East Tennessee may have more in common with Southwest Virginia than it does the rest of its own state. Having lived in the 276 area code from 2006-12, I can assure you that's a true statement the other way around. "The state ends at Roanoke," is a commonly held belief among the majority of Virginians; there are more than 140 miles of I-81 separating the VA/TN border and Roanoke, and the largest city you'll find in that span is Bristol's 18,000 residents living on the commonwealth side of the state line. You have to travel half of those 140 miles to even pickup local television stations from Roanoke, meaning half of southwest Virginia gets its news - and its sports - from the state of Tennessee. There are 23 other cities in Virginia larger than the one that will host the largest crowd to ever see a college football game three years from now.
That's because Blacksburg is a town, not a city. Together with its neighbor Christiansburg, Hokie Headquarters makes up around 65,000 people, or about one for every seat in Lane Stadium. You can't find the Hokies unless you're looking for them, and many like it that way, thank you very much.
Blacksburg is also the third-closest non-SEC BCS campus to Knoxville at 237 miles. There's Georgia Tech at 212 miles and Clemson checks in at 197 miles, but they're a little busy with Georgia and South Carolina. And the Vols and those particular Tigers don't share the border that has come define the Vol/Hokie rivalry that few recognize but many live in the midst of. In theory, at least. Until yesterday.
Moving from Knoxville to Virginia was my whole reason to start blogging, and I've written about living as a Vol fan in the heart of Hokie Nation several times. The dominant takeaway from those stories and my time in Virginia is how alike we are, not just in passion but lifestyle. We are Appalachia's football teams.
The biggest and most important difference is found in the narratives of who we cheer for. Tennessee is the 8th winningest college football team of all-time. Virginia Tech's success is almost exclusively tied to Frank Beamer, who didn't arrive until 1987. The Vols are 3rd all-time in bowl appearances. Virginia Tech played in six bowl games from 1946 until Beamer's first appearance in 1993. Tennessee plays in the SEC. Virginia Tech didn't join the Big East until 1991 and now resides in the ACC.
The story, as told to me by people on both sides of the line, is that while Beamer was trying to get the program on a national level, much of southwest Virginia supported the nearby Vols, not just because that's who you got on television, but also for both our winning tradition and because UT was nationally dominant in the late 80s and throughout the 90s. This distinction was crystallized by freshman Peyton Manning in the 1994 Gator Bowl, torching #17 Virginia Tech 45-23.
The Hokies weren't ready then, but five years and one Vick later another important moment in this rivalry unfolded: on November 6, 1999 three undefeated teams stood atop the BCS rankings: #1 Florida State, #2 Penn State, and #3 Virginia Tech. The Nittany Lions fell at noon against Minnesota. That night, Tennessee obliterated #24 Notre Dame in Neyland Stadium. And when the BCS numbers were released, one-loss Tennessee vaulted past undefeated Virginia Tech to claim the #2 spot and set up a potential rematch with #1 Florida State for the National Championship. It only lasted a week; the Vols fell at Arkansas the following Saturday and took themselves out of the race. But the message was clear: a one-loss team from the SEC had a better product than an undefeated team from the Big East. And because those two teams were Tennessee and Virginia Tech, there was no middle ground for those on the border. You had to pick sides.
When I moved to Virginia in 2006, I remember being asked by a passionate Hokie fan, "Okay, be honest, what does Tennessee think about Virginia Tech?" And my answer, without an ounce of any ill intent, was, "We don't."
The Hokies felt disrespected, and perhaps rightfully so. There was a little brother syndrome in this rivalry that really defined it for so long. But things have changed since then as well. Though Virginia Tech hasn't come closer to the big prize than it did in 1999, the Hokies have moved up to the ACC and won it four times in nine years. VT has the nation's third-longest active bowl streak at an impressive two decades. Meanwhile Tennessee has fallen on some of its hardest times in program history, and smack dab in the middle of that we ran into the Hokies in the 2009 Chick-Fil-A Bowl and took our own beating, 37-14. No one in their right mind would suggest Tennessee Football is in a better place than Virginia Tech Football right now, and that's been the case for several years now.
In people and passion, we're very much the same. I have great relationships with so many Hokie fans and, even a year and a half removed from my time there, still find myself watching them closely and pulling for them at all times. But this is a rivalry, make no mistake. We've got three years until theory gives way to practice, and I hope both programs are riding high when the Bristol Bowl arrives. For Tennessee 2016 would mark the junior seasons of what is its most celebrated recruiting class since the glory days of Phillip Fulmer. If what we all hope happens actually begins to take shape, the Vols could be finding their way to the mythical "back". Meanwhile there is no program in the nation as stable as Virginia Tech, with the nation's longest tenured coach, a defensive coordinator in his 18th year, and a people as passionate as we are.
In pure spectacle, this game should be awesome. But give the people around it our due credit as well. Give us enough hope for both programs in three years, and we'll turn this thing into a good old-fashioned feud. Because no one fights like family, and under the banners of Appalachia and football we are all very much the same.