Football: a tough match-up tonight in Miami

Jan. 3, 2011, 1:50 a.m.

The third of January is here, which means it’s time for the Orange Bowl. Only a few hours remain until the anticipation and hoopla will finally give way to actual football, so your trash talking, self-reassuring and worrying are on their final legs. Need some stats to boast to opposing fans, stump your friends, calm your fears or find an error in so-called expert analysis? Here’s a rundown of Stanford and Virginia Tech by the numbers.

To start off, this truly is a duel befitting a BCS game. The Cardinal and Hokies come in with records of 11-1 and 11-2, respectively, and have gone a combined 20-1 since mid-September. Two of their three defeats have come against top-10 teams away from home, with only Virginia Tech’s shocking slipup at home against FCS James Madison marring either team’s reputation.

Past the records, though, both teams prove themselves to be remarkably well-rounded. Stanford and Virginia Tech rank among the top 20 teams in both scoring offense and scoring defense, something that no other bowl game can offer. The Cardinal has a slight edge in each category, ranking eighth in offense and 11th in defense, while the Hokies come in at 19th and 17th, respectively.

One major similarity between the two teams is the ability to make each yard count, both on offense and on defense. This can be seen when looking at yardage statistics in relation to scoring statistics. Each team ranks higher in points scored than yards gained, which speaks to the efficiency with which drives are converted to points. Similarly, each team has been able to minimize the damage on defense, ranking over 10 spots better in scoring defense than total defense.

A large part of this efficiency is due to turnovers, an area where Virginia Tech and Stanford excel. The Hokies lead the nation in turnover margin, while the Cardinal is not far behind in a tie for third. Both teams rely heavily on winning the turnover battle, so the team with fewer turnovers could have a significant edge in the Orange Bowl. In Virginia Tech’s shocking loss to James Madison in early September, the Hokies committed three turnovers without forcing any. In their next 11 games, they forced 28 turnovers while committing only eight. Likewise, Stanford gave away three turnovers in each of three consecutive games against Notre Dame, Oregon and USC. The Cardinal’s lone loss and its closest win both came in that stretch. In Stanford’s nine other games, the Cardinal committed only six turnovers and had an average margin of victory of 29.6 points per game.

Looking for a glaring weakness that could separate these two teams? Don’t look at Stanford. Among the eight major offensive and defensive categories-scoring, total, rushing and passing efficiency offense and defense-the Cardinal ranks in the top 25 nationally in all eight. Stanford avoids the big play as well, ranking first nationally in sacks allowed. One of the biggest areas where Virginia Tech figures to have an advantage over Stanford is in special teams, where Hokie head coach Frank Beamer’s teams always make a living. The Cardinal is mediocre at punting and the return game.

However, Stanford’s best weapon in special teams may be the sidelines. That is because the Cardinal has punted only 29 times all season, the fewest in the country. This can be attributed to converting on third and fourth downs. Indeed, Stanford has the highest third-down conversion rate in the nation at 57.8 percent and the eighth-highest fourth-down conversion rate at 73.3 percent, so the Cardinal offense is among the best in the country at staying on the field and keeping drives alive. This efficiency has led Stanford to get to the red zone and score there more per game than any other team in the country.

Stopping this offense will be the task awaiting Virginia Tech’s defense, which is among the stingiest units in the country against the pass. The Hokies are eighth in pass efficiency defense and second with 22 interceptions, so they will not make Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck’s day easy. While Luck gets the acclaim for Stanford’s offense, the running game might be the Cardinal’s best chance to win. Stanford is 17th in the country, rushing for 211 yards per game, and Virginia Tech’s defense gives up 148 yards per game on the ground, only 59th nationally.

When the Hokies have the ball, they will turn to their efficient and capable senior quarterback, Tyrod Taylor. Taylor is 13th in the country in passing efficiency, throwing for 23 touchdowns and only four interceptions in 13 games. The running game will be important for Virginia Tech, as over half its yardage comes on the ground. However, the Hokies could be short on running backs Monday night, as sophomore David Wilson will be suspended for the first quarter after he missed a curfew, and sophomore Ryan Williams is questionable with an injured hamstring.

As far as intangibles, Virginia Tech has the advantage of a more experienced coach and a more experienced quarterback, as well as experience playing in this very same BCS game twice in the last three years. Stanford comes in with the higher ranking at No. 4, and the Hokies are 1-26 against top-five teams. However, the last three Orange Bowls have been won by the lower-ranked team.

In addition to a BCS victory and bragging rights, whoever wins will secure its program’s first ever 12-win season.

It will all be decided tonight in Miami.

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