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Belk Bowl Preview: The Virginia Tech Hokies vs the Arkansas Razorbacks

The Hokies are going to face a team they’ve never faced before. We did that once already this season. The first time this season was on national television against an historically great but struggling opponent, Notre Dame. This time we are up against an SEC Arkansas Razorback team spoiling to redeem a disappointing season. Kickoff is the 29th. Gobbler Country will be there. #BelkBowl

NCAA Football: ACC Championship-Clemson vs Virginia Tech
Hokies are going to come out fired up Hokie Nation will be there.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There are two firsts for this particular contest in Charlotte, North Carolina. Well more than two firsts, but we’ll stick with the football teams. This will be the first time that the Hokies have appeared in the Belk Bowl. The Belk Bowl started life as a Raycom Sports venture in 2002. The project started out named the Queen City Bowl, but that name was trumped by the first game and became the Continental Tire Bowl. The Wahoos beat West Virginia that Season, and then took out Pitt the next year. That sponsorship lasted three seasons and in 2005 the contest was renamed the Meineke Car Care Bowl. The opponent sets were mostly Big East and ACC middle ranked teams. Navy and UConn made appearances in the series, though. The first Belk Bowl was played in 2011, and featured NC State and Louisville is a bit of a preview of the modern ACC Atlantic Division.

The BCS was replaced by the current system, and the opponents’ Conferences changed. The ACC remained, but the attention got the SEC involved, especially as the old Big East melted into the AAC and those teams operated closer to the mid-major level of play. Currently there is a “pool” selection function in place where the best of 2nd pool of teams from each conference are represented. The weirdness of the conference rankings vs the actual conference championship finish gets involved in such decisions. Technically Virginia Tech finished #2 in the ACC by winning their division, and then losing the championship game. The pool system; however, operates against the entire conference minus the champion, so we finished 3rd behind Louisville, in a favoritism tie-breaker dog fight with FSU. Of course the ‘Noles would get the “choosier” bowl game, though.

So Tech ends up with the Belk Bowl invitation, a close trip from Blacksburg, and a chance to put some Chicago Maroon and Burnt Orange in the stands of Bank of America Stadium. This will be our first Queen City/Continental Tire/Meineke Car Care/Belk Bowl. You have to wonder if there is something happening over at the New River Valley Mall Belk store.

So, let us get on with real football notes, then. We are going to play another team that has never graced the schedule of any Virginia Tech season, including the stocking cap pre-Roosevelt reform era. So, like the Notre Dame game, we are in new territory.

Arkansas is a good football team. At the beginning of the season, after reeling off three wins in a row, they thought they’d be better than ‘good’. There were hints that Bret Bielema might have caught lightning in a bottle enough to challenge for the top of the SEC, and even make it to the SEC playoffs. Such would not be the case for them; however.

Tech will step on to Bank of America field to face a team that has a very similar record, with very similar statistics and rankings. Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen (ranked 28 this season) has a 146.9 QB rating at the end of the 2016 campaign. His passing percentage is a bit low by modern standards at just over 61% completions, and he’s netted 3,152 yards 23 touchdowns, marred by 12 picks. That’s not a terrible finish for the year, and he will present some issues for Bud Foster to solve. Yahoo stats for Arkansas can be viewed here.

Jerod Evans (ranked 21 this season) brings very similar passing numbers to the table. His QBR is 9 points better, his completion percentage is 2 points better, and he has 4 fewer interceptions. Evans does have a 150 yard passing advantage, but there is another dimension to the quarterback matchup that lends itself to a potential major difference maker. Jerod Evans is Virginia Tech’s leading rusher with 759 yards on 182 rushes and 10 touchdowns. Austin Allen has basically been sacked for his “rushes” with an abysmal -113 yards lost over the 12 games of the regular season. Virginia Tech Stats can be seen at this link.

