If you live outside of SEC country there is always a lively debate about which college football conference is the best in the land. If you live in the SEC footprint, there is no debate, and there hasn’t been for decades. If you are a college football fan living in ACC country, your situation is unique. A bit of a poser.
There is no doubt that the ACC is not the best football conference in the land. Fans could credibly argue that the ACC has been the least powerful of the “power 5” conferences since such an alignment came to be. However, the ACC has a couple of programs that can frequently play with the nation’s best in Clemson and Florida State. The ACC also has a few wannabe programs that want to win against the big boys of college football, but just can’t get over that hump. These programs (Belk bowl participant Virginia Tech among them) can usually hang tough with the nation’s best for about a half. Then the disparity in the depth of the talent starts to show.
The Hokies have played well for 30 minutes against the SEC elites when Virginia Tech was close to the top of their game. These crusades into the deep end of the college football swimming pool always end badly for Virginia Tech and by association, the ACC. Maybe the Hokies just don’t have the national recruiting reach. Maybe their recruiting footprint is not as stocked with talent as the SEC. Maybe they don’t have enough bagmen.
The Belk Bowl that pits the Arkansas Razorbacks (7-5) against the Virginia Tech Hokies (9-4) will be another chance for the ACC to prove, not that it is the best football conference in the land, but that it is a respectable conference and that it’s best can win against all comers.
The Razorbacks, like the Hokies, had an up-and-down season. They had big wins against Florida and Ole Miss, but ended the year with an embarrassing loss against pseudo-SEC rival Missouri. The fact that Mizzou got an invitation to the SEC rankles a lot of the HokieNation who feel they have earned an invitation into the best football conference in the land (despite all evidence to the contrary). The Hogs move the ball well on the ground behind the duo of Rawleigh Williams & Devwah Whaley, but they also give up ground in big chunks on defense. The Razorbacks will need both success on the ground and a strong performance from QB Austin Allen to keep Bud Foster’s defense off balance. If the Hogs become one-dimensional, the Hokies defense can thrive.
All of that said, the success or failure of the Hokies boils down to the play of JUCO transfer QB Jerod Evans. If Evans plays well, the Hokies can win this game convincingly. The receiver trio of Isaiah Ford, Bucky Hodges, and Cam Phillips is as good as any in the country. The Hokie’s running game has been by committee but led by QB Evans. If Evans is on target throwing and runs enough to open things up for the running back committee, VT will score enough points to win the Belk Bowl.
However, the Gobbler’s margin for error is thin. The Hogs are well tested and have passed more tough exams than the Hokies took all season. Arkansas played 7 ranked teams in 2016, beating 3 of them. From October 8th through November 12th, the Razorbacks played 5 ranked teams in a row. The Hokies didn’t play 5 ranked teams the entire year.
So the question comes full circle. Toss the stats and the injury reports aside. Is the second place team in the ACC good enough to beat a run-of-the-mill SEC team? The Hokies lost the ACC title game to the playoff-bound Clemson Tigers in a close match that may have been the best performance of the season by the Hokies. The Razorbacks were never in the conversation to make the SEC title game. Not in the pre-season prognostications nor as the season progressed.
Those in SEC country would tell you this game is a walk for the Hogs. They have played by far the better schedule. They have SEC talent that beat more ranked teams than the Hokies played all year. That feeling may be the best asset the Hokies have going for them. If I know the Hokies, they will show up with a chip on their shoulder, already having lost to the SEC once this season in the Bristol Bowl. If Arkansas comes to Charlotte expecting to steamroll an ACC wannabe, they are going to be in for a long night. If they treat this game like an SEC matchup against Florida or Ole Miss they should return to the land of plentiful duck hunting with a win.
This game boils down to who wants it the most. Given that Arkansas spent their season playing ‘Bama, LSU, Florida, & TCU just to name a few and the Hokies spent their season playing Duke, Virginia, and ECU, I give the “want to” edge to the Hokies. I think that is what makes the difference in this game and I’ll give the edge to the Hokies to win in Charlotte.
E-mail David at david [dot] rayner [at] campuspressbox [dot] com and follow him on Twitter @dmrayner.