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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 8: Virginia Tech

Step one: play good defense. Step two: don’t turn the ball over. Step three: run the ball effectively. Step four: dictate the tempo on special teams. Rinse, lather, repeat. It’s a simple formula — the Shredded Wheat of football philosophy — yet Virginia Tech is one of only a handful of programs that actually dedicates itself to the simple things, because it’s the simple things that win football games. And win, and win and win, to the tune of seven straight double-digit win seasons, three B.C.S. bowls since 2007 and annual national title contention. If it’s so simple, why can’t others do the same? There’s your big question, and I don’t have an answer. But coaches across the land, at all levels, would be wise to pop in a tape of Virginia Tech at work to see how it’s done. Few, if any, do the little things better.

Conference
Atlantic Coast, Coastal

Location
Blacksburg, Va.

Nickname
Hokies

Returning starters
12 (6 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 7

2010 record
(11-3, 8-0)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 15

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    Appalachian St.
  • Sept. 10
    at E.C.U.
  • Sept. 17
    Arkansas St.
  • Sept. 24
    at Marshall
  • Oct. 1
    Clemson
  • Oct. 8
    Miami (Fla.)
  • Oct. 15
    at Wake Forest
  • Oct. 22
    Boston College
  • Oct. 29
    at Duke
  • Nov. 10
    at Georgia Tech
  • Nov. 17
    North Carolina
  • Nov. 26
    at Virginia

Last year’s prediction

After being wrong in 2009, taking the Hokies over Georgia Tech, I feel secure in proclaiming Virginia Tech the best team in a very, very deep Coastal division. It stands to reason that the best team in the Coastal is the best team in the conference as a whole, right? My confidence stems from the simple idea that the Hokies enter 2010 with the offense as the undisputed strength; in my mind, there’s nothing to worry about on defense. Expecting any less would be expecting a generation-long trend to end, which while gutsy would eventually be proved illogical. The Hokies are ready to roll, beginning with their big-time tussle with Boise State on Sept. 6. Do I think Virginia Tech will finish undefeated? No, I don’t. I think they’ll lose one A.C.C. game against a Coastal opponent; I’m also leaning towards the Broncos in the season opener. This remains a top 10 team in my mind, a B.C.S. bowl participant and a dark horse, with this schedule, in the national title race.

2010 recap

In a nutshell It pays to keep the faith. Those who doubted Virginia’s Tech toughness — and you know who you are — should have remembered that this team was still lead by Frank Beamer, was still quarterbacked by Tyrod Taylor, still had the pieces in the backfield to dominate and still had Bud Foster running the defense, even if that group lacked the horses of year’s past. In your defense, if you had counted the Hokies out: that 0-2 start was disappointing. Not so much the loss to Boise State, even if the Broncos didn’t end up playing for the national title, as some might have predicted; the nadir was a home loss to James Madison, even if the Hokies could be excused for having a down game one week after that late loss to the Broncos. From there, it was vintage Virginia Tech: 11 straight wins heading into bowl play, including a 44-33 decision over Florida State in the conference title game. It wasn’t the prettiest road, especially after an Orange Bowl shellacking, but the sour start only made the final result in the standings all the more sweet. Next time you doubt Virginia Tech, remember 2010: these Hokies might get knocked down, but they always, always get back up.

High point The win over Florida State. A loss in that game would have invalidated the regular season winning streak, at least to a degree.

Low point James Madison, clearly, with a 40-12 bowl loss to Stanford coming in second. There was nothing wrong with the loss to Boise State: as noted, the Broncos were a terrific team despite a November loss to Nevada.

Tidbit Virginia Tech has played in 18 straight bowl games, the third-longest active streak in the country. Only Florida State, which has played in 29 straight, and Florida, at 20 straight, hold longer bowl streaks than the Hokies. Some teams that Tech leads? How about Georgia and Georgia Tech, both at 14 years; Oklahoma at 12; L.S.U. and Ohio State at 11; Boise State and Wisconsin at nine; and Alabama at seven. If the bowl streak was a child, he or she would be entering college in the fall.

