Michael Vick's 1999 Virginia Tech Hokies, one of the 50 most interesting college football teams ever by Bill Connelly

Photo: HokieSports.com

Bill Connelly's second book, The 50 Best* College Football Teams of All Time (*The most interesting, innovative, and important, anyway) is due out this fall. It tells the story of college football's history through the lens of 50 particularly impactful teams. You can learn more here.

October 16, 1999.

The thing is, Syracuse was a pretty good team in 1999. Paul Pasqualoni's Orange were coming off of back-to-back major bowl appearances -€”- Fiesta Bowl in 1997, Orange Bowl in 1998 -€”- and had established themselves as one of the Big East's steady powers. They were 5-1 and ranked 16th in the country when they came to Blacksburg. They had won at Pitt the week before, and their only loss was a gripping, 18-13 stumble against No. 6 Michigan.

They weren't the only ones in Western Virginia that Saturday. ESPN's College GameDay, quickly becoming a staple of every fan's Saturday, was in town, with a record crowd of 10,000. Virginia Tech had started strong and had moved up to fourth in the AP poll thanks to an exciting quarterback, a dynamic defense, and Frank Beamer, the head coach who had built it all.

Now came the ultimate test, a chance to prove to doubters that the Hokies were to be taken seriously. (And for a new riser, there are always plenty of doubters.)

The Hokies had malice in their hearts. They dominated in every way Beamer teams dominated. The scoring began when Tech's Anthony Midget stripped a Syracuse receiver; Cory Bird caught the ball in the air and took it 26 yards for a score. Tech's Shyrone Stith scored twice, Ricky Hall caught a short touchdown pass, and Tech led 31-0 at half. The Hokies scored another 31 in the second half.

Total yards: No. 4 Virginia Tech 411, No. 16 Syracuse 120.

Turnovers: Syracuse 5, Virginia Tech 0.

Touchdowns: Virginia Tech offense 5, Virginia Tech defense 3, Syracuse 0.

Syracuse --€” a good team! --€” had three first downs and 58 yards after three quarters. The 62-point margin was their worst since the Taft administration and the worst-ever loss for a ranked team.

There are statements, and then there are statements.

We remember the teams that transcend our imaginations. The 1999 Hokies did everything a little differently, a little faster, a little nastier. They scored with defense and special teams, and their quarterback was lightning in a bottle.

Late January, 1998.

Southeastern Virginia --€” the Newport News/Hampton area, specifically --€” has always been a hotbed of athletic talent. But in the class of 1998, the area that had produced basketball great Allen Iverson a few years earlier figured out how to top itself. Basically every key recruiter came to the area because of two stunning talents: Hampton High School's Ronald Curry and Warwick High School's Michael Vick.

Curry was the bigger name. An all-around athlete and high school All-American in both basketball and football, he would end up winning the McDonald's All-American slam dunk contest, throwing 28 touchdown passes for North Carolina, and catching 193 passes in six seasons with the Oakland Raiders.

Vick had his list narrowed down to Syracuse and Virginia Tech. At Syracuse, he could succeed the great Donovan McNabb and play for a school that, decades earlier, had been one of the first to embrace African-American players. At Virginia Tech, he could not only play closer to his family; he could create a path for himself.

In late-January 1998, he chose the latter.

December 23, 1986.

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Erik Perel, Allsport

Compared to expectations, Bill Dooley had been pretty successful. He spent nine years as VT's head coach, attended three bowls, and finished with a winning record (albeit as an independent with a sometimes shaky schedule) seven times. He was the winningest coach in school history at the time. But he also served as the school's athletic director, and his team committed NCAA infractions. He was fired as A.D. and resigned as head coach.

Two days before Christmas 1986, the school announced it was replacing Dooley with Murray State head coach Beamer, a former Tech cornerback.

Beamer inherited NCAA sanctions and had a pretty long rope. He used up most of it. His Hokies went 22-32-1 in his first five seasons, then 2-8-1 in 1992, his sixth. It took a leap of faith for the school to retain him.

The Hokies finished ranked four times in six years, winning nine games per year in the process. They were built around an aggressive, modern defense -€” eight men in the box with nasty, aggressive defensive backs on the perimeter -€” and dynamic special teams. And with pro-caliber talent like quarterback Jim Druckenmiller (a first-round pick in 1997) and receiver Antonio Freeman (third-rounder in 1995), the offense was catching up.

Tech had joined the newly-formed Big East in 1991, along with fellow independents Boston College, Miami, Pitt, Rutgers, Syracuse, Temple, and West Virginia. They had one of the least proven football programs of the bunch, but they changed that script quickly.

And he was beginning to utilize the school's improving cachet to his advantage in local recruiting battles.

September 4, 1999.

It took two plays for Vick, a redshirt freshman, to become a fan favorite throughout the country.

About 10 minutes into the season opener against James Madison, he took a shotgun snap from his 46-yard line and ran a designed QB draw against a blitz. He shook off a shoulder tackle in the backfield and started to his right, then made one cut and raced toward the left hash mark. About three different JMU defenders looked like they had an angle on him. None came close before he crossed the goal line.

About 12 minutes later, he became a legend.

On third-and-goal from the JMU 7, with Tech leading 17-0, he found his first passing option covered, then took off. With two tacklers converging on him, he leaped from the 4, got flipped by tackler No. 1, springboarded off of tackler No. 2, and landed on his feet in the end zone.

It was his last play of the game. Tech didn't need any more help in what was eventually a 47-0 win, but when Vick landed from his spectacular dive, he injured his ankle. It would still be hampering him when Syracuse came to town and beyond.

