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Virginia Tech Football 2017 Preview Compendium

ACC Championship - Clemson v Virginia Tech Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The ACC football season starts this Thursday! Let’s take a look at what the Hokies will face in 2017, and how I expect them to perform!

Wait. Wait just a second... What... what is this? IS THIS A FRIGGIN’ RE-POST?! IT IS, ISN’T IT? Really, man? Really?

Yes! It is a re-post!

I have compiled the three separate 2017 preview articles, from two weeks ago, into one write-up. If you haven’t had a chance to read the previews, or for those that wish to again, now you may without chasing three articles buried down the list.

Be aware... in this form the preview is almost 5000 words long, which is the primary reason I split it in the first place.

Without further ado...

No. 20 West Virginia Mountaineers: WVU enters this game ranked just ahead of the Hokies in the USA Today Coaches Poll. On offense West Virginia technically only returns five starters, but that does not account for Florida Gator transfer QB, Will Grier. During his time starting for UF Grier looked solid, leading them to a 6-0 record. He went 106-161 (65.8%), 1,204 yards, and had a 10-3 TD-INT ratio before being suspended in 2015. Justin Crawford, the senior RB out of Columbus Georgia, racked up 1,184 yards on 163 attempts (7.3 YPC), but only four TDs. 540 of those yards (45.6%) came during two games when he gouged Oklahoma for 331 yards during WVU’s 28-56 loss and then two games later when he racked up 209 yards during a 24-21 win over Baylor. With the departure of All-American center Tyler Orlosky and senior left guard Adam Pankey there are questions on the offensive line.

On the defensive side of the ball WVU must replace their entire starting line-up on the d-line. Things get better with their LB corps where they return two starters. They have talent and leadership returning to the secondary with safety Dravon Askew-Henry coming back from an ACL injury.

For the Hokies, the biggest question marks are on the offense, particularly at QB where the Hokies lost starter Jerod Evans. There are also questions regarding the running game with the departure of Sam Rogers and an apparent step back by Travon McMillian. The Hokies do return an experienced WR in Cam Philips, but lost Bucky Hodges and Isaiah Ford to the NFL.

Bud Foster looks to have, not only one of the best DB units in the ACC, but in the country. Phil Steele has ranked VT as having the No. 3 DB unit in the country while Athlon gives the Hokies the nod as the No. 5 DB unit. Mr. Steele also recognizes the Fighting Gobblers’ LB corps as the No. 9 in the country while Athlon thinks a bit higher of them, ranking them at No. 4. The Mountaineers DB and LB corps don’t register with Athlon who only provided their thoughts on the top 25 units while Phil Steele gave their DBs No. 50 and LBs No. 30. He has the Hokies d-line at No. 26 while Athlon again shows more confidence at No. 18. The West Virginia d-line was a no show for Steele or Athlon. The Hokies offensive units did not crack Steele’s or Athlon’s top units. WVU’s RB unit is ranked No. 22 by Steele and No. 13 by Athlon. The other offensive West Virginia units that Steele recognized were ranked amongst the 50-somethings.

The inexperience and loss on the offensive side of the ball, by VT, lines up nicely with the obstacles WVU faces on defense. After seeing what Coach Fuente built on offense during his first year there is reason to believe that, even if the VT offense is not elite, it will at least be respectable. Bud Foster’s defense lost its normal elite form in 2015, but came back with vigor in 2016. The 2017 squad looks to be even more impressive and should be able to slow the Mountaineer offense more than the WVU defense will slow Fuente’s offense.

The previous regime struggled in opening games against ranked opponents and the Hokies have always seemed to stumble during neutral site games, though they did show up against Clemson during the ACC Championship game. Although the Mountaineers are ranked higher the Hokies look to be built better and performed at a high level in a more competitive conference last season. Virginia Tech struggled at a neutral site in 2016 (Battle at Bristol) and emotion may run high as a once bitter rivalry is reignited, but I believe Virginia Tech wins this matchup.