Tidbit (100-word preview edition) Today’s guest writer is loyal reader Hokieshibe, whose correct answer to a quiz in the California preview, which you can find along the right sidebar, earned him the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of his favorite team. His team? The Virginia Tech Hokies. Take it away, Hokieshibe:

Many people have VT pegged for a slide this year, understandable after graduating one of the best quarterbacks in school history. But with an improved linebacking corps, ball-hawking secondary, veteran offensive line, deep receiver corps, and a running back so fast he catches rabbits for fun (Google “David Wilson rabbit” if you don’t believe me), the new quarterback Logan Thomas doesn’t need to be Cam Newton to win — just Tee Martin. With a team loaded with veteran talent, and a navigable schedule that brings all the toughest teams to Blacksburg, there’s no reason to expect VT to not be making waves in 2011.

Tidbit (defense edition) Here’s another good one: every defensive position on the team has scored at least one touchdown since Beamer took over in 1987. That includes cornerbacks, as you’d expect, and safeties, as you’d also expect. But interior linemen have gotten in on the fun, and when those guys get in on the fun we all have fun.

Former players in the N.F.L.

35 LB Xavier Adibi (Houston), LB James Anderson (Carolina), P Brent Bowden (Jacksonville), OT Duane Brown (Houston), CB Roc Carmichael (Houston), S Kam Chancellor (Seattle), WR David Clowney (Carolina), WR Andre Davis (Houston), LB Chris Ellis (Pittsburgh), RB Darren Evans (Indianapolis), CB Brandon Flowers (Kansas City), LB Steven Friday (Houston), S Vincent Fuller (Tennessee), K Shayne Graham (Dallas), DE John Graves (Houston), S Cody Grimm (Tampa Bay), CB DeAngelo Hall (Washington), WR Justin Harper (Baltimore), CB Macho Harris (Pittsburgh), TE Jeff King (Arizona), C Will Montgomery (Washington), WR Josh Morgan (San Francisco), S Davon Morgan (New York Jets), C Jason Murphy (Baltimore), DT Carlton Powell (Atlanta), S Pierson Prioleau (New Orleans), WR Eddie Royal (Denver), TE Andre Smith (Chicago), DE Darryl Tapp (Philadelphia), QB Tyrod Taylor (Baltimore), QB Michael Vick (Philadelphia), OT Ed Wang (Buffalo), RB Ryan Williams (Arizona), LB Jason Worilds (Pittsburgh).

Arbitrary top five list

Early favorites for N.F.L. M.V.P.
1. Michael Vick, Philadelphia.
2. Tom Brady, New England.
3. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay.
4. Peyton Manning, Indianapolis.
5. Philip Rivers, San Diego.

Coaching

Frank Beamer (Virginia Tech ’69), 198-95-2 over 24 seasons with the Hokies and 240-118-4 overall after 29 seasons as a college head coach. His career mark gives him the second-most wins among active coaches on the F.B.S. level, trailing only Joe Paterno. Because of the length of time he has spent in Blacksburg – and the high level of success he has attained – most have forgotten how great a job Beamer did in building the Hokies’ program. While his predecessor, Bill Dooley, won at least six games in each of his final seven seasons, Beamer inherited a program racked by N.C.A.A. sanctions. Because of this setback, Virginia Tech was not able to get rolling until 1993, when it experienced the first of 12 seasons with at least nine victories under Beamer. From 1987-92, the Hokies went 24-40-2, which illustrates both the difficulties Beamer had building the Virginia Tech program and the foresight the university’s administration showed in retaining Beamer’s services. Virginia Tech has had no problem remaining in the upper tier of the F.B.S. once the program turned the corner. Beamer was the 1999 national coach of the year after leading the Hokies to an 11-1 record and a trip to the Sugar Bowl to play Florida State for the national title. That team, led by Michael Vick at quarterback, may have been Beamer’s best, though the 2000 (11-1) and 2005 (11-2) teams may also have claims to that title. Prior to being named the coach in 1987, Beamer spent six seasons as the coach at Murray State, where he compiled a 42-23-2 record from 1981-86. All told, Beamer has finished with a winning record in 24 of his 29 combined seasons at Virginia Tech and Murray State and has posted at least seven wins in a season 21 times and at least 10 wins in 12 of the last 17 years. One of the most respected coaches in the country, Beamer is a legend.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Gone are two longtime Frank Beamer assistants, Billy Hite and Jim Cavanaugh, both of whom moved out of coaching positions and into advisory roles in the athletic department. In is Shane Beamer, formerly of South Carolina, who will take on Hite’s running back duties while coordinating Virginia Tech’s recruiting efforts, where he’s already made a significant impact. This is a good addition, though the move drawing the most attention is quarterbacks coach Mike O’Cain’s new play-calling duties, which comes despite Beamer’s decision to retain Bryan Stinespring as offensive coordinator. Will O’Cain alter the offense in any way — make the offense less predictable, perhaps? That would be a start, and might even make him an immediate improvement over Stinespring, who was maligned for his lack of offensive ingenuity.

