Sugar Bowl Preview: Michigan vs. Va. Tech

Brady Hoke has Michigan back in a BCS bowl game for the first time since a Rose Bowl berth after the 2006 season. The Wolverines, a BCS at-large selection, take on Virginia Tech in the Allstate Sugar Bowl at 8:30 p.m. ET tonight. BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart breaks down the game, gives his keys and offers his prediction. See everything in this post. Also, read all of Dienhart’s bowl columns and catch up on all the bowl action thus far, including the Big Ten’s first nine games, on our 2011-12 bowl schedule.

MICHIGAN (10-2) VS. VIRGINIA TECH (11-2)

Storyline: Brady Hoke looks to cap a smashing debut with another victory in his quest to reestablish the program as a Big Ten power. Michigan got here as an at-large BCS team, the school’s fifth BCS bowl appearance. Virginia Tech followed a similar path under legendary coach Frank Beamer after losing the ACC title game to Clemson. This will be the first meeting between these schools. The postseason hasn’t been kind to Michigan of late, as the Wolverines have lost six of their last eight bowls. Each school wants to prove it belongs here, as Boise State, Kansas State and Baylor all got passed over for at-large BCS spots by Michigan and Virginia Tech.

Player of the spot: QB Denard Robinson. Can it be anyone else but the electrifying junior? Of course not. “Shoelace” has run for 1,163 yards, ranking fifth in the Big Ten (96.6 ypg) with 16 rushing touchdowns. He also has hit 56 percent of his passes for 2,056 yards with 18 touchdowns. But his 14 interceptions pace the Big Ten. Still, D-Rob is the quintessential one-man gang who can score any time he touches the ball. He also has some good targets in TE Kevin Koger and WR Junior Hemingway. It will be fun to watch star Hokie CB Jayron Hosley battle these Wolverine pass catchers.

Top individual matchup: Michigan DT Mike Martin vs. Virginia Tech RB David Wilson. The 5-10, 205-pound Wilson leads the ACC in rushing with 1,627 yards (125.2 ypg). He is capable of scoring each time he touches the ball. That means Martin must play up to his All-Big Ten form. And if he’s matched up often vs. star Hokie OT Blake DeChristopher, that may be difficult.

Top unit matchup: Virginia Tech front seven vs. Michigan QB Denard Robinson. If the Hokies can mute Robinson, it would force him to the air, and his passing at times can be spotty. Virginia Tech’s front has lost some key players to injury, but the unit still can pressure. T Antoine Hopkins and LB Tariq Edwards—along with S Antone Exum in the back end of the defense–will do their best to slow down Robinson.

Fast fact: This is Michigan’s first trip to the Sugar Bowl since a 9-7 loss to Auburn after the 1983 season.

Three reasons for optimism:
1. Defense. The turnaround in one season under new coordinator Greg Mattison has been remarkable. The Wolverines rank fifth in the Big Ten in total defense (317.6 ypg), No. 2 vs. the run (129.1 ypg) and No. 6 vs. the pass (188.5 ypg). The unit ranked 110th in the country in 2010 in total defense. And no Big Ten school generated more turnovers in 2011 than Michigan’s 27.

2. RB Fitzgerald Toussaint. The emergence of the junior has taken pressure off QB Denard Robinson, who hasn’t had to carry as big a load and subsequently hasn’t gotten as dinged up as he has in the past. Toussaint has 1,011 rushing yards to rank sixth in the Big Ten in rushing (91.9 ypg), benefitting from the blocking of standout senior C David Molk. He has game-breaking speed and an ability to work between the tackles for a program that has lacked a consistently productive running back for several seasons.

3. Mojo. Michigan has a lot of it after three mostly moribund seasons under Rich Rodriguez, surprising many by being in a BCS bowl. The Wolverines, who closed the season with three victories in a row, are in a BCS bowl for the first time since a trip to the Rose Bowl after the 2006 season. Michigan hasn’t won a BCS game since a 35-34 overtime win over Alabama in the Orange Bowl after the 1999 season, when Tom Brady threw for 369 yards and four touchdowns.

Three reasons to worry:
1. Bud Foster. The Hokie defensive coordinator is one of the best in the business. And he has another strong defense. The unit ranks third in the ACC vs. the run (107.8 ypg) and No. 5 vs. the pass (206.2 ypg) for a defense that is No. 2 overall in the conference (313.9 ypg) and No. 8 in the nation in scoring (17.2 ppg). And Foster’s crew can pressure, ranking second in the ACC with 38 sacks (2.9 pg).

2. RB David Wilson. If the speedster gets established, it could be a long day for Michigan’s defense, which could get worn down trying to chase down the ACC Player of the Year. Wilson’s cause is helped by a strong line that features four seniors.

3. QB Logan Thomas. At 6-6, 254 pounds, Thomas is a force who continues to improve as a passer. He always has been a load as a runner. A Wolverine secondary that struggled in a season-ending win over Ohio State needs to be ready. Thomas came on down the stretch and has good targets in Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale, the top two receivers in school history. CB J.T. Floyd needs to have a big game.

My pick: Michigan 27, Virginia Tech 26

Tom Dienhart is a senior writer for BTN.com. Find all of his work at www.btn.com/tomdienhart, follow Dienhart on Twitter at @BTNTomDienhart, send a question to his weekly mailbag here, and click here to subscribe to his RSS feed.

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