The overall offensive ranking of this match-up is that Virginia Tech’s numbers rank them as follows:

  • Passing Yards - 71st at 262.8 Passing Yards per game
  • Rushing Yards- 89th at 184.9 Rushing Yards per game
  • Total Yards Per Game- 56th at 447.8

Arkansas final numbers for the season stack up as follows:

  • Passing Yards- 70th at 263.0 Passing Yards per game
  • Rushing Yards- 110th at 174.9 Rushing Yards per game
  • Total Yards Per Game- 70th at 437.9

The last ESPN receiving chart shows a slightly different spread, but the Hokies are ranked 27th in receiving and Arkansas is pushing 42.

The NCAA official rankings put Tech at 35 and Arkansas at 36.

The Hokies’ edge will continue to be its main down field threat, Isaiah Ford (ranked 30th); but look for Cam Phillips, Bucky Hodges, Sam Rogers, and CJ Carroll to make appearances. Those names and targets are the reasons why Ford doesn’t rank higher on the chart. Fuente’s offense is designed to spread the ball around to multiple targets instead of keying in on any one receiver. Tech also maintains a very large rushing ranking advantage over Arkansas with the Razorbacks at 70, and Tech at 49.

Neither team shows up in the NCAA top 50 teams in rushing this season. More than a few traditional Hokie fans are a bit nonplused by that pretty average ranking. We have been at this ad nauseam for the entire season. Our offensive line does not have the personnel and capability of supporting a heavy drive blocking run game. In addition we have be bitten by “par” or worse running back performances from our backs since David Wilson left. There are some issues that need to be addressed when your leading rusher is your quarterback. We know that, and I really think that Coach Fuente and the offensive staff are very well aware of both issues. The running game really needs to be fixed before this team can really step up to the next level.

Tech’s defense should be much better equipped to stop the Razorbacks than they are to stop our offense. ESPN’s very rudimentary rating scheme has us tied with LSU and Alabama at 74. Somehow I really can’t complain about that company. The point is that it’s just a very simple measurement set, and in it Arkansas comes in at 112. So we need to look elsewhere for more solid defensive ranking statistics. Tech comes in at 19th for the NCAA Total Defense category and Arkansas doesn’t make the top 50.

The Hokies ended up 43rd in rushing defense, and 22nd in Passing yards allowed. The numbers say that Virginia Tech should be favored to beat the Razorbacks in good solid matchup. What the numbers never tell you, however, are what teams will be on the field at the kickoff. The numbers don’t tell us the actual story. They give us a sketch of the plot, and can offer hints as to how things might go if everything operates at the mean.

We have never played the Belk Bowl. The Hokie Nation crowd is likely to be pretty big. Fayetteville, AR, is quite a trip to Charlotte, but the SEC is a rich conference with lots of resources to get people to places. The Razorbacks are an old and storied football team. They struggled at 7-5 this season, after flashing out of the gate at a dead sprint. Tech has had one bitter disappointment (Tennessee) that could have been won save for a 10 minute meltdown in the 2nd quarter. It suffered a team collapse in Syracuse and another at home against Georgia Tech. In those two games, a team that we don’t recognize showed up and didn’t play well. That team hasn’t taken the field in a while. Our last loss was only disappointing in that we played far better than the sports punditry expected, and with a minute more on the clock might have actually had an ACC Championship this season.

The coaches are all going to be working to pound Arkansas film into hearts potentially more interested in holiday festivities. There is the drag of rumor, the mild scandal of a former coach, and some rumblings about departures of certain players. All of this needs to be beaten, and this year’s seniors need to step up and focus their teammates on the last prize of the 2016 season. It’s been since 2011 that we have walked away from a season with a double digit winning record. Tech can reach 10 wins with this game. That accomplishment no one predicted and would be a great way for the Seniors to graduate on.

Virginia Tech can win this game. To do so it must play its best football, and do it against a team that had high hopes and the personnel to go farther than they did. We know about how well a team looking for redemption can play. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema is going to have his team prepared. Justin Fuente will, too.

The kickoff is at 5:30 PM EST and Gobbler Country will be in the Press Box, live. Join us for the Game Thread and or Twitter.