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There is no love lost between Virginia Tech and Michigan when it comes to football, and yesterday’s decision by Michigan to opt out of games with the Hokies in 2020 and 2021 will only add to the rancor. After all, the folks in Blacksburg have long had a nickname for the Wolverines: “McChicken”.
This all started many years ago when Virginia Tech started climbing the mountain of gaining national respect in football. Back-to-back appearances in the Sugar Bowl and Orange Bowl in 1995-96 certainly helped, then a quarterback by the name of Vick pushed them over the top when the Hokies played in the National Championship game.
But during that time, Virginia Tech tried to schedule bigger names, as they have (and still do to a degree) been accused of playing weak non-conference opponents. One team they tried to schedule, and according to various reports repeatedly said they weren’t interested, was Michigan. They WOULD schedule Virginia, but not Virginia Tech. Thus the “McChicken” nickname.
The animosity got worse in 2012 when the teams played in the Sugar Bowl. A late pass to Hokie WR Danny Coale that would have won the game was ruled incomplete despite just about every replay angle showing he caught it (my seats in the Superdome were right in front of the play and I thought the game was over). “Danny Coale caugh the ball” is now a rallying cry for the Hokies; I had the misfortune of flying home after the game seated next to a Michigan fan who was far from gracious, regaling me with stories of just how superior Michigan was to the world.
So Michigan is not exactly on the Virginia Tech Christmas Card list. Mine, either.
Virginia Tech – whose schedule is often times littered with the likes of Old Dominion, Liberty, etc. – had a pretty impressive schedule in 2020 and 2021. After their ACC Schedule in 2020, their non-conference games were going to be Penn State, Michigan, East Carolina and Liberty. In 2021, the schedule had Notre Dame, Michigan, West Virginia and Richmond.
More importantly, the Notre Dame and Michigan games were at home. Many a year I’ve had season tickets, and no desire in September to drive to Blacksburg and sit in hot weather to watch the likes of Marshall, William and Mary, Western Carolina or East Carolina. One or two non-conference breathers is OK. Four is too many and it’s a no-win situation. Beat them and you’re supposed to. Lose focus and you get what happened with James Madison in 2010.
So why the cancellation? It sure looks like the workings of Jim Harbaugh. Michigan paid a $375,000 fee to get out of the game, and it would appear someone noticed the Wolverines had Virginia Tech and Washington on their non-conference schedule in addition to a Big Ten schedule that included Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State. Michigan would have started on the road with the Huskies, then came home to play Ball State and Virginia Tech before playing consecutive games with Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan State.
Why do I suspect Harbaugh? Virginia Tech scheduled its games with Michigan in 2013, and the University of Washington did the same with Michigan in 2014. At the time of the scheduling, both programs were average at best, with the Hokies 8-5 in 2013 and Washington 8-6 in 2014. Things changed, as Washington was 12-2 and 10-3 its last two seasons while the Hokies were 10-4 and 9-4.
Conincidentally, while these games were scheduled in 2013 and 2014, Harbaugh became coach in 2015. Last year he only went 8-5, losing to every good team – Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan State – in the Big Ten. That’s also 0-2 against Michigan’s two big rivals, Ohio State and Michigan State. Not exactly setting the world on fire.
Michigan, in fact, even tried to get out of the game with Washington too. A story in the Seattle Times states that after Harbaugh became Michigan’s coach, Michigan officials expressed an interest in backing out of the series. Washington said no. Virginia Tech was a bit more open to the idea, allowing Michigan to replace the Hokies on the Michigan schedule with noted powerhouse Arkansas State.
Some have said it may be a blessing in disguise for the Hokies, because the 2021 schedule with Notre Dame, Michigan and West Virginia on it in addition to the ACC schedule was too tough. All I know is if I’m a top football recruit and I have to choose between a program that plays those schools versus one that plays Ball State and Arkansas State, I want to play against the best, not to mention games with Notre Dame, Michigan and West Virginia are probably going to be nationally televised.
Some have also said – particularly one condescending UVA alum on Twitter – that the Hokies should be grateful for the “windfall” of the $375,000 payment. Virginia Tech spent $90 million in its athletic budget last year, so in comparison, $375,000 is a pittance. It would be the same as if you made $90,000 a year and someone paid you $375. Would you consider that a “windfall”?
The bigger worry is this may become a trend. Alabama showed last year that it doesn’t hurt you to play a week OOC schedule. At the time, the Tide’s opener with Florida State looked like a marquee game, but the Seminoles finished 7-6. The other games were against Fresno State, Mercer and Colorado State. A tougher schedule and a possible loss would have probably knocked Alabama out of the playoff picture.
Makes you wonder what Penn State (on the schedule in 2020 and 2025 for the Hokies) and Wisconsin (2024 and 2025) are now thinking….