Delaware Blue Hens: Six days after the Hokies face the Mountaineers they will host the Blue Hens at Lane Stadium. As JMU showed the Hokies and Appalachian State showed Michigan, FBS teams simply cannot sleep on a motivated FCS squad. Regardless, barring some sort of ridiculous hangover from the WVU game the Hokies should cruise to an easy home opener victory.

@ East Carolina Pirates: The Hokies absolutely destroyed the Pirates last year and it felt really good. ECU gave the previous regime fits and upsets, regardless of how good or bad the ECU squad was on paper. Fuente and company seem to have put that situation to bed. Last year the Pirates leapt out to a 2-0 start including a victory over eventual ACC bowl team N.C. State. In their third game of the season they almost upset South Carolina and showed up to Blacksburg 2-1. Fuente and company provided something of a statement game against the Pirates when he handed them a 17-54 loss. This kicked off a rough stretch for ECU and they only managed to win one more game in 2016. Now the Hokies travel to Greenville, and East Carolina looks to improve after their worst season in 12 years. The Pirates and their pass-happy offense do have the ability to strike quickly, which they showed with passing TDs of 75 yards and 70 yards against VT in 2016. Interestingly ECU will face a tough away game against WVU the week prior to Virginia Tech. There is potency on the offense, but serious problems on defense. Last year the Pirates allowed opponents to score 30 or more points nine times. In five of those games opponents scored 45 or more points. I expect East Carolina to improve from last year, but the Hokies should still be able to overwhelm them in every facet of the game.

Old Dominion Monarchs: I see the game against ODU as a serious trap game for the Hokies. VT’s very next match up is the ACC Championship re-match against the reigning national champions. The Monarchs made a massive leap in their performance during 2016. They were one game shy of making the Conference USA championship game, which eventually went to Western Kentucky. Incidentally the only conference game ODU lost last year was against WKU. Old Dominion went 10-3 last year and earned the programs first bowl appearance and bowl win when they defeated Eastern Michigan, 24-20, during the Bahamas Bowl. The Monarchs are returning fifteen starters and they are nicely distributed among the offense and defense. There is experience and talent returning to the defensive line and secondary. The LB corps will be their biggest question mark as they must replace everyone, but the head coach, Bobby Wilder, credits the defensive line as the foundation for the Monarchs’ significant improvement in 2016. ODU does have a QB battle on their hands, but whoever ends up leading the offense will have the support of a solid offensive line, RB corps, and WR corps. Old Dominion has yet to defeat a Power-5 conference team and by all accounts the Hokies are bigger and more talented than ODU. Virginia Tech should have no problem defeating ODU at home in Blacksburg. But, the Monarchs are dangerous, they are driven, and if the Hokies get caught looking ahead to Clemson they may find themselves in for more of a fight than they anticipated. I do see this as a trap game, but VPI should face Clemson at 4-0.

No. 5 Clemson Tigers: The Hokies open the conference schedule with their hardest matchup of the regular season. The Tigers must reload on offense. They lost Heisman runner-up QB Watson (4,593 yards passing, 41-17 TDs-INTs, 629 yards rushing, 9 rushing TDs), three of their four top receivers including Mike Williams (1,361 yards, 11 TDs), RB Wayne Gallman (1,133 yards, 17 TDs) and one of the best TEs in the country, Jordan Leggett (736 yards, 7 TDs). Waiting in the wings they have hero of the national championship WR Hunter Renfrow (492 yards, 5 TDs), C.J. Fuller (211 yards, 4.5 YPC), and a three-way QB contest that features experience in junior Kelly Bryant, five-star recruit true freshmen Hunter Johnson, and four-star redshirt freshmen Zerrick Cooper. The offensive line will provide plenty of protection for the new starting QB and RB, and looks to be one of the best in the country with four returning starters.

