While spending my Saturday consuming adult beverages, I began having flashbacks to the last time Clemson visited Lane Stadium. That 2011 game marked the resurrection of Clemson football in my eyes, for prior to that humbling loss I had long viewed Clemson through the lens of the big man on campus.
In 2011, the Hokies were no longer on the rise; they were the bastion of conference supremacy, storming into neighboring stadiums and pillaging their way to ACC Championships. On the opposite sideline stood a supposedly resurgent Clemson, with a talented offense led by innovative coordinator Chad Morris. To me, they were still a once great program desperately clinging to the past.
I sliced my thumb open at our tailgate, which required a brief stop at Montgomery Regional Hospital for a few stitches. A few hours later, as I stood in the east stands with my right hand beneath my poncho to shield it from the rain, the lidocaine and adrenaline simultaneously wore off and gave rise to shock as I watched the tables abruptly turn.
On Saturday night, it was Virginia Tech's moment to announce their presence on a national stage. But unlike that 2011 Clemson team, the Hokies showed that they still had some distance to cover. The Tigers' talent, depth and coaching were on full display as they cruised to a 31-17 win in Blacksburg. The completeness of their win highlighted exactly how far the Hokies still need to go in order to be able to compete at such a high level.
We live in a society rooted in instant gratification. Whether it's mindlessly scrolling through your social media feeds during idle moments or fast forwarding through commercials, we've become conditioned to want information and results at our fingertips. But if there's one thing that college athletics has taught us, it's that rebuilding a program takes time (and if it happens overnight, someone is *likely* up to no good).
A successful 2016 season in Blacksburg gave way to increased expectations in Justin Fuente's second year at the helm, despite turnover and depth issues at key positions. Factoring in close to a decade of good-but-not-great recruiting, the concerns came as a surprise to no one.
Under Frank Beamer, the Hokies football program became a symbol for everything that was great about the college game. There were no bag men or divas (with the possible exception of Marcus Vick); there were only unheralded recruits sprinkled in with the occasional blue-chipper to form a true team. Blacksburg became the epicenter of blue collar football, making special teams and defense sexy along the way.
The college game has changed a lot since even the early 2000's. Highly visible investments in football programs paralleled increased exposure on the recruiting trail, giving the average fan a real time view of the state of the program. And for Frank Beamer and the Hokies, it suddenly became open season on the fertile recruiting grounds of Virginia. And that's one key area where a program like Clemson has distinguished itself from its intra-conference foe.
Since Dabo Swinney officially took over the helm in 2009, the Tigers have an average finish of 17.8 in the 247sports team rankings. Clemson has finished as high as #9 and no lower than #27 since 2010 — a class that included DeAndre Hopkins, Vic Beasley and eventual grayshirt Martavis Bryant. The Hokies, on the other hand, have finished with a 28.3 average ranking during that same span, never ranking higher than #21 (2012 & 2013). For comparison's sake, the Tigers have finished higher than #21 in each of the last seven seasons.
The identity that Virginia Tech was a place where two-star recruits could become conference champions and NFL draft picks has slowly eroded. Since the Hokies' last ACC Championship in 2010, developing the highly rated signees has been arguably just as much a struggle as the potential diamonds in the rough.
I don't mean to pin Saturday's loss entirely on recruiting. The talent disparity was well established prior to kickoff, and that's why they don't play games on paper. If there's one thing Justin Fuente's staff has quickly proven it's that they possess the ability to scheme and motivate their way to more wins than their peers. But when it comes to consistently competing against the elite programs, you're deluding yourself if you believe that coaching can consistently overcome talent. A win here or there? Absolutely. But fans and coaches alike want more than the occasional upset victory. They want sustained success and annual consideration for the College Football Playoff.
As we all know, history is littered with upset victories that proved pivotal to the rise of now-established powers; one could argue that 2011 Clemson team's consecutive victories over #21 Auburn, #11 Florida State and #11 Virginia Tech catapulted them out of football purgatory and back into the national spotlight. But that Clemson team was already talented enough to pull themselves out of the doldrums, they simply capitalized on the high profile opportunities.
Beating the Tigers on Saturday was about more than knocking off the defending National Champions. It was also about reminding the nation that Virginia Tech is still relevant. It was about educating high school kids — who know little about Tech's football pedigree — about how great an atmosphere Lane Stadium is, especially when the sun sets behind the Blue Ridge Mountains. Even in a loss, both of those goals were achieved.
That's the big picture view of last weekend's clash. Win and the hype train shakes off the rust to start chugging towards Atlanta. But let's pause for a second and remember that winning on a big stage is hardly a panacea.
Just a few seasons ago, the Hokies strolled into the Horseshoe and handed the future National Champion Ohio State Buckeyes a shocking loss. What was then viewed as a program-altering victory turned out to be little more than a pair of waterwings, giving a slowly drowning staff a false sense of security in the deep end of the pool. That Tech team went on to win only 5 out of their final 11 games, including losses to ECU, Boston College and Wake Forest.
A victory over Clemson would have been an amazing accomplishment in the moment, but hardly indicative of where this team is right now. It would have highlighted their potential but masked their flaws. Depth concerns along the defensive line, unproven playmakers at wide receiver, question marks galore at running back, a redshirt-freshman quarterback, an inconsistent place kicker...all of these areas of legitimate concern would still exist and would be difficult to consistently overcome week-after-week-after-week.
In order for the Hokies to win, they would have needed to play a near-perfect game utilizing a flawless gameplan. It didn't quite play out that way. And that's okay. I still think that this team has a number of special players that can do great things together. I still feel like this team is on the rise and on the precipice of sustained success. And I honestly believe that if these two teams meet again in Charlotte, the Hokies would have a legitimate chance to beat the Tigers. Tech just needs more experience.
What's important is that the team picks their heads up and realizes that they aren't that far away from knocking Clemson off their perch. Remember, Josh Jackson only had four games under his belt and had never faced a defense quite like Brent Venables' bunch. Jackson and his offense will continue to grow as they battle their way through the ACC Coastal. And a thin defensive line will continue to identify contributors to lighten the load from Tech's talented starting quartet.
On Saturday night, Virginia Tech faced a team that they should strive to be like, but in their own way. Change doesn't happen overnight. It takes time. Hokie Nation spent months hyping this game, when the reality is that rebuilding the Tech program is bigger than one game. Winning on Saturday would have been incredible, but losing has the opportunity to provide just as much, if not more, long term value. The question is how do the players and staff grow from that experience?