He was a quarterback for the video game era. It seemed he could do everything a quarterback had ever been able to do, only better. With a flick of the wrist, his left arm could fire a ball as far as any receiver could run. He seemed to go from zero to "faster than any linebacker" in half a step. In the open field, he was a blur.

Vick threw for 2,065 yards and rushed for 682 in 1999. On one ankle.

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Kevin C. Cox, Getty Images

January 4, 2000.

Tech had become a respectable program without many star recruits, and in 1999, the blue-collar roots of Beamer's recruiting efforts showed.

Corey Moore was an undersized fullback and linebacker in high school who, after a detour in junior college, became one of the celebrated defensive ends of all-time, racking up 35 sacks in three seasons in Blacksburg. Thousand-yard receiver Andre Davis, who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in December behind a "They Belong!" header, was a track star and soccer player in New York until late in his high school career. Stith barely played during his senior year in high school. Ike Charlton was a high school quarterback in Orlando who was passed on by Florida State and ended up a second-round draft pick at cornerback.

Adding just a little bit of star power took Tech to the top of college football. Briefly.

The Sugar Bowl, which was to host the top two teams in the Bowl Championship Series standings in the BCS' second year, pitted Tech against No. 1 Florida State.

Everything that could go wrong for the Hokies early, did. The nation's best passing combination --€” FSU's Chris Weinke to Peter Warrick -€”- struck for a 64-yard score late in the first quarter, and within the next eight minutes, the Seminoles would score on both a blocked punt and a Warrick punt return to take a 28-7 lead. This Cinderella run looked like it was coming to a rude conclusion, but Tech surged back. Vick scored late in the first half to make it 28-14 at the break, then a field goal and two Andre Kendrick TD runs gave the Hokies a 29-28 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

Unfortunately, things took a turn in the final stanza. Two Weinke touchdown passes (one to Ron Dugans, the final to Warrick) and a field goal gave FSU 18 points in a five-minute span, and the Seminoles burst ahead for a 46-29 win.

The Hokies were definitively the second-best team. And they were only sparsely tested on their way to the title game.

With Vick sitting out the second game of the year, backup Dave Meyer threw three interceptions against UAB, but the Tech defense held the Blazers to 63 yards in 53 plays in a 31-10 win. In a dogfight against Tommy Bowden's Clemson Tigers on a Thursday night in late-September, the Hokies found themselves leading only 14-11 with 11 minutes left before the Tech defense once again struck. A 47-yard Shayne Graham field goal extended the lead, then the Hokies scored on a 34-yard Charlton interception return and a 32-yard Moore fumble return to win, 31-11.

Vick struggled against Clemson, completing just seven of 17 passes with three picks, but in October, he found his stride. He was 7-for-9 for 222 and a touchdown in a 31-7 win over Virginia, then threw four touchdown passes (two to Davis, two to Ricky Hall) as the Hokies used a 35-0 second quarter to ease to a 58-20 win over lowly Rutgers.

After the destruction of Syracuse, Tech briefly showed some cracks. Now third in the country, the Hokies raced to a 27-7 lead over Pitt and held on, 30-17, but allowed 427 passing yards.

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Doug Pensinger, Getty Images

And the next week at WVU, they had to survive in a classic. With No. 2 Penn State losing at home to two-touchdown underdog Minnesota, Tech had a chance to advance in the rankings, but WVU backup Brad Lewis completed two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to suddenly put the Mountaineers up, 20-19.

Vick had completed only 11 of 27 passes against WVU to that point, but with the game on the line, he thrived. He found Terrell Parham for 14 yards, then hit Hall for nine. But Hall was tackled in bounds, and the clock ticked under 35 seconds by the time Tech was able to get off another snap.

The Hokies still had to gain probably 30 yards to get within field goal range for Graham. Vick looked to his left but found no open receiver; he narrowly avoided a WVU lineman in the pocket but escaped to his right and crossed the line of scrimmage. He looked like he was going to run out of bounds but darted for a 31-yard gain, hurdling out of bounds at the WVU 36 with 21 seconds left. After another short pass to Hall, Vick spiked the ball with five seconds left. Graham nailed a 44-yarder from the right hashmark. Tech 22, West Virginia 20. The Miracle in Morgantown.

The next week, at home against No. 19 Miami, the hungover Hokies quickly fell behind, 10-0. But they proceeded to score the next 43 in pure Tech fashion: two touchdown runs by Stith, a 64-yard punt return, a 51-yard fumble return, and a fumble recovery in the end zone.

The next week at Temple, they allowed an early touchdown, then scored 62 straight.

On the day after Thanksgiving, against No. 22 Boston College, they clinched a date in New Orleans by jumping to a 24-0 halftime lead and cruising, 38-14, behind 290 passing yards and 76 rushing yards from Vick. Fans tore down the goalposts at Lane Stadium. Tech's first perfect regular season in 81 years was complete.

April 21, 2001.

A loss like that Sugar Bowl against FSU hurts doubly, because you never know when you might get another shot. Tech went 11-1 again in 2000, with Vick struggling even further with injury, and in April 2001, Vick became the school's second No. 1 draft pick (the first: end Bruce Smith in 1985).

Vick was a four-time Pro Bowler and became a redemption story of sorts. He served nearly two years in prison for his role in an interstate dog fighting ring. After his release, he lobbied for stronger animal protection laws and became the NFL's 2010 Comeback Player of the Year.

Tech continued to cruise at a high altitude. The Hokies won at least 10 games every year from 2004-11 and pulled off another four top-10 finishes in Vick's absence. The quarterback for one of those seasons: Marcus Vick, Michael's brother.

Beamer retired following the 2015 season, his 29th in charge of a program that, for all intents and purposes, he built. His Hokies spent parts of nine seasons ranked in the AP top 5, but they never again reached the title game.