TEAMS: Virginia Tech Hokies (6-6, 4-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) vs. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (9-3, 5-2 Big East Conference)
TIME: Friday Dec. 28, 5:30 p.m. ET
LAS VEGAS LINES: Virginia Tech -1; Over/Under 41 points
Rutgers and Virginia Tech arrive in the Russell Athletic Bowl from two opposite ends of the college football spectrum. RU head coach Kyle Flood is in his first season since assuming the role Greg Schiano vacated last January, whereas Frank Beamer has spent 25 years on the Virginia Tech sidelines.
In that time, Beamer has built Virginia Tech into a national powerhouse. Conference championships and BCS bowl appearances are the norm for Beamer’s program. Rutgers has never played in a BCS bowl, the milestone again alluding it in a season finale loss to Louisville last month.
Perhaps for that reason, Va. Tech is the favorite, according to Las Vegas. Rutgers had the better season at 9-3; the Hokies needed a final week win over rival Virginia just to reach the postseason. Preseason expectations were lofty — ACC media tabbed Virginia Tech as the overwhelming favorite in the Coastal Division. A streak of losses in four-of-five, including three straight doomed the Hokies’ conference championship game hopes.
Rutgers suffered its own struggles, finishing the season with losses in three of its final six. The Scarlet Knights were among the ranks of unbeaten on Oct. 27, but met with the unlikely buzzsaw of Kent State.
These teams share two common opponents in Cincinnati and Pitt. Cincinnati knocked off Virginia Tech early in the season; RU beat the co-Big East champion Bearcats. Both Va. Tech and Rutgers were pummeled by a combined 42 points against Paul Chyrst’s Pitt Panthers.
The Scarlet Knight defense has been one of the nation’s best, but the offense has struggled to maintain consistency. Gary Nova showed glimpses of being a big threat passer, but they were simply that: glimpses.
This could be a defensive struggle, though in a major deviation from precedent, the Hokie defense has had its issues. Bud Foster’s units are almost always among the nation’s upper echelon, but this year the Hokies just lack the aggression that characterized past Va. Tech teams.
Win or lose, Virginia Tech already made a statement with its Russell Athletic Bowl appearance, though. The Hokies are honoring the victims of the Sandy Hook tragedy with special helmet decals. The worst school shooting in American history ravaged Virginia Tech in 2007; the football program is also paying homage to those murdered there.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas earned a considerable amount of Heisman buzz in the offseason, drawing comparisons to 2010 winner Cam Newton. It became evident in a Week 1 overtime win over Georgia Tech that Thomas still needed polish, particularly in the passing game.
NFL Draft pundits still love Thomas’ potential, and another year of college play should refine his tremendous, raw skills. The redefinition begins on Friday against one of the nation’s premier defenses.
Rutgers linebacker Khaseem Greene is one of the nation’s best. He forced six fumbles in the regular season and intercepted two passes en route to Big East Defensive Player of the Year recognition. His presence will make rushing difficult for a Hokie offense that has been middle of the road via the run.
Thomas is the primary ball carrier, with J.C. Coleman leading the running back-by-committee. Though Tech has rushed almost 80 times more than it’s passed, the Hokies have more big play ability in the air.
Wideouts Corey Fuller and Marcus Davis combined for 10 touchdowns and nearly 1700 yards.
Aforementioned Gary Nova torched Arkansas in the non-conference, but otherwise has been unspectacular. He threw for 22 touchdowns and 2566 yards, but was intercepted 15 times and completed only 58.6 percent of his attempts. Hokie defensive back Antone Exum will look to capitalize on Nova’s missteps. He picked off four passes on the year to lead Virginia Tech.
Still, Nova will test the Hokie secondary. Brandon Coleman can pose match-up problems with his size at 6-foot-6. More than a quarter for his receptions were touchdowns.
RU can go to the ground with a two-pronged rushing attack of Jawan Jamison and Savon Huggins. Jamison eclipsed 1000 yards but Huggins, a highly touted signee in the recruiting class of 2011, began to meet his lofty expectations late this season. He emerged as the workhorse in the season’s final month.
Neither grinds out big yardage on average though, so expect Foster to dial up Bruce Taylor and James Gayle aggressively on blitzes.