Players to watch

The injuries along the offensive line are a bit of a concern. One setback was expected: after offseason shoulder surgery, it was known that left guard Greg Nosal wouldn’t be at 100 percent by the time Virginia Tech took the field in August. After starting all 14 games last fall – and playing very well – Nosal is a much-needed presence along the interior of the line. The second injury was a surprise: all-conference right tackle Blake DeChristopher, who is entering his fourth year in the starting lineup, strained a pectoral muscle in early August and will miss at least a month, which places some strain on the offensive line.

Nosal will be there when the year opens, if not back to full capacity until the middle of the opening month, and DeChristopher shouldn’t be out past September. When both return, they’ll team with another pair of returning starters, senior left tackle Andrew Lanier and right guard Jaymes Brooks, to give Tech a very solid starting offensive line. The lone new face is sophomore center Andrew Miller, who will benefit greatly from being flanked by Nosal and Brooks, the latter a second-team all-conference pick a year ago. There’s solid depth, thanks to linemen like David Wang, Nick Becton and Courtney Prince, which should help the Hokies bridge the gap in the early going while Nosal and DeChristopher get back to speed.

The line will be protecting a new quarterback. Replacing the sublime Tyrod Taylor is sophomore Logan Thomas, who, like Taylor, is a gifted athlete with dual-threat ability. Thomas also has the size to fill a variety of roles, as he did a year ago: passing quarterback, running quarterback, even tight end, all ways to get the gifted sophomore on the field. Is any other quarterback under a brighter spotlight? You could say Tyler Wilson at Arkansas or Barrett Trotter at Auburn, but like that pair – and others – Thomas is a young, relatively unproven quarterback entering a pressure-field situation.

Last fall, Thomas hit on 12 of 26 attempts for 107 yards while adding 22 yards on the ground, all in garbage time. But don’t underestimate the importance of having served behind Taylor for the last two years, as a true and redshirt freshman, as Thomas certainly took a thing or two from his apprenticeship. How will Thomas do? That he won’t have to look over his shoulder will help, in my opinion. He had a very nice spring, extinguishing any thoughts that he wasn’t ready for this opportunity. And Thomas has the size, athleticism and ability to take this offense to another level – that sounds sacrilegious, but there’s no doubting his potential. It’s going to be an exciting transition.

The Hokies always have running backs coming out of the woodwork, from down the street, a state away, across the country and at all points in between. Even when losing a pair of former 1,000-yard backs to the next level, Tech has no issues in the backfield. Assuming a full-time starting role is junior David Wilson (619 yards and 5 scores), who has served as a change-of-pace option behind Darren Evans and Ryan Williams – both gone – over the last two years. How quick is Wilson? He’s been known to chase down wild animals, if that means anything. Here’s something that stands out: he scored five touchdowns on the ground, four through the air and two on returns last fall. So he’s a big-play threat, a clear all-conference pick and, perhaps, an all-American. Wilson is a star in the making. He’ll get help from senior Josh Oglesby, who should do some of the dirty work after bouncing between running back and fullback over the last two years. Also in the mix is sophomore Tony Gregory, if his knee allows it.