Phil Steele lists Clemson’s QB unit at No. 55, RBs No. 47, WRs No. 7, and the OL No. 5. Athlon only lists the top 25 team units and recognize Clemson WRs / TEs at No. 2, and the OL at No. 3. So, the… uh… “obstacles” the Tigers’ offense is facing represents the good news. The defense is the bad news for the Hokies. Clemson lost defensive leader Boulware, but retained several key starters in every unit. Last year the Tigers faced seven of the top 50 total offensive teams in the country: Louisville Cardinals (No. 5), Alabama Crimson Tide (No. 7), Virginia Tech Hokies (No. 18 – whoa what? Top 25 total offense?!), Florida State Seminoles (No. 27), Ohio State Buckeyes (No. 33), Pittsburgh Panthers (No. 39), and Auburn Tigers (No. 43). Yeah… they lost to Pitt, but they also blanked the No. 33 overall offensive team in the country, in the playoffs, when they shut out OSU 31-0. Even after dealing with that offensive power Clemson still managed to be the No. 15 overall defense at the end of year. Phil Steele ranks the Tigers’ DL at No. 1, LBs No. 9, and DBs at No. 15. Athlon also ranks the Clemson DL at No. 1, LBs No. 17, and DBs at No. 10.

Looking at that game Clemson dropped the Panthers did a great job halting the running game, holding the Tigers to only 50 yards on the ground. Watson did throw for 580 yards (holy crap), but he also threw three interceptions. Pitt also answered with a stellar game from Peterman who threw five TDs and no INTs. Pitt did fumble once, but won the turnover battle, 3-1. Two of those Tigers interceptions happened in the Pitt red zone. Looking at the Hokies’ own performance in the ACC Championship they held Watson to mortal numbers (288 yards passing, 3-1 TD-INT) and held the RBs in check at 99 yards, but Watson managed 85 yards and two TDs on the ground and the Hokies lost the turnover battle 1-2.

This season Virginia Tech gets Clemson at home. The time is TBD, but if both teams show up to the game undefeated it is hard to see the ACC Championship game rematch between two ranked teams not rating a primetime television slot on a major network. If that is the case a night game at Lane Stadium presents the best atmosphere for the Hokies to potentially upset Clemson. If both defenses show up to play this game will likely come down to which offense develops faster. Coach Swinney has a machine churning out offensive capability at this point. Clemson is starting to be reminiscent of Alabama, in that it doesn’t matter when they graduate starters because they are so deep at every position.

I do think the Hokies have the potential to win this match, but they must be flawless and their offensive line will have to play above expectations. Virginia Tech must, not only win the turnover battle, but limit their turnovers period, if they want a shot at winning this game. Clemson probably needs to make mistakes and the Hokies must take advantage of those mistakes, or victory will be out of reach. Coach Fuente will have the Hokies ready to play, but a lot will need to line up for them to beat Clemson.

@ Boston College Eagles: Last season head coach Steve Addazio was on the hottest of seats at mid-season. In 2015 the Eagles failed to win a single conference game. They rectified that deficiency in 2016 by defeating N.C. State and Wake Forest. Although they went 2-6 in the ACC they got to six wins by beating up on some FCS and lower tiered FBS squads. BC sent a much stronger message during the post season when they defeated Maryland in the Quick Lane Bowl. Last season the Boston College matchup was something of a statement game for the Virginia Tech Hokies. After a disappointing loss to Tennessee, in front of the largest crowd in college football history, VT showed up and shut the Eagles out, 49-0, which was the first of three consecutive double digit victories.

The Eagles have 15 returning starters and boast one of the more experienced squads in the ACC. Expect their defense to be strong, but they will struggle on offense. Most Hokies will be familiar with Scot Loeffler, the much-maligned OC during Coach Beamer’s final seasons at VT. He now fills the same position for BC and has been largely regarded as a significant improvement for the beleaguered Eagles offense. Even then the Eagles offense ranked 124 out of 128 FBS teams. Expect the Eagles to continue improving on offense, but still struggle to put points on the board.

Currently the ceiling for the Eagles is a second-tier Atlantic squad. Gone are the days of Matt Ryan driving down the field, in the closing minutes of the second half, to defeat the Hokies. The only reason this game will be disconcerting is because it follows what will be an emotional and tough Clemson match up. There is potential for a hangover game if there is a loss to the Tigers or a let-down game if there is a win. Last season Coach Fuente showed a fantastic ability to keep the squad focused every week, regardless of the events of the previous game. The Hokies should have little trouble with a BC offense that simply won’t be able to compete with the VT defense. Hokies win.

