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Hokie Football in Transition: Dealing with Talent, Winning, and Merger Attractiveness

So, we zigged to the status of the ACC, and now we zag back to how Virginia Tech fits in. We’ve seen some recruiting happiness, but that’s 2025 stuff. We have to do better, now, not then. Merger madness is proceeding, and poor quality will get Tech left out. What to do, kiddies? What to do? GO HOKIES!!!

Game Day in 2023 must be better than in 2022.
John Schneider - SB Nation

We looked at the first two issues within the program, Fixing the Coaching and Fixing the Offense. After a quick trip into the ACC’s unknown future, it’s time to go back to the Hokies and see how that fits in, and what sort of leverage the program will have given the realities of the re-alignments underway.

The Updated Talent Equation – NIL Looms

It’s a given that a healthy winning program with a solid recruiting conveyor and a competitive edge will be more attractive in a merger or conference jump situation, than something that looks like a low audience draw cupcake. The quest for talent is never ending and has now been complicated further by a new variable in the equation, Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) player payments.

Let’s revisit the Talent formula from the Twilight series of the Summer of 2020. The pre-NIL formula for a program’s Talent attractiveness was: (Money+Prestige) NFL Draft potential=Talent. Well, there has to be a way to figure in NIL money going to specific players the trick is where does that fit in when trying to attract the higher levels of talent from either the portal or high school. We do account for Money, which is the wealth of the entire program, and Prestige which is the history/winning thing, but figuring in the individual player’s NIL compensation is difficult, and frankly will probably trump the remainder of the equation if the coin is large enough. For now, because the NIL factor could be big enough to make it a multiplicative like NFL Draft Potential. So, we’ll modify the formula according to that pattern and make it look like some ominous Algebra 2 quadratic equation from the distant past.

The new formula will be: (Money+Prestige) (NIL+NFL Draft Potential) = Talent

There is no point in flip flopping variables around looking for the simplified equation, we’ll just stick to the factors.

The reality for the non-math minded is that NIL is going to drive much of the best talent to programs that have or can arrange the best NIL deals. To say otherwise is casting offerings to the gods of sports into a hurricane. It’s all about the Benjamin’s in this one, and the 4- and especially 5-star talent is going to go make money. Even in high school there are kids being offered NIL consideration. The Virginia High School League has had to formulate a policy regarding the practice.

What’s the upshot of the parade through the professionalization of college athletics, in particular football (and to a lesser extent basketball)? The chase is a self-reinforcing feedback loop that moves in the direction of the talent flow.

If you aren’t in a Tier 1 league, you won’t be pulling in Tier 1 money, endorsements, and prestige. However, operating in a Tier 1 league in a way that provides the maximization of that formula requires the Talent (both coaching and player) to keep the self-reinforcing feedback loop moving in a positive direction. The vector can very rapidly turn negative, but frankly just may not regain positive momentum for an extended and unknown period. One need look no further than programs like Stanford, Texas, Texas A&M, Auburn, Michigan, USC-Trojans, UCLA, etc. They have all bubbled up over the last several generations, made huge splashes and then faded into mediocrity. Michigan made a run at the B1G a couple of times recently. But none of the rest have really managed to return to some level of consistent championship potential. Maybe Oregon is on the bubble, here, but there are very few teams that have consistently remained in the top 10 to 15 programs for extended periods. Even Notre Dame had its struggles and hasn’t really won much of anything lately.

How does this fit in with the Hokies?

The 2023 season has pretty much been written off for the Hokies by many fans and many sports analysts, too. Last season’s dismal performance, and only nominal changes in the roster quality for 2023 has pushed the needle on the Win Meter from poor to par. Most of the analysis that has been observed has the Hokies pushing a 6 and 6 record as a probability with some optimistic notes, it’s a 7 and 5, and with some ill winds 5 and 7. Anything exceeding that 7-5 ceiling would be pure gravy for Whit Babcock and Brent Pry. Babcock has taken a huge chance on Pry and given some recruiting successes things are looking better. Of course, such as they are in a world where commitments are not bidirectional, and the Talent is never guaranteed. Coach Pry continually mentions the need to re-recruit his own players every season.

And that’s the kernel of truth that this article seeks to address. How does a Twilight program, like Virginia Tech, maintain the talent level necessary to compete in the upper tier of college football if it cannot guarantee that recruited talent will stay committed, or with the program in the long run?

