We sit here today with 61 more days to wait for the 2009 season opener where our ACC Champion Hokies have been paired up against last year’s SEC runner-up, the Alabama Crimson Tide. While it’s still a little early to do a full-on season preview (eh, it’s never too early), I thought it might be fun to take a quick look back at the last time we came across our SEC buddies: The 1998 Music City Bowl. I was only 13 years old at the time, but I figure I can give a good recap for you Hokies that didn’t know Beamer’s Boys pre-Mike Vick. Luckily I silently fell in love with the Hokies during the 1995 Sugar Bowl (much to the chagrin of my WVU-loving family years later), so I do (albeit vaguely) remember this game.
Virginia Tech entered the 1998 season with relatively low expectations. While a taste for success had been established during the Big East Championship Seasons of 1995 and 1996, Tech fans had suffered through the 1997 season unranked (7-5) and their Hokies had been sorely beaten in the Gator Bowl by a score of 42-3 (by #7 UNC). They were picked to finish fourth in the Big East (with WVU being the favorite) for the ’98 season. Led by senior QB Al Clark, junior HB Shyrone Stith and promising first-year starting DE Corey Moore, the Hokies started out the season scorching hot. Tech won its first five games including big wins over then-out-of-conference foe Clemson (37-0) and conference rivals Miami (27-20 OT), Pitt (27-7) and Boston College (17-0). Early that season, you could see the Hokies flex some defensive muscle, and this was rewarded by their #10 ranking heading into week six. Tech was favored by 35 points against oft-maligned Temple at home (homecoming that year), but managed to struggle and lose to the Owls 28-24. Tech’s only other big regular season win after that point was over #21 West Virginia. After suffering two more losses against eventual conference champion Syracuse (led by Donovan McNabb), and (vomit) #16 UVA in a 36-32 choke job, the Hokies finished the regular season at 8-3 (5-2). Tech managed to blow a 22-point first half lead in that game, and UVA fans consider it to be the biggest comeback in school history. However, Tech felt that their season could have finished 11-0, after close losses, but they had to await their bowl fate. We’ll get to that soon.
Alabama also came into 1998 with relatively low expectations. The 1997 season marked their first losing season since 1998 in Mike DuBose’s first season as head coach. They were led by eventual NFL MVP Shaun Alexander at HB, Freshman QB Andrew Zow and were picked to finish sixth in the SEC. The Tide faced a milder SEC schedule that season, only facing ranked opponents twice: losing to #8 Florida at home and to #4 (and eventual national champion) Tennessee on the road. Their only blowout loss came against Arkansas in their third game, but they also handled rivals Auburn and LSU quite easily. After all was said and done, ‘Bama navigated their schedule to a 7-4 record earned a bid to the inaugural Music City Bowl in Nashville, TN.
After hearing their bowl fate, our beloved Hokies were mad (but excited). They were about to face a program that they hadn’t beaten in 10 meetings, in a “neutral” location in freezing rain. They were favored by five points, which wasn’t out of the ordinary with Alabama coming off of NCCA sanctions, but they had to make up for consecutive bowl losses and a lost season in their minds. The Hokies finished the season ranked nationally in scoring defense (#4), rushing defense (#11), and total defense (#7). Beamer’s special teams managed to block 10 kicks that year as well. Paired with the chip on their shoulder was a little in-program confidence. The Hokies got a boost of confidence when Beamer publically turned down interest from Clemson and South Carolina, who both had head coach vacancies at the time.
Let’s get to the game. Foster’s defense and Beamer’s special teams set the tone in a slow starting contest. Al Clark scored on a 43-yard touchdown run on the game’s fourth play and gave way to the defense. Keion Carpenter blocked Daniel Pope’s first punt of the game and Ryan Smith intercepted Zow on ‘Bama’s second possession. However, the Tech offense only managed to score one touchdown and walked into halftime leading 10-7.
In the second half, the Hokies turned to their All-American Corey Moore to lead them to victory. Moore forced Zow into an errant throw that led to an interception, and blocked another punt later in the quarter. Both turnovers led to touchdowns and a 24-7 lead. After another fumble recovery (leading to another touchdown) early in the fourth, Anthony Midget picked off Zow (his third interception of the night) for a 27-yard, game capping touchdown. Zow had only been intercepted twice over his last four games, but was exploited and demoralized by the Hokie defense that night. The loss was the worst for Alabama since the 1972 Orange Bowl (against Nebraska), and Tech’s biggest (score-wise) victory in a bowl game to that date.
So what was the significance of that game and why does in matter for the 2009 matchup? Looking at both programs, Alabama has had a few flirtations with the national spotlight, the closest being last season, but they’ve been very up and down since that date. They’ve had major NCAA sanctions placed on them and suffered through some tough years as a result. Nick Saban has managed to resurrect them from the deal, but they still have not grown to become the program that they were up until the early 1990s. While the Music City Bowl loss was not the beginning of the tough times, it clearly marked two programs going in different directions. Since that game, Virginia Tech has won four conference titles, played in one national championship game and three other BCS bowls. They have earned victories over nationally prominent programs and earned a reputation for tenacious defense and special teams. Beamer’s loyalty (first really tested by other schools during that ’98-’99 bowl season) was reaffirmed and rewarded with a new contract through 2005. The team that won that bowl returned 14 starters to the 1999 team, and with the help of Michael Vick became one of the scariest national runners-up in history. Now the two programs both find themselves in the top-10 (or so we expect). How much will the journey from 1998 to now matter come September? This guy thinks it will mean a hell of a lot.