North Carolina Tar Heels: In my final ACC Rankings of 2016 I stated that the star of UNC is fading. Nothing has occurred during the off-season for that assertion to change. The UNC offense of 2017 will look nothing like it did in 2016. The biggest change is the marked absence of starting QB Mitchell Trubisky who was drafted No. 2 overall by the Chicago Bears (a bold move in my opinion). The QB position is not the only loss felt by the offense. The running and passing attack will feature completely different and inexperienced players. The only skill position with any reasonable experience on the field is provided by senior WR Austin Proehl who had 597 yards and three TDs in 2016. His best game came against the worst DB unit in the ACC (Pitt) where he seven receptions for 99 yards and one TD. Against the Hokies he was held to one catch for seven yards. The offensive performance is likely hinges on the performance of transfer student-athletes. The defense is in a better state than the offense, but it has its own obstacles to face with the retirement of defensive coordinator Gene Chizik. Even with the coaching shift the defense will likely be the strength of this team.

The secondary features senior CB M.J. Stewart one of the best DBs in the ACC and there are returning starters on the DL, LB, and DB corps. Last year the match up against the Tar Heels was another statement game. Colloquially referred to as the Hurricane bowl, the Hokies dominated UNC, 34-3, during driving rain from Hurricane Matthew, immediately after the Heels upset then No. 12 FSU in Tallahassee, all but ending the Seminoles’ playoff hopes. Lase season UNC’s strength was the offense, and this year it is a shell of its 2016 effort. The Hokies host the Tar Heels and should also win this game.

Duke Blue Devils: Last year the Blue Devils were plagued by an incredible amount of injuries. Duke has an offensive and quarterback guru in head coach David Cutcliffe. Sophomore Daniel Jones was a bright spot at QB, and I expect that the Blue Devils will be much more potent on offense. Cutcliffe is a fantastic coach and an offensive genius. When remotely healthy, which they were not last year, Duke tends to play well above what is seen on paper. Duke will also face the Hokies in Blacksburg and should represent another Hokie win.

@ No. 18 Miami-Florida Hurricanes: After Clemson this is the hardest game for the Hokies in the 2017 regular season. Looking at VT’s and Miami’s schedules this game will likely determine who will represent the Coastal Division in the ACC Championship game. The Hokies rolled Clemson from the Atlantic. Miami dodged that bullet but must play FSU in week three. Honestly, I think the Hokies have a better chance to win hosting Clemson than Miami does traveling to Florida State. The problem with this game is that it is quite the tie-breaker. The last few years the ACC Coastal has been a dog-fight between several teams through the waning weeks of the season. I do not believe this will be the case in 2017. The way I read the tea leaves indicates that, while there are teams that could take advantage if VT and Miami stumble, the Hokies and Hurricanes will rapidly rise to the top of the Coastal. Even if the Hokies show up to this game undefeated and Miami is carrying a loss to the Seminoles, if the Hurricanes beat the Hokies they will own a heads-up tiebreaker against VPI. More likely the Hokies and ‘Canes meet as single loss teams. This might not be the hardest game of their regular season, but this will be the most important game of the regular season for both squads. You can be sure that both teams have October 20th circled on their calendars.

The parallels between the Hokies and the Hurricanes are irritatingly similar. Both have second-year coaches and both lost their starting QBs. Both squads have one of the best defenses, not only in the ACC, but all the FBS. Both teams face their toughest game early in the season, so they can recover from an early loss. The answer for both the Hokies and Hurricanes rests significantly on how their offenses develop.

Miami has 15 starters returning, but as was stated above, there are some key holes in the offense. As far as individual units are concerned there seems to be more hope in what Miami has on offense. Phil Steele lists the Hurricanes with the No. 36 RB unit, the No. 22 WR unit, and the No. 14 OL. Interestingly Athlon doesn’t list any Miami units in the top 25. According to Steel the ‘Canes have edge on defense, but not everywhere. Steele lists the Miami DL at No. 4 (Hokies No. 26), LBs at No. 7 (Hokies No. 9), and DBs No. 31 (Hokies No. 3). Steele has Miami’s special teams at No. 15 and the Hokies just under at No. 18. Athlon ranks the Miami DL at No. 6 (VT No. 18) and LBs at No. 11 (VT No. 4).

