Who Will Take Home the Trophy?
The 2011 Orange Bowl features the Stanford Cardinal and Virginia Tech Hokies, two teams that entered the 2010 college football season with very different expectations.
Stanford, led by Heisman Trophy runner-up Andrew Luck, entered the season with moderate expectations. The Cardinal rumbled through their non-conference and Pac-10 slates, losing only to national championship contender Oregon in the process. They are arguably the best one-loss team in college football.
Virginia Tech's expectations were markedly different. Ranked in the Top 10 in many preseason polls, the Hokies looked to be an early-season favorite to run the table and have a shot at their first national championship game appearance since the 2000 Sugar Bowl against No. 1 Florida State.
After a Week 1 loss to Boise State and a rough Week 2 loss to James Madison, expectations were tempered. The team rebounded starting in Week 3 and enters the 2011 Orange Bowl on an 11-game winning streak, thanks in large part to the dynamic leadership of quarterback Tyrod Taylor.
Let's take a look at 10 reasons why this Pac-10 versus ACC matchup will be the most intriguing of the 2011 BCS bowl games.
2/3 of the Monday Night Football Crew- Jaworski and Gruden
This year's Orange Bowl broadcast will be covered by the ESPN Monday Night Football crew, consisting of Jon Gruden, Ron Jaworski and Mike Tirico. Former professional quarterbacks Gruden and Jaworski will have ample time prior to the game to breakdown film of Stanford quarterback, and likely first-round draft pick, Andrew Luck and will be sure to provide fans with quality analysis of his chance to contribute quickly in the NFL.
Those outside of the Stanford faithful are largely unaware of the finer points of Luck's game, as Stanford did not play often in front of national television audiences this season due to late West Coast kickoff times.
Jon Gruden and Ron Jaworski are both very knowledgeable of the game and what it takes to compete at the highest level. Hearing their critiques of future pros is always interesting. The Orange Bowl broadcast will certainly not be an exception.
Is This Jim Harbaugh's Last Season at Stanford?
Jim Harbaugh has done an amazing job bringing the Stanford Cardinal back to national prominence. His ability to bring the best out of players, motivating them to consistently play at a high level, is extraordinary. Harbaugh's teams at Stanford always play with a tenacity and grit that is fun for any college football fan to watch.
This ability has placed Harbaugh at the center of the conversation for several collegiate and professional job openings. He has been rumored as a candidate for openings at his alma mater Michigan and for various NFL jobs, including as a potential replacement for Mike Singletary with the San Francisco 49ers.
While this speculation has died down somewhat in recent weeks, it is reasonable that Harbaugh could depart after this season rather than face rebuilding without a Heisman Trophy caliber quarterback under center.
Stanford's Senior Leader- Owen Maricic
Stanford's last bowl appearance came in the now-defunct 2001 Seattle Bowl versus the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Its most recent bowl victory came in the 1996 Sun Bowl in El Paso over the Michigan State Spartans. Needless to say, it has been awhile since the Cardinal have been on a stage on which the limelight will be as bright as it will be in Miami for the Orange Bowl.
It will be interesting to see whether the pressure of a high visibility contest will affect the Cardinal's performance or if Coach Harbaugh will have the Cardinal prepared to play their typical controlled and efficient style.
Stanford will certainly be battling some nerves early on and the team's ability to play without mistakes and turnovers will be essential to keep the high-octane Virginia Tech offense off of the field and give the Cardinal the best chance at emerging with a victory.
Frank Beamer Leads the Hokies to Miami
After early-season losses to upstart Boise State and regional foe James Madison, things were not looking bright in Blacksburg. Since turning things around with a Week 3 win against East Carolina, the Hokies haven't looked back, though.
The most impressive win of the streak came with a 52-21 drubbing of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons in Winston-Salem. Electrifying Hokie quarterback Tyrod Taylor had one of his strongest performances of the 2010-2011 season, throwing for 292 yards and three touchdowns, while the running back duo of David Wilson and Darren Evans combined for 157 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries.
Virginia Tech's combination of Taylor's leadership, the committee of running backs and a ball-hawking defense will all need to perform at the highest level to ensure a victory in the team's second appearance at the Orange Bowl in the past three seasons.
VT's Defensive Leader- Steven Friday
One of the most intriguing factors of this year's Orange Bowl is which Virginia Tech run defense will arrive in Miami. Will it be the unit that held in-state rival Virginia to a net total of 70 yards rushing in a 41-7 blowout, or the defense that struggled, yielding 288 yards to the Florida State Seminoles and 202 yards to the Miami Hurricanes?