The sad truth is that no one can count on any of the 4-Star commitments who have just been announced for the 2024 recruiting run. Some of the better 3-Star talent might be lured away as their senior football camps and campaigns attract attention from richer more prestigious programs with better NIL deals available. Honestly, the concept of college athletic departments trying to keep up with this “business model” is nearly insane. That means most teams will stay in permanent transition mode. With eligibility limitations, there has always been a churn, but that’s gone from the slow roll to the washer on the high spin cycle.

What It’s Going to Take to Win – Anything in the Next Two?

What does that mean for 2023 and 2024 as the Hokies line up to either find new conference digs, or “sweeting-up” the ACC up enough to convert it from a low-end Power 5 conference to a player in the Tier 1 merger game? Before the possible answer, the base truth is absolute – Tech needs to find a way to win in the next two seasons, with what they have and can get from the portal. Recent recruiting wins are things of the distant future.

The 2023 reality is that Virginia Tech is a 3-star program. Some of the players are solid 3’s, and even bump up to 4-star grade potential (Jennings, Tuten, and Holloway come to mind immediately) but by and large the entire roster is a range of three-star talents. And that is a serious problem, because the successful programs have 4-star talent behind center, and on the offensive line, especially the outside. They also have a couple of matching level receivers, and a running back who is pushing a four grade. The Hokies have the receivers and running back who might push up to that level, but the quarterback situation still languishes in the “above average to average” category at best. The offensive line talent is good enough for some things, but until the season starts and there is demonstrated progress made, it’s still graded out as a barely average unit.

The potential for 2024 is a bit better, IF the players stay on course, and no one bolts for greener pastures. The problem there is that by 2024 the ACC pressure cooker is set to start losing parts. That game is played at a much higher level with high powered attorneys, contract arbitrators, judges, and even legislators getting heavier action that the players and coaches on the field.

Sweetening the Merger Stew Pot

How, with two years of mid-grade talent and a few modest standouts, is Virginia Tech going to win enough games to get themselves on the positive side of the decision bubble as college football realigns and reorganizes?

The short answer is defensive consistency and offensive audacity. Most coaches are like freight trains barreling down the tracks headed in a direction, their direction. Unfortunately, that tracked attitude usually ends up in a short career or so much job hopping that their families think that a big RV would be a better more stable home. Coaches too often approach the problem of game planning and execution on hammering their talent on-hand, into their pet systems. The results are usually pretty poor, and the programs suffer long term effects of that talent chase that we were talking about.

The coaching staff that successfully navigates the transition is a rare bird. Few fans have the patience to allow several recruiting cycles to find the talent appropriate to plug into the ‘system.’ If the system is not particularly pro-worthy, or prestigious, the talent that is recruited will not remain long. The big-time winning programs like Ohio State and Alabama don’t have the top end turnover that the lower prestige programs have. So most coaching staffs run into the “cream of the crap vs. crap of the cream” problem as they work the churn to try to fit the available talent into their systems.

Folks, they’ll never learn (h/t Spanky McFarlane). It’s a guaranteed recipe for failure. There’s a whole lot of happy talk, boosterism, and big promises (funny how the bigger the talk, the less the success seems to rule, here). The upshot is that the Twilight program coaching staffs rarely find all of the talent that they really need to fit into their ‘systems.’ Eventually, the prestige drops off, the media money and gate wanes, and then the NIL evaporates. Leaving a whole lot of small numbers in the variables of the Talent equation. The self-reinforcing feedback loop turns negative quickly, and the staff is out the door in less than a few seasons.

Fixing that cycle, here at Virginia Tech, is going to take something that few coaches actually have. Tactical Chutzpah… Audacity… Innovation… are all in short supply for most programs and the Hokies need to avoid that problem.

L’audace! L’audace! Toujours L’audace!

It is time for the Hokie coaches to throw the proverbial grenade in the pet ‘system’ woodpile and adapt their strategy and tactics to the personnel actually on hand, not what the coaches dream of having. The Hokies do not have a 4+ or 5-star quarterback, so the offense needs to maximize the talent that they do have and minimize the flaws. That goes for both play calling and game planning. Simple things can make a huge difference. For example: Pass and pass often.

