The initial idea for this list was to select the ten best visitors to Lane Stadium all time. I ran into trouble though when I realized it's near impossible to find box scores from before 1986. Fortunately, Frank Beamer took charge in 1987 so that makes for a convenient cut off.
As with any "best of" list, this one is almost entirely subjective and even if you agree with the players named you'll probably take issue with the order. That's what the comments section is for. What else are you going to do between now and the William & Mary game?
I've tried to take into account both the player's college and professional careers to form an overall opinion. I also looked for exceptional performances when they played in Blacksburg, though it wasn't a requirement. I've noted the years when they made their visits to Lane.
The order of this list changed about a dozen times as I was writing it, especially at the top. These guys were/are terrific football players and their accomplishments are impossible to ignore. They all gave the Hokies fits.
10. Herman Moore, Wide Receiver, Virginia 1988, '90
Herman Moore really liked playing in Lane, too bad we couldn't get him in orange and maroon. His first season playing in college saw the 'Hoos limp into Lane at 3-4 overall. Moore exploded for seven catches for 175 yards and a touchdown to lift Virginia to a 16-10 victory. His return visit in 1990 was much of the same from Moore. He snagged six catches for 180 yards and a touchdown, but the Hokies pulled the upset over No. 17 Virginia 38-13. Moore gained 1,190 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns in 1990 earning him Consensus All-American honors. He was selected 10th overall in the '91 NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions and he had an outstanding career in the motor city. He finished his NFL days with 9,174 receiving yards and 62 touchdowns while being named to the Pro Bowl four times.
9. Marvin Harrison, Wide Receiver, Syracuse 1993, '95
Harrison had a mixed bag in his trips to Blacksburg. In '93 he grabbed four catches for 50 yards and a touchdown, but the Hokies rolled the Orange 45-24. 1995 saw Harrison team up with a young quarterback named McNabb propelling him to a magnificent senior season. Harrison had only three catches for 51 yards in his last visit to Tech, but that season he had 1,131 yards receiving and eight touchdowns. He also showed a knack for returning punts gaining 369 yards on 22 returns and taking two back for touchdowns. He was selected 19th overall by the Indianapolis Colts in 1996 and soon teamed up with another amazing quarterback in Peyton Manning. Harrison turned that lucrative partnership into an impressive career pulling in 1,102 passes for 14,580 yards and 128 touchdowns. He had eight consecutive seasons with at least 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns and made the Pro Bowl in each season. That alone is a career for most. It's hard to see Harrison not making the NFL Hall of Fame with such gaudy numbers.
8. Tiki Barber, Running Back, Virginia 1996
The 'Hoos finished a disappointing 7-5 in 1996 but it wasn't Tiki Barber's fault. He ran for 1,360 yards (5.4 YPC) and 14 touchdowns. He also had 258 yards receiving and returned 19 punts for 241 yards and a touchdown on the way to earning ACC Player Of The Year honors. In his final game against the Hokies, Barber did everything he could to avoid a loss. He carried the ball 21 times for 162 yards but NO touchdowns. In fact, UVA couldn't get in the end zone all day and the No. 17 Hokies beat the No. 20 'Hoos 26-9. Barber was picked No. 36 overall (2nd round) in the 1997 NFL Draft and had a very successful career with the New York Giants. He rushed for 10,449 yards and 55 touchdowns as well as catching 586 passes for 5,183 yards and 12 more touchdowns in ten seasons. He had some notable fumbling issues during his career, but was still a four-time Pro Bowler.
7. 2001 Miami Hurricanes
This is what we in the business refer to as "cheating". I don't know how on Earth you can pick just one player from what is quite possibly the most talented college football team ever. The 'Canes had to beat Tech to remain ranked No. 1 and stay alive for the National Championship game. On that day it was Clinton Portis who put on the show. He ran for 124 yards and a touchdown plus 35 yards on two catches. That grabs your attention, but look at all the other names in the box score. Jeremy Shockey, Frank Gore, Willis McGahee, Najeh Davenport, Ed Reed, Vince Wilfork, Andre Johnson, Phillip Buchanon, Jonathan Vilma, Kellen Winslow...nearly the entire two-deep played in the NFL—four deep at running back alone. Portis had the most notable day in 2001, but between the two teams there has likely never been more talent at one time on the Worsham Field turf.
Warning: This shows only positive plays for Miami...so all of Grant Noel's interceptions. And, *cough* Ernest Wilford....aww....time to reach for the desk bottle.
6. Warren Sapp, Defensive Tackle, Miami
The only current NFL Hall of Famer on this list, Sapp terrorized college offenses too. He and the No.1 Hurricanes rolled through Blacksburg in 1992 with a 43-21 victory. Sapp had a pedestrian day by his standards with four tackles including two for a loss. His final season in day-glo orange and teal saw Sapp named a Consensus All-American in addition to winning the Vince Lombardi, Chuck Bednarik and Bronko Nagurski Award's. He was named the 1994 Big East Defensive Player of the Year and finished sixth in the Heisman voting, a rarity for a purely defensive player. He was selected 12th overall in the 1995 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he played nine successful seasons and helped win the first Super Bowl in franchise history. He finished his career with four season in Oakland. In total, he amassed 96.5 sacks, 19 forced fumbles and 435 total tackles. Sapp was selected to the pro bowl seven times.