The Hokies run defense has been suspect at times and has a tendency to give up the big play at inopportune times, allowing teams to make games more competitive than they should be.
If Stanford's running-back-by-committee led by Stepfan Taylor and Anthony Wilkerson can take advantage of any holes created by the stout Cardinal offensive line and the Hokies linebackers are unable to break up plays in the backfield, it could be a long evening for Virginia Tech.
If the Hokies can get a good push off the ball by the defensive linemen and create some chaos in the backfield, the momentum of the game could quickly swing in their favor.
The Virginia run defense has been a tale of two units, and whichever unit shows up in Miami will play a huge factor in the final outcome.
Stanford Center- Chase Beeler
By most accounts, the Stanford offensive line enters the 2011 Orange Bowl as one of the best in the country. With five members placed on the All Pac-10 first team, Stanford's O-Line permitted only five sacks of quarterback Andrew Luck throughout the entire regular season.
Virginia Tech must place constant pressure on this group of linemen and push them off of the ball to make things interesting. If the Hokie linemen and linebackers cannot get this push, and Andrew Luck sits in the pocket without any pressure, it could be a long day for the ACC champs.
Will David Wilson Have A Breakout Game?
One of the most intriguing matchups of the 2011 Orange Bowl is between the Virginia Tech running backs and the Stanford linebackers.
Virginia Tech's three-headed running back has shown the ability to have breakout games and control the pace on the offensive side of the ball. Ryan Williams, Darren Evans and David Wilson equally split carries throughout the season and were very effective in doing so. Consensus among Virginia Tech fans is that it is Wilson's turn to standout and have a big game for the Hokies. Could this come against Stanford?
The Stanford linebacking unit, led by standout sophomore Shane Skov (who recorded a total of 72 tackles during the regular season), must create havoc in the backfield and force Tyrod Taylor to use his feet more than his arm. The 3-4 base defense run by the Cardinal has been outstanding, resulting in three shutouts and several dominating performances.
Will Doug Baldwin Be Stanford's X-Factor?
After the late season loss of top wide receiver Chris Owusu to a season-ending injury, some of the less heralded Stanford receivers will be counted on to step up and have a big game. All eyes are on Stanford's Doug Baldwin. If Andrew Luck stays on his feet and is able to consistently find Baldwin and aggressively attack the ball-hawking Virginia Tech secondary, it could be a difference maker for the Cardinal.
Virginia Tech enters the Orange Bowl with the country's eighth-ranked pass efficiency defense, second in interceptions with a total of 22. The athletic secondary is led by senior rover Davon Morgan, whose calling card is making the big play in important situations. With four picks on the season, Morgan could easily create a takeaway and shift the momentum to the Hokies.
Virginia Tech's Electric QB- Tyrod Taylor
Tyrod Taylor's rocket arm and ability to make things happen on his feet elicit comparisons to another former Hokie quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles star Michael Vick. Taylor finished the 2010 regular season with a 159.0 passing efficiency rating, throwing for 2,521 yards and 23 touchdowns. An adept runner, Taylor also finished with 823 yards on the ground and five rushing touchdowns.
Taylor has the athletic ability and football IQ to be able to single-handedly take control of a game and lead VT to a victory. Occasionally this athleticism can also get in the way as Taylor has the tendency to force plays, leading to unnecessary turnovers.
Virginia Tech goes as Tyrod Taylor goes. If the first few offensive series for the Hokies are balanced and efficient, Taylor could easily lead the team to victory. If Stanford is able to force an early turnover and rattle Taylor, things could turn out much differently.
Heisman Trophy Runner-Up- Andrew Luck
There isn't much to say about Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck which hasn't already been said. Runner-up in the Heisman Trophy balloting to Auburn's Cam Newton, Luck is thought by many to be a lock as the first quarterback taken in next spring's NFL Draft.
Several NFL teams could instantly benefit from Luck's ability to pick apart defenses and his cool, calm demeanor in the pocket. Luck finished the season with an efficiency rating of 166.1, throwing for a total of 3,051 yards and 28 touchdowns.
These numbers helped Luck to firmly establish himself as one of the college game's best quarterbacks. Virginia Tech's defense must disrupt Luck early and force him onto his heels. If this does not happen, Stanford should tack on its 12th victory of the 2010-2011 season.