksonville and didn’t put on our best performance," tight end Kevin Koger said. "It was embarrassing to say the least, but we can learn from our mistakes. We can have a little bit of fun, but the main thing is to go down there and win the football game."
Virginia Tech kicker Cody Journell was suspended indefinitely Dec. 22 after being charged with breaking and entering. The redshirt sophomore was 14 of 17 on field goal attempts this season.