No. 17 UCLA (9-3, 6-3 Pac-12) vs. Virginia Tech (8-4, 5-3 ACC)
Location: Sun Bowl Stadium, El Paso, Texas; Dec. 31, 11 a.m. PT
TV: CBS (Verne Lundquist, Gary Danielson, Tracy Wolfson)
Radio: AM 570 (Chris Roberts, Matt Stevens, Wayne Cook)
Last meeting: This is the first meeting between Virginia Tech and UCLA.
Key storylines: Only seven UCLA teams have ever won 10 games in a season, the last one being the 2005 squad helmed by Drew Olson. Jim Mora has the Bruins on the right path with a second straight nine-win campaign despite a tougher schedule, but getting that double-digit milestone would make a nice selling point for the program.
The second-year coach has also tweaked his pre-bowl schedule after an embarrassing loss to Baylor in last year’s Holiday Bowl, starting game prep earlier than he did his first year coaching college ball. The Hokies aren’t the buzzsaw the Bears were in 2012, but nevertheless offer a chance for UCLA to make up for last season’s late fade.
About to close his 27th season at Virginia Tech, Frank Beamer is the longest-tenured coach in the FBS and holds the active lead with 266 career victories. The Hokies have stuttered these past couple of years, though, and retirement could start looming for the 67-year-old. After an eight-seasons stretch of double-digit wins that included five BCS bowl appearances, they have gone two years without topping eight wins. This, despite playing in a weak major conference and — this year — avoiding the league’s top two teams (Florida State and Clemson).
A surprise win over UCLA would help him quiet any brewing discontent.
Players to watch: At 6-foot-6, 260 pounds, Logan Thomas is bigger than any quarterback UCLA has seen this year. He has thrown the ball at least 30 times in each of his last six games, but completed above 60 percent of his passes just twice in that stretch. The senior has improved throughout the year: Of his 13 interceptions, six came in the first four games. He went five of his last eight games without a pick.
Virginia Tech’s 4-2-5 defense looked elite for much of the season and ranks No. 3 nationally in pass defense, but isn’t at full strength. Starting cornerbacks Kyle Fuller (core muscle) and Antone Exum (ankle) are both expected to sit out the Sun Bowl, ending their college careers on the bench. Exum only played three games this season, but Fuller tied for the team lead with 10 pass breakups in just nine games.
That puts a bigger load on his brother, Kendall, a five-star recruit who has shined in his debut campaign. The ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year has a team-high six picks, second in the conference. Freshman Brandon Facyson will likely take the other slot; he has five interceptions and seven pass breakups.
The matchup to watch will be the Hokies’ defensive line against UCLA’s offensive line. The Bruins’ three true freshmen have survived a bumpy season on the starting unit, but the extra bowl practices likely benefited them more than anyone else on the team — giving them a week or so of de facto training camp in December. Virginia Tech’s front four of James Gayle, Derrick Hopkins, Luther Maddy and J.R. Collins notched 21 sacks, while reerve defensive end Dadi Nicholas has four sacks and seven tackles for loss.
Did you know?: Virginia Tech’s first-ever bowl game was a 18-6 loss to Cincinnati in the 1947 Sun Bowl. That trip required an arduous four-stop flight: Roanoke to Knoxville (260 miles), Knoxville to Memphis (346), Memphis to Fort Worth (467), and Fort Worth to Big Spring (243). The Hokies then took a 345-mile bus ride to El Paso, their plane grounded early by a storm.
Did you know? Part II: Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road was inspired by the author’s visit to El Paso: “There was nothing moving but I could hear the trains going through, a very lonesome sound. I just had this image of what this town might look like in 50 or 100 years.”
Prediction: Virginia Tech grabs an interception for the third straight game, but the front seven can’t do enough to make up for a lackluster offense. UCLA wins, 35-13.