ATLANTA -- Frank Beamer stayed loyal to Virginia Tech while growing up in southwest Virginia even as he remained aware of Tennessee's presence only a few hours away.
"When I was growing up, I always liked Virginia Tech and that was always my school," Beamer said Monday. "But Tennessee always seemed bigger, and it was in a lot of ways from a football standpoint."
Beamer, a 1969 graduate from Virginia Tech, has been the school's coach since 1987. In 23 years, he has had only one chance to see how his Hokies compare with Tennessee.
Beamer's Hokies lost to Tennessee 45-23 in the 1994 Gator Bowl. He said it was just as he remembered as a boy: Tennessee still looked like the stronger program.
Now, 15 years later, Beamer has another chance to measure his Hokies against the Vols.
Virginia Tech is No. 12 and, at 9-3, is favored against the 7-5 Vols in Thursday night's Chick-fil-A Bowl at the Georgia Dome.
Beamer said Virginia Tech fans can't wait for the rare opportunity to play the Vols.
"Playing Tennessee, the people in our part of the country have wanted this game for a long time," Beamer said.
Virginia Tech and Tennessee are only 233 miles apart -- about a four-hour drive -- and are geographical rivals despite rarely playing in football. The 1994 Gator Bowl was the only game between the schools since 1937.
"When we played them in the Gator Bowl, I'm not sure we were on the level with Tennessee," Beamer said. "This time I'm hoping we are more on a level with Tennessee."
Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor, from Hampton, Va., can appreciate the game's appeal to fans.
"I think us being so close to Tennessee, I think the fans want to see this game," Taylor said. "I know our fans are going to travel. It's going to be a good game."
Tennessee's first-year coach Lane Kiffin said other teams are trying to reach the standards set by Beamer, who took Virginia Tech to the Orange Bowl each of the last two seasons.
"We're playing one of the best teams in America," Kiffin said Monday. "They have a ton of great players back and a legendary coach."
A win Thursday night would give Virginia Tech six straight 10-win seasons. Texas, with nine straight, is the only school with a longer current streak.
Kiffin is new to the regional rivalry.
"I just know what I've been told about trying to get this matchup for a number of years in a number of places and for whatever reason, it hasn't worked out," Kiffin said. "For it to work out is extremely exciting for both our fans, as you can tell from how fast the tickets were sold."
The game is the bowl's 13th consecutive sellout.