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Chick-Fil-A Bowl Preview

   by Hollywood Sports - 12/26/2009

The last college football game of the 2009 calendar year takes place in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta as the Tennessee Volunteers take on the Virginia Tech Hokies in the Chick Fil-A Bowl. After their heartbreaking 12-10 loss to Alabama, Tennessee (7-5) closed out the season winning four of five games to finish tied for second in the SEC's East Division. They take on the 12th-ranked team in the country in Virginia Tech (9-3) who finished second in the ACC's Coastal Division and ended their regular season with a 42-13 win over in-state rival Virginia. Here are five questions which subsequent answers should go a long way to determine how this game will play itself out.

(1) Has Orange Pride-Gate negatively impacted Tennessee's focus and preparation?

Earlier this month, the Tennessee football program was rocked with off-campus recruiting violations regarding its Orange Pride support group. Big-time college program like Tennessee use pretty co-eds to help persuade high school seniors to attend their school? There is gambling in Casablanca? I'm shocked! The NCAA appears to be taking these possible illegal recruiting techniques seriously. The question for this situation regards whether or not the cloud of controversy will impact Tennessee's preparation for this bowl game. This is not coach Lane Kiffin's first encounter with controversy. He called out Urban Meyer for alleged illegal recruiting -- while committing some faux pas himself in terms of following the letter of the NCAA-recruiting law. He has talked trash about recruits who chose to attend other schools. Now comes the Orange Pride scandal. Is this guy a train wreck? Will he be focused on coaching his first-ever bowl game as the head coach? Perhaps more importantly, do his players still believe in him -- or is he becoming such a lightning rod of controversy that it is beginning to look like his time is numbered in Knoxville? The Volunteer football players may begin to lose interest and focus if they begin to believe that Kiffin is not long for the job.

(2) Who will win the battle of the running backs?

Both of these teams sport high-profile running backs. Montario Hardesty has been strong for the Volunteers as he has rushed for 1306 yards along with 12 TDs. Over the Vols last five games, he accumulated 586 rushing yards while getting the final six of those touchdowns. He will face a Hokies' defense that has been suspect against the run as they allowed 138.7 YPG and 3.8 yards per carry on the year. However, Virginia Tech benefits from first-year sensation Ryan Williams whose 1538 total rushing yards ranks 8th in NCAA history for freshman running backs. Williams also reached pay-dirt twenty times this season. While the Volunteers defense has been good, they have shown weaknesses in stopping the run as they allow rushers to gain 4.2 yards per carry and 142.9 rushing YPG. The winner of this individual matchup could be decisive in determining the final result of this game.

(3) Whose defense will step up?

Tennessee's defense has received much publicity this season after holding Alabama to just 12 points and Florida to only 23 points. The Vols are led by safety Eric Berry who won the Jim Thorpe Award for best collegiate defensive back in the country. But the Vols did allow 21 PPG this season which is not exactly a dominant number. While more quietly, the Virginia Tech defense has enjoyed another dominant season under coach Frank Beamer. They hold their opponents to just 15.8 PPG and less that 9 PPG in their last four games. Will the Hokies' pass rush that produced 33 sacks this season be able to get to Vols' QB Jonathan Crompton who enjoyed the protection of an offensive line that gave up the least amount of sacks in the SEC? The much-maligned Crompton stepped-up his game over the last five games of the season by leading his offense to 33 PPG along with 410 total YPG. But allowing Crompton time to find his receivers is critical for his success. The Hokies' Tyrod Taylor was known as a scrambler last season when he split time at quarterback. This season, he has proven his drop-back passing skills by throwing 13 TDs to just 4 interceptions in 226 attempts. Taylor has provided Virginia Tech big plays from his arm as he averaged over 17 yards per completed pass. However, just how good will the Volunteers' defensive coordinator, Monte Kiffin, be in preparing a game-plan for this Virginia Tech offense? Lane's father is loaded with impressive NFL coaching experience and the month of preparation solely on one team may give Tennessee a significant advantage.

(4) Will Beamer Ball be unleashed?

Beamer's teams at Virginia Tech have always enjoyed outstanding special teams play on both sides of the football. Beamer coaches and preaches the importance of this third aspect of the game constantly. This intangible could play a significant role in this game. In particular, the Hokies have the nation's top kick returner in yards per return with Dyrell Roberts -- and Tennessee has not always been reliable this season in containing kickoff and punt returns.

(5) Is there a motivational edge?

Determining the relative motivation for both teams plays an important role in analyzing any bowl game. Certainly Kiffin and the Tennessee program would love to make a great impression in their neighboring state to the south and help tap into that Georgia high school hotbed of talent. Eric Berry played his high school ball in Atlanta. A win against Virginia Tech would be a nice exclamation point for a strong second half of the season that could give Tennessee nice momentum entering next season. How excited will Virginia Tech be for this game when they had dreams of a BCS bowl to begin the year? Bowl games are old hat for the Hokies as this will be their 17th straight bowl appearance which is the third longest amongst FBS schools. However, Virginia Tech has been playing very good football to end the season as they have won four straight games while being 4-0 ATS over that stretch. A win now would push Virginia Tech to the magical ten-win mark as well as likely be enough for them to finish in the top ten final national rankings. Nine offensive starters will likely return for the 2010 campaign so these younger players could very well be very motivated to end this season on a strong note to build their own momentum for next season.

Virginia Tech opened as a four-point favorite with the total being set at 50.5. As of this writing, the line has moved up to 5.5 in most places with a handful of 6s available offshore as well. The total has dropped to 49.5 in most books with some 49s in some locations. It should be an interesting game between two of this season's better teams in the ACC and SEC. Best of luck -- Frank.

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