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Dec. 26, 2002

“Pickers pick and coaches coach.”

That was the line from Cavalier head football coach Al Groh upon hearing that his team had been picked to finish eighth in the nine team ACC, ahead of only Duke (which really shouldn’t count)….The prognostications poured in from all corners of the Commonwealth: 2-11, 3-10, 6-7 at best, but only if the team caught more than it’s share of breaks. The plausibility of a winning record, while playing one of the nation’s toughest schedules, seemed about as likely as Virginia Tech losing three games in a row. But this is college football, and as Wahoo fans have learned, anything can happen.

Three days shy of five months after that now famous quote was uttered, the 8-5 Cavs are preparing for something few pundits gave them any chance of attaining: a berth in a bowl game. Saturday’s Continental Tire Bowl in Charlotte, North Carolina, marks not only Virginia’s first bowl appearance since the 2000 Oahu Bowl, but also the culmination of a season that stunned everyone but those in the locker room. Behind the arm of ACC player of the year Matt Schaub, the 2002 Cavaliers bounced back from a 0-2 start to win six of eight conference games, including a 48-13 thrashing of BCS-hopeful Maryland. Now, as a reward for their accomplishments, the team gets to play a bonus game: a date with the 15th-ranked West Virginia Mountaineers of the Big East.

But despite all there is to feel good about as the season winds down, it shouldn’t have shaken out this way. Not that UVa-WVU shouldn’t be facing off in an old-fashioned border-war of a bowl game, but the bowl game should not have been one meant for the fifth or sixth place teams of these two power conferences. If not for some “back-room politics,” these two teams might be squaring off in the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day, or Virginia might be preparing for Tennessee in the Peach Bowl. Instead, two teams that Virginia beat, N.C. State and Maryland, “earned” those respective bids, while Clemson—a team with a paltry 4-4 league mark to go with a loss to Virginia—was handed the Tangerine Bowl invitation, one meant for the league’s fourth place team. That bumped the Cavs down to the inaugural Continental Tire Bowl against WVU, another team feeling snubbed by the shady, outdated bowl selection processes. The ‘Hoos have had the last laugh, though; while a reputation for not traveling many fans to road games seemed to have scared off the bigger bowls, as of last week, Virginia had sold more tickets than two of the teams selected ahead of them—Maryland and Clemson—combined. And with 73,000-seat Ericsson Stadium sold out, the “CTB” will probably end up with the best attendance of any non-BCS bowl. Not bad for a team that “doesn’t travel well”.

So now, with Billy McMullen, Angelo Crowell, Merrill Robertson and others preparing for their final game in the orange and blue, those very same experts who predicted that the Cavs would finish in the ACC’s cellar are screaming that the team was treated unfairly and should be playing on a bigger stage. But just as was the case with the preseason predictions, don’t tell the players or coaches that they’ve been given a raw deal. They have bigger things to worry about. Such as how to slow down Avon Cobourne and the vaunted Mountaineer ground game or how to make up for the absence of several injured players, including standout defensive lineman Chris Canty. And once again, this is not a team lacking in confidence. These Cavs may be young, but they have talent and a coaching staff that knows how to win, and as one opponent after another during this remarkable season have learned, that can be quite a combination.

It’s Virginia and West Virginia in the Continental Tire Bowl. And when you consider where these Cavs were supposed to end up, win or lose, Virginia has already won.

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