MIAMI -- When Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer looks at Cincinnati, he might as well be seeing a years-old reflection in a mirror.
Not long ago, Beamer's Hokies were exactly what the Bearcats are now: surging, surprising, emerging from relative obscurity to stand on the cusp of greatness.
So Beamer knows what No. 12 Cincinnati (11-2) will feel Thursday when facing No. 21 Virginia Tech (9-4) in the Orange Bowl -- the biggest game the Big East champion Bearcats have ever played.
"You see this program, the state they're in, Ohio, great football. Now they're with a great conference," Beamer said. "You just see it taking off. I think it's a very, very good coaching staff, so yeah, I think this is just the start of things for Cincinnati."
His chore: Finding a way to slow that start, at least for one night.
There's plenty of ancillary reasons why Virginia Tech -- which lost this game to Kansas last year -- is aching to win the Orange Bowl.
They would join Southern California and Texas as the only major college teams to win 10 games in each of the past five seasons, plus ending the Atlantic Coast Conference's eight-game losing streak in Bowl Championship Series matchups.
But Beamer knows the only way to do that is to match Cincinnati's hunger -- like that his team felt when making its big-time bowl debut in 1995, topping Texas in the Sugar Bowl.
That game vaulted the Hokies into the spotlight, and they haven't left since, and Cincinnati surely would love to emulate that run.
"They remind me now of how we were then," Beamer said.
Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly obviously takes that as a compliment.
Kelly is steadfast that merely getting to this stage doesn't satisfy his team, which was picked fifth in the Big East's preseason poll and didn't receive even one of the 24 first-place votes in that balloting. The Bearcats used five quarterbacks this year, got blown out at Oklahoma and Connecticut, then put together six straight wins to cap a stirring run to Miami.
"Winning a Big East championship and getting here obviously gets you a lot of momentum," Kelly said. "But that's not enough for me, personally, professionally, and I believe that's not enough for our football team. We like to play and we like to win. So winning the game for us, it's in our DNA."
The matchup seems like a strength-against-strength scenario: Virginia Tech's defense against Cincinnati's offense.
Cincinnati has piled up 375 yards and 27 points per game this year and has been remarkably consistent, scoring between 24 and 30 points in every outing during this six-game winning streak.
"I know we haven't seen a defense as good as Virginia Tech," said Tony Pike, the Cincinnati starting quarterback who wasn't even on the three-deep to open the year, yet took over after a rash of injuries and become the Bearcats' budding star.
There's no arguing that the Hokies are good -- and surprisingly so, perhaps. The two-time defending ACC champions lost a slew of players from last year's defense, plus moved two other returning starters, including top cornerback Victor "Macho" Harris, to new positions. In short, even the Hokies will acknowledge that they didn't expect these kind of results.
Virginia Tech was seventh nationally in yards allowed (277 per game), 13th in scoring defense (17 per game), and got back to the BCS even though the Hokies' offense was -- statistically, anyway -- one of the lowest-potent at the major college level.
"Everything happens for a reason, and everything that happened to us, it was for a reason," Harris said. "I mean, the guys, the younger guys, they're doing a great job of just following the lead, not folding under pressure, and basically we're here for a reason."
So, too, is Cincinnati.
Winning this game could enable the Bearcats to finish the season ranked in the nation's top 10, provide a huge boost to recruiting and further remind football-crazed Ohio that the program is on a quick rise.
But further, it would put Cincinnati on the path that Virginia Tech was on 14 years ago. Kelly -- who insists he has no interest in other jobs and wants to build the Bearcats into a power -- points to what Beamer has done, with 16 straight bowl appearances and annually visiting the national spotlight, as the model he'd like to follow.
Hoisting that bowl of oranges late Thursday night would be a big step toward getting there.
"One win or loss won't take away from the work," Kelly said. "It's winning. Winning changes perceptions (and) 21 wins over the past two years is a good start. ... So this is a journey. This is a process for us. We think we've made great strides. There's a long road ahead of us that we'll have to continue to work on."
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