Some Suggestions on Doing Something That Actually Might Work

  • If you aren’t successful running the ball run an intermediate high percentage passing game that concentrates on getting positive yardage in excess of 4-5 yards. Covering that, will open up the running game. Develop and hammer home a 3-second passing offense.
  • Ditch the complex overlapping flip-floppery, stopping and staring sideways at the line of scrimmage, and start running called plays with the quarterbacks handling the audibles. Quit reacting to the supposed defense. Dictate to the defense, make it react to you.
  • Go back to a one read and go. Go fast, no stopping. Just go and go fast… don’t run anything that gets you less than the yardage you need on that down, to move the sticks. If you need 10, run a play that gets you 12. If you need three, run one that gets you 5.
  • Don’t get trapped in a calling two dud run plays, 3rd down must-pass offense. Even third and less than 3 is a serious problem when your offensive line can’t drive block, and your running game is based on a sprint draw. It’s too slow.
  • Don’t throw useless passes on first down. Do throw on first down but use plays with high percentage downfield targets under the zone and in the seams.
  • Don’t worry about man-on coverage. There is too much talent in defense to play those games anymore. Challenge the defense to cover the gaps in the zones by making that your primary attack vector, not heaving prayer balls down field on low percentage shots that waste opportunities. Deep balls are for 2nd and very short. Use your statistical gurus to figure out your highest percentage patterns and run the hell out of them.
  • GO DOWNFIELD! Passes at or behind the line of scrimmage usually end up dying behind or at the line of scrimmage.
  • Stop believing that you can’t do it because somebody who probably wants you to buy into their propaganda, says so. Even if you have ‘only’ 3-Star players, the differences between them and 4-Star guys are often observations from camps, special notice, and glad handing. The marginal differences between above-average, and above above-average players are often small. Put your players in a position to succeed by calling games that they can perform well, not pushing pet theories or wishes.
  • Above all, ditch the pedestrian game plans, learn to open up, and fly. Be audacious. Be intelligent about it, but never lose the initiative. If you get the defense rocked back on its collective heels, shove them harder. Don’t follow up a brilliant 30-yard seam route, with a stupid tragic 1-yard dive play after sideline audibles burn up the play clock.
  • How about doing something too few offensive coaches with their big paychecks and egos on the line do, anymore? Trust your players! Teach them to think and to actively participate in the game. Listen to them, they know what’s happening play to play on the field and you don’t.

Options are Better When You’re Better

Remember that to end up as a viable team in the new college football organizations that are evolving rapidly, Virginia Tech must win, this season. It must win with what talent is available right now, not in the future, because the future is going to be a totally different reality.

What Tech is looking for in the W/L column is not a championship, just yet. It’s a chance at playing for a championship in the future. Right now, with the talent on hand, a winning season and a booger bowl that can be won is a solid performance. Not just for the fans, but for the prestige of the program. You remember that formula for Talent? Well, it’s also pretty close to what it will take to get picked up by one of the super conferences forming for 2025 and beyond. The better Virginia Tech’s plug-in values for that equation are at the end of this season and next, the better position Tech will be in for whatever moves will be made in the conference re-alignments.

Taking a Gauge of Things


Hey, those are the facts on the Table. How do you see them playing out?

This poll is closed

  • 13%
    2023 and 2024 (maybe ‘24 gets a bit better) are looking like par mediocrity for two seasons that the team needs to shine. The talent level in key positions is just not there, and Tech might very well get left out of a Tier 1 move.
    (32 votes)
  • 29%
    The team will improve, but it’s the money, NIL, and media shares that the Tier 1 leagues will be looking for. Winning improves that somewhat, but two years just isn’t going to make a difference. A Tier 2 merged ACC awaits.
    (68 votes)
  • 26%
    It’s all out of Tech’s hands. This is happening far beyond the "Magnificent 7" level and is going to be negotiated in board and court rooms. Tech ending up in a Tier 1 Super Conference, or a Tier 2 league is out of their hands when it gets to that point.
    (63 votes)
  • 30%
    I stopped caring when the portal and NIL polluted the stream. I’ll just root for the Hokies because they’re my team and I just don’t expect too much of anything, anymore. It’s all to jaded and jacked around for me to feel excited.
    (71 votes)
234 votes total Vote Now

Next up, we talk about the ACC Scheduling Madness, is it the “Odd Angry Shot” of the final gasp, or a legitimate chance at rebirth at some level – probably Tier 2 for most programs?