5. Larry Fitzgerald, Wide Receiver, Pittsburgh 2002
Ronyell Whitaker no doubt still cringes to see the name, but then so do all corners. Fitzgerald burst on the scene as a true freshman in 2002 with 69 catches for 1,005 yards and 12 touchdowns. In 2003, he made his only trip to Blacksburg where he proceeded to run end zone fade routes with frightening precision. The Hokies were up 14-0 before Fitzgerald went off. He finished the day with 105 yards, nice but not amazing. The crazy part: five catches, three touchdowns. He abused the smaller Whitaker on jump balls to the corner of the end zone and Ronyell wasn't alone. The Panthers upset the No. 3 Hokies 28-21 and Fitzgerald had an amazing season as a sophomore. He was a Consensus All-American, Big East Offensive Player of the Year, won the Fred Biletnikoff Award (best receiver) and the Walter Camp Trophy (best overall player). He totaled 92 catches for 1,672 yards and 22 touchdowns and was absolutely robbed of the Heisman finishing second to Jason White of Oklahoma. He was selected 3rd overall by the Arizona Cardinals where he still haunts the dreams of opposing defensive coordinators.
4. Calvin Johnson, Wide Receiver, Georgia Tech 2005, '06
Through an odd scheduling quirk (Thanks ACC) the Yellow Jackets played at Lane two years in a row, splitting the two. The insanely talented Calvin Johnson was spectacular in both contests. In 2005 the No. 4 Hokies thumped the No. 15 Jackets 51-7 and Johnson was the entire Georgia Tech attack. He had five catches for 123 yards and a touchdown while the rest of his team had eight catches for 20 yards combined. In '06 they flipped the script and the No. 20 Yellow Jackets soundly beat the No. 11 Hokies 38-27. Johnson had six catches for 115 yards and two first quarter touchdowns, the second of which you can see below. Johnson was a Consensus All-American in '06 and was selected No. 2 overall in the NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions where he's still confounding everyone with unbelievable catches. Even with a handful of mediocre seasons the next few years, Johnson will be in the Hall of Fame. If you cover him perfectly, it's no guarantee that he won't make the play. Much like Barry Sanders before him, the only reason you need to watch the Lions is Megatron.
3. Donovan McNabb, Quarterback, Syracuse 1995, '97
McNabb began playing as a redshirt freshman and never really looked back. He was dynamic and absolutely insufferable if you were an opposing fan. He even played in 18 games over two seasons for Jim Boeheim's basketball team. You couldn't avoid the guy. Oddly, he never fared well in Blacksburg—losing on both trips— but took care of the Hokies both times at the Jiffy Pop Dome (Carrier). In 1995 Tech trounced the 20th ranked Orange 31-7 holding McNabb to just 113 yards passing and -13 rushing thanks to three sacks. In 1997, McNabb was sacked four times limiting him to 14 yards on the ground but he managed 198 yards passing. Still, the No. 22 Hokies won going away 31-3. McNabb was named the Big East Offensive Player of The Year in 1996, '97 and '98 amassing 8,389 yards passing, 1,561 rushing and 96 total touchdowns. He was drafted second overall by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1999 where he had a terrific career. He threw for 37,276 yards and 234 touchdowns while making six Pro Bowls. His number five is retired by both Syracuse and Philadelphia.
2. Ray Lewis, Linebacker, Miami 1995
It's hard to conceive of a defense that featured Lewis and Warren Sapp, but that's what the mid-nineties Hurricanes had before the program was decimated by NCAA sanctions. Lewis was just as unstoppable a force in college as he was in the NFL, and it was on full display in his only trip to Lane Stadium. On a wet day in Blacksburg, Lewis finished with a team-high 15 tackles (9 solo), two tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble. The 17th ranked 'Canes couldn't score though and the Hokies managed to grind out 300 yards rushing holding on to earn the program's first ever victory over Miami by a score of 13-7. Lewis finished the '95 season with 160 tackles and was runner up for the Butkus Award. He was named an All-American and All-Big East pick for the second straight season and decided to turn pro. The Ravens picked him in the first round and he went on to amass over 2,000 tackles and be selected the Pro Bowl 13 times. He won two Super Bowls and one Super Bowl MVP for his performance in number 35. He's a surefire Hall of Famer.
1. Brett Favre, Quarterback, Southern Mississippi 1990
Favre's senior season had a stop in Blacksburg that didn't go according to plan for the Golden Eagles. It was homecoming for the Hokies and Favre put together a stat line of both positives and negatives, something that would become his trademark. He completed 16-of-30 passes for 192 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Southern Miss outscored Tech 16-0 in the second half but the comeback fell short and the Hokies won 20-16. Favre of course went on to be a 2nd round draft pick of the Atlanta Falcons before his partying lifestyle got him shipped off to Green Bay. We all know the rest. He would win a Super Bowl with the Packers before finishing his career with strange stints with the New York Jets and the Minnesota Vikings. All told, Favre threw for 71,838 yards and 508 touchdowns playing with at times a recklessness that endeared him to millions. He never met a throw he didn't like—336 interceptions—but he still completed 62% of his career passes and set the NFL record for consecutive games started with 297 in a row.
There were many worthy candidates who were on the cusp of cracking the top ten. It's worth giving special mention to former Miami quarterback Gino Torretta who as far as I can tell is the only Heisman Trophy winner (1992) to have played in Lane Stadium. Here are the others who were in the mix for my top 10.
Daryl "Moose" Johnston- Fullback, Syracuse 1987
Major Harris- Quarterback, West Virginia 1988
Mike Vanderjagt- Kicker, West Virginia 1992
Aaron Brooks- Quarterback, Virginia 1996, '98
Matt Hasselbeck- Quarterback, Boston College 1997
Dwight Freeney- Defensive End, Syracuse 2001
Byron Leftwich- Quarterback, Marshall 2002
Sean Taylor- Safety, Miami 2003
Matt Ryan- Quarterback, Boston College 2007
Ndamukong Suh- Defensive Tackle, Nebraska 2009