The receiver corps is paced by senior Jarrett Boykin (53 catches for 847 yards and 6 scores), who enters his final season four receptions shy of the program record. After developing a wonderful rapport with Taylor, Boykin needs to do the same with his fresh-faced sophomore replacement. Boykin is one of the nation’s premier big-play threats at receiver: he’s averaged 17.3 yards per his 122 career receptions, the third-highest mark among A.C.C. receivers with at least 30 career grabs. Rounding out the top group are seniors Danny Cole (39 for 732) and Dyrell Roberts (21 for 303), the latter healthy after missing the last five games of 2010 due to injury. Look for an increased role from junior Marcus Davis (19 for 239), who has the sort of size not seen elsewhere at the position. The Hokies moved starting defensive end Chris Drager back to tight end, where he started his career, as a replacement for Andre Smith.

Lock it in: Tech is going to get it done defensively. Going out on a limb? Not even close. All the Hokies do every year is follow defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s lead, playing tough, physical defense along the front seven; getting to the quarterback; forcing turnovers; and, more often than not, making the opposition work hard for every yard. Last year’s defense faltered at times, giving up yards and points in bunches over the last two games, but even with a few losses look for the Hokies to return to the upper echelon of the F.B.S. defensively in 2011.

All great defenses are solid in the secondary, and the Hokies are no exception. Leading the way is all-American cornerback Jayron Hosley, a junior, who led the nation with nine interceptions in 2010. Just add Hosley’s name to the program’s recent line of heralded cornerbacks; in fact, when all is said and done you might find Hosley’s name above them all, which would be the ultimate testament to his talent and production. They don’t come much better than the junior, if they come better at all.

Hosley will be joined at cornerback by sophomore Kyle Fuller (32 tackles), a six-game starter as a true freshman. Fuller needs to be cognizant of the fact that opposing quarterbacks are going to look his way all season – he needs to embrace that challenge, as well as shake off the inevitable setbacks that come with such increased attention. Fuller has talent, but he’s going to get picked on in 2011. Senior Cris Hill brings some experience to the table at cornerback, but he’s been unable to turn his abilities into a meaningful role. For now, he and redshirt freshman Detrick Bonner are battling to be the first cornerback off the bench.

One of the nicest surprises in last year’s secondary was senior Eddie Whitley (80 tackles, 2 interceptions), who stepped into the starting lineup at free safety and helped provide leadership and production for the nation’s 15th-best pass defense. More will be expected from Whitley in 2011. The same could be said of sophomore rover Antone Exum, who was a question mark heading into last season but fared relatively well, minus a few youthful errors. Exum has shown a nose for the football, but he’ll need to become more physical as he prepares for the challenge of replacing Davon Morgan.

Two starters are back at linebacker. Looking for an A.C.C. defender ready to take the next step? After earning second-team all-conference honors last fall, inside linebacker Bruce Taylor (91 tackles, 15.5 for loss, 6 sacks) is primed for a run towards even loftier end-of-year recognition as a junior. In short, Taylor fits the bill of what Foster wants at linebacker to the letter: big, strong, fast, agile and mean with a nose for the ball, Taylor was built to flourish in this system. He’s joined by returning starter Jeron Gouveia-Winslow (41 tackles, 2 interceptions) at whip linebacker, though he’ll need to step up his game to fend off special teams ace Alonzo Tweedy. Rounding out the starting trio is sophomore Tariq Edwards, who staked his claimed to a substantial role with a strong spring.

Position battle(s) to watch

Defensive line Hopkins’ abound inside, as returning starter Antoine (45 tackles, 6.5 for loss) is joined by his younger brother, Derrick, to form a very promising interior pairing. Antoine, a junior, had a strong debut campaign in the starting lineup; Derrick was one of only two true freshmen to earn snaps last fall, which speaks to his potential impact as a full-time starter. The operative word throughout this defensive front is potential, not just inside but also at end. It’s not a stretch to say that sophomores James Gayle (13 tackles, 4 sacks) and J.R. Collins (25 tackles, 5 sacks) have all-A.C.C. potential despite serving in reserve opportunities last fall. Both impressed, to put it lightly, and after learning under lost starters Steven Friday and Chris Drager — the latter to tight end, as noted — are more than ready to assume starting roles. That’s your starting quartet, and it’s a very, very promising group. So, the lone concern: no national title contender is so young up front. There’s only one senior to be found on the depth chart, tackle Kwamaine Battle, but his availability is in question after last season’s A.C.L. tear. There are juniors – Antoine Hopkins, most notably – but Hopkins and Dwight Tucker look like the only pair in line for snaps. It’s a youth movement, but one keyed by youngsters with immense talent and a solid amount of experience. I think everything is going to be fine, it not better than fine should Gayle and Collins play up to their potential. But look for a few true freshmen to get into the mix, as the Hokies added six such additions along the line in February. Above all else, keep an eye on Gayle. He’s going to be outstanding.