This game is problematic for the Hokies. Right now, on paper, it seems like Miami has an edge. There are individual Hokie units that are better than Miami, but taken as an aggregate it seems as if Miami has more. Coach Fuente performed well in most big games this past season, but Coach Richt spent 14 years in the SEC in a highly pressurized situation. Richt won two SEC championships with the Georgia Bulldogs. Fuente is certainly one of the up and coming young coaches but coach Richt is experienced in the most competitive conference in college football, and arguably the most competitive and visible conference in all collegiate athletics.

Last year the Hokies dominated the Hurricanes in Blacksburg. VT showed they can beat Miami when they bring their best to the field. Many sports pundits believe that if Kaaya had stayed at Miami they would’ve started the season ranked in the top ten. Miami started last season 4-0 and then dropped 4 straight. Of the four games they lost three were determined by a single score or less, except for one – the game against the Virginia Tech Hokies. VT won 37-16. Much of the expectations of the 2017 season, for Miami, is based on potential and their dominating win over the then No. 16 WVU Mountaineers during the Russell Athletic Bowl. Since the end of the annual competition for the Black Diamond Trophy and the Hokies ownership of the Commonwealth Cup, Virginia Tech has been hungry for a rival. After joining the ACC only Miami has consistently provided a semblance of rivalry. This will be the ninth game of the season. At that point in the season the teams will be as good as they are going to be. If the Hokies develop and the offense steps up and the defense lives up to expectations this can be a victory for the Hokies. If they don’t, this game will be painful, because Miami will show up. Right now, ESPN’s match up predictor has the Hurricanes with a 76% chance to win. To put that in perspective ESPN’s match up predictor has Clemson with a 74.1% chance to win. Right now, in this moment, ESPN believes that the No. 5 team has less of a chance to win than Miami. This game will determine the Coastal. Can the Hokies win? Yes. But, right now the Hurricanes are in a better position to win, especially because it is going to be played in Coral Gables.

@ Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets: At the end of 2015 I predicted that Paul Johnson and the Jackets would return to form after the aberrant 2015 season. That proved to be true in 2016 when GT finished 9-3 in the regular season and defeated in state SEC rival Georgia. The Hokies lost to two ACC teams in the regular season. They lost to the 4-8 Syracuse Orange (2-6 ACC) and the 9-3 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (4-4 ACC). Worse, the Hokies lost to GT’s second string QB. VT was absolutely gouged in the rushing game. GT laid 309 yards down on the ground, only completed two whole passes… TWO… and still beat the Hokies… IN BLACKSBURG! On top of that the VPI offense was sloppy, losing four turnovers, while GT only turned the ball over once. Sloppy losses like this are what concerns me the most about VT. The Yellow Jackets defense should be stout. The entire secondary of GT is comprised of returning starters. The DL and LB corps both have leaders and starters returning. Since joining the ACC the Hokies have oscillated between success and failure against Johnson’s triple option. Barring significant injury, the 2017 Hokie defensive effort will be armed to find success. The offense cannot be sloppy with the ball. It is unrealistic to expect victory with four turnovers, and such actions puts undue pressure on the defense. After Miami, I see GT as the most dangerous team the Hokies must face in the Coastal. VT is equipped to win this game, but every year the Hokies show a penchant to lose match ups they should win. This game represents one of those matches to me. Over the last five years the Hokies and Jackets have consistently traded losses. This year it is supposed to be VT’s turn to win. They should win, but they should’ve won last year too.

