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Nations: Rivalry back on, hopefully

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Jeff Nations

By Jeff Nations - jnations@nvdaily.com

So after a strung out opening week of college football, I can at least tentatively admit to one thing -- for the first time in a long while, I'm circling a certain Nov. 24 matchup as must-watch TV.

That would be the annual Virginia-Virginia Tech matchup, hardly a game to elevate the old blood pressure for a few years now. There's still a long way to go, for certain, but first-game impressions have me at least cautiously optimistic that this game could actually have some real impact on the Atlantic Coast Conference championship picture -- and not just because the Hokies will be playing in it.

Virginia Tech did its job on Monday night, rallying for a thrilling 20-17 overtime victory against ACC rival Georgia Tech in a game that -- if recent history is any indication -- factors heavily in that ACC title game. The winning Tech, be it the Virginia or Georgia version, has played in all seven of the previous ACC championship games.

The Hokies looked ragged for stretches against the visiting Yellow Jackets, but for a change Virginia Tech survived one of its early-season tests. Quarterback Logan Thomas sparked drives when it mattered most, and kicker Cody Journell -- whose college career appeared in serious peril last year when he was arrested for felony breaking and entering (later reduced to misdemeanor trespassing) -- became an unlikely savior with a pair of clutch field goals, including the game-winning 17-yarder in overtime.

The win should generate a huge collective sigh of relief out of Blacksburg -- tough games early in the year haven't exactly been kind to the Hokies over the last 10 years or so. Virginia Tech has taken its share of losses to quality opponents -- USC (2004), LSU (2007) and Alabama (2009), but the Hokies have also been tripped up by the likes of East Carolina (27-22 in 2008). James Madison topped the Hokies, 21-16, just two years ago after Virginia Tech suffered a crushing 33-30 season-opening loss to Boise State at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.

Now the Hokies, ranked No. 15 in the latest Associated Press college football poll, look primed for an impressive stretch of poll climbing starting with Saturday's home game against Austin Peay. A road trip to underwhelming Pittsburgh follows, then its back home for Bowling Green and another trip to FedEx to play Cincinnati on Sept. 29. It all sets up as a 5-0 start before things get interesting with an Oct. 6 trip to North Carolina.

Unranked Virginia didn't face the same sort of challenge in Saturday's season-opening 43-19 victory over Richmond. It was a game Virginia was supposed to win against the FCS-level Spiders, and the Cavaliers did so in impressive fashion. Quarterback Michael Rocco, who beat out stiff challenges for the starting job in the fall, passed for 311 yards and a touchdown as Virginia outgained Richmond, 523-201, in the first three quarters and showed that Cavs head coach Mike London had indeed made the right choice.

The player Rocco beat out for that starting gig, Alabama transfer and former Parade magazine All-American Phillip Sims, made his own case in the fourth quarter by completing 5 of 6 passes for 50 yards. With Sims nipping at his heels, Rocco will have to remain sharp to stay in the starting lineup this season -- good news for the Cavaliers.

The road will soon get tougher for Virginia, though. The Cavaliers host a severely undermanned Penn State squad on Saturday, but then it's back-to-back road trips against Georgia Tech and TCU. Come out of that stretch 3-0, and Virginia is most certainly in the ACC picture. Even a 2-1 result would be acceptable, really, and give the Cavs a boost heading into the meat of the ACC slate.

I'm not sold on Virginia contending for a spot in that ACC championship game, even though the Cavs won't have to face a loaded Florida State squad during the regular season. Most likely, the Cavs will be looking to play spoiler for the Hokies as they make their own ACC title-game bid. That's motivation enough, but there's also the eight-game losing skid Virginia has endured to their in-state rival -- a streak which coincides with the Hokies' 2004 entrance into the ACC, no less.

Last season the Cavs made progress, as evidenced by their appearance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl (a 43-24 loss to Auburn). But the Hokies' 38-0 win over Virginia also showed that the rivalry still has a long ways to go to become competitive once more. We'll see if the Cavs are ready to take the next step come November.

-- Sports editor Jeff Nations can be reached at jnations@nvdaily.com

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