Game(s) to watch

Well, let’s see. Still looking. Still looking. Can’t find much. This isn’t much of a schedule in terms of marquee events, to be honest, though the schedule doesn’t include a preordained rematch with Florida State in the A.C.C. title game. Until then, keep an eye on how Miami (Fla.) fares despite the off-field imbroglio, as the Hurricanes have the talent to hang with the Hokies. Also of note: Clemson, North Carolina and at Virginia, as the Cavaliers have to beat Tech at some point. Right?

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell The Hokies are going to hit snooze once, twice, three times, roll out of bed, wipe the sleep out of their eyes and win 10 games. Notching a 10-2 regular season should be the absolute baseline for success when given this schedule, which is by far the easiest of any national title contender. No one team on this slate seems to have what it takes, as of today, to unseat Tech’s run towards another Coastal division title. Could Georgia Tech get it done on a specific Saturday? Of course. Could the Hurricanes, North Carolina or Clemson do the same? Of course. Yet while a few opponents could get the better of Virginia Tech on any given day, don’t be surprised if the Hokies run the table all the way to the conference championship game. Yes, 12-0. What if we take the schedule away? Could Virginia Tech be placed in the same conversation with an Alabama or Oklahoma, for example? Well, not really. Not when there’s a new quarterback under center, some injury concerns along the offensive line, rampant youth along the defensive line and a few holes to fill along the back seven. Tech doesn’t quite match up with the top three or four teams in the country. But the Hokies are very, very close. I love the system on both sides of the ball, particularly on defense. I think Thomas is going to excel, though he might stumble early. The running game is going to be strong. The defense will get to the quarterback and force turnovers, as it always does. Add those things to an easy schedule and you see why the Hokies may run the table until Florida State. I’m of mind to say the Hokies drop one along the way, but I guarantee a rematch with the Seminoles in early December.

Dream season Perfection through the regular season, a win over F.S.U. in December and a shot against an SEC opponent in the B.C.S. National Championship Game.

Nightmare season Surprisingly, given this schedule, the Hokies lose three games during the regular season.

In case you were wondering

Where do Virginia Tech fans congregate? Message board chatter can be found at Tech Sideline, VTInsider.com and Hokie Haven. The local newspapers do a great job of covering Virginia Tech football, so check out the Web sites of The Virginian-PilotThe Roanoke Times and The Richmond Times-Dispatch. Your best options, however, are The Key Play and Gobbler Country.

Word Count

Through 113 teams 358,596.

Up Next

Who is No. 7? A former coach at tomorrow’s university once coached at four different F.B.S. schools over a four-year span; his winning percentage in his season at tomorrow’s program was his worst over that four-year span.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. korsakoff says:

    Nebraska would be first guess with the coach being Fielding H. Yost who was 7-4 or 8-3 depending on the sources with the Cornhuskers.

  2. Papa John says:

    Yost also coached for one year at Stanford, where he was 7-2-1 in 1900. The next year the turncoat coached Michigan against Stanford in the first ever Rose Bowl.

    Stanford is next, methinks.

  3. korsakoff says:

    “his winning percentage in his season at tomorrow’s program was his worst over that four-year span.”

    7-4 (official NCAA record for that year) to me seems worse than 7-2-1. Even Nebraska’s own declared winning record of 8-3 is worse than 7-2-1. I’m quite sure it’s Nebraska.

  4. Ed Feng says:

    Nice job putting the Hokies’ success in perspective. Are they the most consistent team the last decade outside of Ohio State? Oh wait, Buckeyes lost their coach this offseason.

    Ed

  5. Papa John says:

    Of course, you’re right, Korsakoff. I am still blindly bitter about that first Rose Bowl game…

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