Pittsburgh Panthers: Until the Panthers can answer the mail with, at least, an average defense it doesn’t matter what their offense does. Syracuse and Pittsburgh set the FBS record for yards in a game at the end of the 2016 season when Pitt won, 76-61. Both teams combined for 1,312 offensive yards. There are squads where that is half their season’s offensive output. Last year the Panthers were the only Power-5 team to score 28+ points in every game. Last year Pitt defeated the ACC and national champions (Clemson) and the Big-10 champions (PSU). The Panthers’ offense was fantastic last year, but two critical pieces are gone. QB Peterman and RB James Conner are off to the NFL while most of the receiving corps and offensive line return. There are serious questions on the d-line while the secondary and LB look like it may improve, which isn’t saying much since they were second to last in pass defense. The Hokies ended up in something of a shootout with Pitt last year. Peterman threw for 406 yards, but he is gone. Conner slashed the Hokies for 141 yards and three TDs, but he is gone.

Former Pittsburg OC, Jim Chaney, left to fill the same role at UGA under Kirby Smart in 2015. Last year the new OC, Matt Canada, left Pitt for LSU. They are now on their third OC in the same amount of years, and the new OC doesn’t have Conner or Peterman. The biggest threats to VT are gone. Pitt was a very close game last year and Pitt was my “almost” team last year after what they showed against PSU and Clemson. 2017 is a different story. I expect the Hokies to handle Pitt much more definitively this season.

@ Virginia Cavaliers: This past July Bronco Mendenhall admitted that the situation in Charlottesville is worse than he realized, and that it will likely take several years of rebuilding to set things straight. Last year was something of an embarrassment for our friends down I-81. The Hoos managed two wins and barely avoided being completely defeated, in the ACC, with a singular win over Duke. Mendenhall has an established trend of success at BYU and the 2017 schedule is much friendlier than 2016 or 2015. UVA has been absolutely steamrolled by the Hokies in recruitment and losses to FCS teams like Richmond simply cannot become the norm if Bronco hopes to instill a culture of winning which might inspire potential recruits. The reality is that the Hoos have a mentality issue, which may be fixed this season, and a talent issue which won’t be answered this season. I believe the Cavaliers will improve this year and might be an outside bowl game contender if they can pull an upset or two. The Hokies will likely spit-roast UVA, like they did last year, win their 14th straight against the in-state rivals, and retain the Commonwealth Cup for another year. BUT, rivalry games are always dangerous and this away match could sneak up on the Hokies, especially if UVA shows up with some momentum or something (like a bowl berth) to fight for.

Based on things I have researched, read, and what my gut says I believe the Hokies will do relatively well. Coach Fuente is still reliant on recruits from before his time, particularly on offense. I do believe the Hokie faithful will need to temper their expectations for 2017. It will still be another year or two until Fuente truly has a team that he groomed and recruited from the ground up. Last year showed that, even with an influx of new coaching leadership, the Hokies are still susceptible to losing games they should win (Syracuse and GT). To be fair, the ability of the team to face and overcome adversity increased substantially later in the season (Notre Dame and Arkansas).

2017 is a tough season to gauge. There are only three matches the Hokies should be at risk to lose (WVU, Clemson, and Miami). One could make an argument for GT, but all four are games they can potentially win. Last year the Hokies won the Coastal and made a mighty showing in the ACC Championship game against the eventual national champions. In 2017 VT certainly has the potential to improve over 2016, but much of that revolves on whether or not the Hokie offense can pace what could be a top ten defense in the FBS. Until I see otherwise, during the season, I feel it appropriate to keep my expectations conservative. I think the Hokies are moving in the correct direction, but that improvement might be masked this year with a slight step back compared to 2016.

I anticipate VT to drop the games against Clemson and Miami. I think the Hokies stay within the Top 25 ranking mix all season. Regarding the regular season the Hokies end up losing at least one game they should win (possibly two), and finish the regular season at 9-3 or 8-4. Unfortunately I think VT will ultimately miss a consecutive appearance in the ACC Championship. The Hokies likely end up back at the Belk Bowl or head to the Russell Athletic Bowl against second-tier SEC foes. VPI will earn a nine or ten-win season and a final ranking in the mid-teens. Without surprise performances by the stake-holders on offense I feel like the ceiling of the 2017 squad is similar to that of the 2016 squad.

What are your thoughts on the 2017 season? Let us know in the comments!

Go Hokies!!!