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The Road to a Better Season Starts in Chapel Hill

These next four weeks will tell us if Tech's worth the ranking it was gifted after an off week, or we’re simply a slightly better version of last year’s team.

NCAA Football: East Carolina at Virginia Tech Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

This is the make-or-break-stretch of the Hokies season. North Carolina, Syracuse, Miami, Pitt. It’s pretty much a lineup of three games we have to win in order to be taken seriously as an ACC team, and a fourth game that’s a trap lying in wait. Right now, the second trimester of this season sets up as a rough go for the Hokies. ESPN’s FPI, or their statistical analysis of all teams, has us favorited to win 4 more games: Syracuse, Georgia Tech, Duke, and Virginia. That’d put us at 7-5 and bowl eligibility, and an 8-5 season in the offering. That’s an improvement, sure. We’d be 8-5 (our best record since 2013), with an arrow pointed upward…sort of.

At the end of the year, we’re definitely, by graduation, going to lose McLaughlin, Clark, Ekanem, Conte, Rogers, Baron, and Williams. And possibly, if the draft incentives are right, we could also lose Ford, Hodges, and Teller. That’s 10 starters. The starting right tackle, both guards, the starting fullback, the two best wide receivers, the best safety, and your best defensive end and two solid defensive tackles. This team is about to get younger in a hurry.

That’s why it’s all the more important we win now. Coach Fuente has to haul in what he can in this class. It’s going to be a longer rebuild than we want just due to timing. He’s got the weapons to succeed THIS YEAR; next year is going to be more interesting. You’re looking at a team that’s VASTLY made up of Redshirt sophomores through freshmen. It’s SUPER young. Of the 116 players on Virginia Tech’s roster (though only 80 of those are scholarship players), only 12 are seniors or redshirt seniors. Of those, only 7 get serious playing time (Clark, Baron, McLaughlin, Rogers, Conte, Ekanem, Williams). The others are Motley, Der’Woun Greene, and three walk-ons in Wayne Mutter, Johnathan Galante, and Robert Warfel. Theoretically, Warfel and Mutter could be redshirted for next year, but the point is that the team is super young. 24 players are redshirt juniors or true juniors. That means that only 31% of our team is going to be gone in two years. And that’s of course discounting the fact that new talent is coming in. Tech’s designed to win now, and maybe not do much next year (We’ll see how everyone progresses under Fuente into his second year, I’m already getting a tad worried about how our offensive line’s going to look and play next year).

But the thing is, this stretch will define this team, especially as one of the last ‘Frank Beamer Built’ teams. The major players will move on and Fuente’s going to start reloading and rebuilding this team in his image, as is his right as a new coach. Right now, we’re only favored at Syracuse. FPI has us, for you probability people, at 35% chance to win at UNC, a 78% chance to beat Syracuse in the carrier dome, a 45% chance to beat Miami at home after a short week for both of us, and a 42% chance to beat Pitt in our private house of horrors. After that? Duke at 76%, Georgia Tech at 76%, Notre Dame at a pick ‘em at South Bend, and an overwhelming 86% chance back in Blacksburg for UVA.

Thing is, even if the FPI is accurate enough of a guess, none of those odds are insurmountable. Heck, UNC by this measurement is our toughest opponent to round out the year. And going down the list, there’s reason for optimism in every game. UNC hasn’t played a great defense- Illinois is probably the best at 27th in yards per game and 75th in points per game. It’s not flattering for them. Their counter argument is that we haven’t played anyone particularly great outside Tennessee, and we got smacked around. The caveats go on from there involving fumbles and such, but let’s simplify the rest of this, team by team: Syracuse is 2-3 with wins over Colgate and Connecticut. They got smoked by Louisville, USF, and Notre Dame, especially in the second half when talent started to show. Miami hasn’t played anyone great and is somehow ranked number 10. We’ll see how they do against a surprisingly ineffective FSU team, but their 4 wins are against FAMU, FAU, Appalachian State (who might be some kind of good, but we’re not sure with how tweaky Tennessee has been), and Georgia Tech. Pitt’s defense is not good this year and we’ve actually got an offense now, Duke’s missing half of everyone (graduated or injured), Georgia Tech simply isn’t that good, Notre Dame doesn’t have a defense, and UVA’s still got a long hole to climb out of from the London Era.

Point is, if this team wants to be taken seriously, this all has to start now. Go on the road, beat UNC, and go to Syracuse afterward and beat down the Orange. Miami will have come off two games in a row where they’re tested against FSU and UNC, and we’ll both be on short weeks. Then go up to Pitt and end the curse of Heinz Field the same way we broke the spell of ECU- by bombing them out of the building. Our season started four games ago, but these next four are the most critical to establishing how Tech is going to look, now and in the future.