Team: Virginia Tech Hokies
2011 W-L: 11-3 (7-1)
Head Coach: Frank Beamer (209-98-2; 26th season)
Returning Starters: 12 (3 Offense, 9 Defense)
An eighth straight 10-win season is rarely a disappointment, regardless of your team or conference. Of course, you’d also assume this string was part of a larger resume of success in that time frame. If you’re Virginia Tech, this is not the case, unfortunately. Sure, they’ve collected four ACC championships, but that’s not what we remember. Instead, they’re seen as the team that’s gone 1-4 in BCS games in that stretch, and one that has a knack for losing big games. True or not, they’re now battling perception. And only a huge postseason win is going to get them a victory in that conversation.
The Virginia Tech offense will be in transition this season, but it won’t reduce the stress on junior signal-caller Logan Thomas. Over the offseason, he lost his running back to the NFL Draft, four-fifths of his offensive line and his top two wide receivers. But if his steady improvement last year is any indicator, he’s more than capable of overcoming those numerous obstacles. An imposing 6’6″ and 260 pounds, he’ll again be hard to stop as a runner, and his passing ability just continues to get better. If the revamped offensive line cooperates (never a sure thing), he’ll need to quickly develop rapports with his new primary targets. D.J. Coles has plenty of experience, and appears ready to jump into a new, expanded role in the passing game. But there’s still question marks around Dyrell Roberts. Throughout his Tech career, he’s never really “made the jump,” so to speak, so there’s questions as to whether the fifth-year senior can finally make it happen. He’ll be given plenty of chances, so it’s up to him to make it happen.
On top of the O-line and receiving questions, there’s also the glaring issue of who’s going to replace former star running back David Wilson. The frontrunner for the bulk of the carries — Michael Holmes — is only a freshman. But that said, he’s already being talked about as the latest in a long line of first-round caliber runners for the Hokies. With the team experimenting with the pistol formation, there will be ample opportunities to make a big impact, and this offense’s effectiveness must lean on his ability. As good as Thomas is, he can’t do it on his own and this young group will definitely experience some growing pains.
For the Virginia Tech defense, there are very few question marks, and as a unit, they’ll ultimately decide just how far this team goes in 2012. A quick, aggressive pass-rushing team, they not only know how to get after the quarterback, but also use pressure to create turnovers. Last year, they managed 41 sacks and 16 picks, while finishing seventh in overall scoring defense. They do not mess around, and look to be even better this season, with nine starters returning. It all starts with that quick pressure up front, with junior defensive end James Gayle, of course, leading the charge. Despite missing five games in 2011, he still managed seven sacks. With a full season to work with, he’ll be lethal, especially while working with the incomparable Bruce Taylor. Another player who missed a large chunk of time to injury last year, he was a monster in the pass-rush and all over the field, still tallying 53 tackles and five sacks. Those injuries were an underrated part of their shortcomings, and are now a big contributor to this year’s success.
The other part of the defense — as mentioned earlier — is the secondary, and how they can get after the ball, play after play. Whether it’s tipped balls or interceptions, Tech’s corners play close to the vest and rarely give receivers room to breathe. This was exploited most efficiently against Duke, especially by star DB Kyle Fuller. The junior is one of the best cover men in the business, whose success is an integral part of this team’s ability to stop the pass. And even if you avoid him, you still have to deal with his counterpart, Antone Exum. The fellow junior corner had 89 tackles last year (including 36 over the final four games) and also has the type of closing speed that gets in receivers’ heads. Want to know why this defense allowed just 49.6 percent completions on 413 attempts last year? Look no further than these two.
While they may appear to be worse-off than last year, Virginia Tech’s schedule lays out as such where they may just finish with another 10-win season. The first game against Georgia Tech will be tough, but a nice gauge of how ready this group’s offense is. Lucky for them, however, they should be favored in every matchup from that point until their October 20 date at Clemson. After two losses to the Tigers last season, they’ve now become the most important hump to get over, especially when you consider how weak the Coastal Division has been over the past seven years (Tech’s won it five times). Three weeks after Clemson, they’ll face their final test in Florida State, who may or may not be ranked among the top three-to-five teams in the country by that point. The ACC may be filled with gaudy offenses, but at the end of the day, it’ll likely come down to its two best defenses — the Seminoles and the Hokies. If Logan Thomas can guide this offense, it may end up being the difference-maker en route to a fifth ACC title.
Prediction: (11-1) (7-1); Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando