Debut seasons often fly under the radar. The successful ones garnering critical praise later in the run as viewers begin to discover the magic that elevated them into the public's consciousness. Strong second seasons continue to build on the off-season accolades, hitting their stride after ironing out character backgrounds and solidifying the show's identity. Third seasons are when shows are supposed to peak. Unless, of course, your name is Jose Mourinho.
I would use the word, "program" in lieu of "show" to tighten up this analogy, except I'm not 75 years old and I missed the first few seasons of "Matlock" and "Murder, She Wrote."
This is where things get tricky. Viewers have been treated to 20+ episodes of new storylines, character arcs and relationships that keep things fresh. Season 3 is where the novelty wears off. It's where showrunners are faced with the question of how to keep things innovative without losing what made them great. It's the point where good shows plateau and great shows set themselves up for extended runs of success. Which brings us to Justin Fuente's Hokies.
The talented group of Beamer-era holdovers who helped propel the Hokies to 19 wins in Fuente's first two seasons are almost entirely gone, leaving a bevy of unproven — albeit talented — players in their wake. How do the Hokies integrate so many fresh faces at key positions and avoid the pitfalls of widespread inexperience?
Unexpected NFL departures, offseason injuries, and dismissals left the Hokies with a tricky hand to play. Expecting them to match or surpass their previous win totals is a difficult ask. Despite the challenges, can they successfully introduce new characters and preserve their identity? Can they continue the positive trajectory without the bottom dropping out?
The Key Play staff is back to take a crack at these questions and more. Join us as we look ahead to another season of Hokies football, and let us know your predictions for the upcoming season.
Season Prediction: Beyond the final record, we're going to learn how adept Tech's staff really is at talent development. More than anything, talent development is what catapulted Justin Fuente on the hot list of coaches during his Memphis tenure. Bud Foster has a history of molding capable players. The mass exodus of experience this offseason provides Fuente & Co. an opportunity to flaunt their skills in that area. Don't get it twisted, though; the Hokies are young, but the front lines of the roster have potential playmakers. Depth is another issue, and one injury to a razor-thin position (e.g. defensive tackle), has the potential to derail the season. The ACC is packed tight in the middle this season. The margin between success and failure will be miniscule.
Outside of the opener at Florida State, Tech's conference schedule is favorable. Should the season be written in maroon and orange ink — Josh Jackson progresses, injuries are avoided, talented young players step up — the Hokies stand a chance to face Clemson in Charlotte. On the flip side, if the wheels comes off, it's not unthinkable come November Tech's scratching for bowl eligibility.
Final Regular Season Record: 8–4
Key Matchup: It's the Miami game, and anyone who says otherwise is wrong. Bold takes! For real though, the Hokies want to hold serve at home against the 'Canes in the Fuente and Mark Richt eras. Miami is seemingly Tech's largest blocker to a Coastal crown.
Breakout Player: There. Are. So. Many. Options. Dax Hollifield, Caleb Farley, Dalton Keene, Silas Dzansi, etc... but I'll go with Damon Hazelton. He has actual on the field experience, time in the strength and conditioning program, and coaches and players alike scream about his potential.
Season Prediction: At some points during this offseason horror show, I've entered a full state of panic about this season's prospects. At others, I find myself wondering if the Hokies couldn't sneak into the ACC title game.
There are lots of promising, highly rated recruits on defense, but barely any experience. Conversely, there's a bit more experience on offense, but still not many proven playmakers.
I see a couple of key factors to consider, and perhaps the most important is Josh Jackson's continued development. He looked like a star in the making after the West Virginia game; by the bowl loss to Oklahoma State, he looked like an offensive liability.
With an improved offensive line, a more stable running back rotation and some more experience at wide receiver, perhaps he's better set up for success. The coaches certainly haven't given any indication that he's been challenged in any meaningful way by the other QBs on the roster just yet. But, in my darkest moments, I can envision his performance dropping off a cliff by the time November rolls around once more, and the calls for Quincy Patterson getting really loud.
The Hokies do get quite lucky with this schedule, however. Opening at Florida State is tough, but even if the Seminoles have too much talent for Tech to handle, a comfortable three-game stretch in September could help this young team find its footing.
What happens next, however, will be a reflection of just how Jackson and the new-look defense develops.
Final Regular Season Record: 8–4
Key Matchup: I'm half-tempted to pick Florida State, just because a surprise win there could make quite the statement, but c'mon, it's Miami. Not only could the division be at play, in the best case scenario, but Justin Fuente could sorely use a win against the Canes as Mark Richt's recruiting picks up steam.
Breakout Player: Give me Dylan Rivers. Dax Hollifield is the linebacker prospect everyone is talking about these days, but it wasn't so long ago that Rivers was the guy earning all the hype. He has experience on special teams and a clear path to a starting job. Should he stick at backer, he'll have the chance to make plenty of big plays and earn some headlines right away.
Season Prediction: This season is so interesting to me, because everything about it screams down year. Tech lost their best offensive weapon, their best offensive lineman, and a senior center. On defense, Ricky Walker and Trevon Hill are basically standing alone in the woods after the rest of their friends got Thanos'd.
Youth and inexperience coupled with three different spotlight games (Florida State, Notre Dame, and Miami)? It seems to be a recipe for disaster. But there's something in my gut that's keeping me from a purely pessimistic outlook. I think the fan base is underestimating Josh Jackson's ability to lead the offense in his second season. I think we'll see much better play from the skill positions, and both lines look like the strength of the team (which is how good college teams function.)
But most of all, they have a good coach. And in college football, a good coach is the only thing that makes a difference every year. Quarterbacks are important, but there's a reason Lamar Jackson or Johnny Manziel never competed for a national title. Fuente and Foster are good enough to ride a very favorable schedule — four of their toughest five matchups come at home, including Miami in mid-November — to a better-than-expected season.
Final Regular Season Record: 9–3
Key Matchup: Picture this: It's late October and the Hokies are 5-2, having lost to both Florida State and Notre Dame. Not a huge deal, right? Some would say that's the expected path, and five of seven isn't a terrible way to start the year. And after a week off they get Georgia Tech in Lane Stadium, in prime time on a Thursday night. It's really a fulcrum moment for the team. Win, and they could potentially be 8-2 with a chance to clinch the Coastal against Miami in Blacksburg. But losing to the Yellow Jackets is basically the end of the road for 2018 (it'd give them two ACC losses and, more embarrassingly, three failings on national TV). Fuente hasn't beaten Paul Johnson yet. That game is massive.
Breakout Player: It's fun to pick the guys on offense, but each of them have a replacement. If Hazelton struggles, Savoy, Kumah, and Patterson will be (theoretically) there to fill the void. Same with McClease and the stable of backs behind him. It's the defense who'll put people in the positions to become stars. And while my stomach is already knotting up about the linebacker and corner play, I realize I'm not worried about the safeties in the slightest.
Reggie Floyd is beyond solid, but a little too productive to list as a "breakout" candidate. But you know who no one's talking about? Divine Deablo. Remember? He was the guy pushing future first round pick Terrell Edmunds for playing time? He's the kind of rangy athlete Bud hasn't had at free safety since...a miscast Kam Chancellor? I think he's going to be the next defensive super star.
Season Prediction: When you enter a season with cornerback and linebacking corps with 0 career starts between them, it's hard not to worry. Pair that with a worryingly thin defensive line that plays under a position coach that loves to rotate his players, and suddenly the season feels on the brink before the opening kickoff. As Joe noted, one injury at a key position has the potential to significantly debilitate the defense. I don't mean to sound hyperbolic, but Bud Foster is facing one of the toughest tasks of his career. And yes, I'm sure that I've written this before and that Foster has always continued to churn out strong defenses. Truthfully, the coaching staff can only do so much. At the end of the day, players need to do their part and step up. While the next wave of Lunch Pail defenders is short on experience, they are hardly lacking in talent.
The most fascinating part of this season is the potential on the offensive side of the football. Hokies fans have grown accustomed to relying on defense and special teams to carry the offense, but this season presents the opposite. For the first time in three seasons, Justin Fuente will benefit from a returning starter at quarterback. Talented recruiting classes at offensive skill positions and along the line are beginning to bear fruit, providing Fuente and Brad Cornelsen with the types of playmakers they've been looking for to truly unlock their offensive system. The schedule sets up favorably after the Labor Day matchup with the Seminoles in Tallahassee. Facing Notre Dame, Miami and Georgia Tech at home are huge bonuses, in addition to avoiding the dreaded trip to Chestnut Hill to face a formidable Boston College team.
When it comes to sports, I'm a big fan of trial by fire. I feel that it separates the contenders from the pretenders. Players can't hide, and the truly talented ones relish the opportunity to compete on the big stage. The season opener will hardly be indicative of the season as-a-whole, but we'll certainly learn a lot about what this new crop of talent could potentially accomplish this season. Regardless of the final score against the 'Noles, how the team progresses following the opener and how the younger players hold up over the season will be critical.
Final Regular Season Record: 8–4
Key Matchup: Georgia Tech. Sure, the Hokies benefit from a bye week before a critical Thursday night matchup in Lane Stadium. But what will the state of the team be at this point in the season? How will the young players have adapted to the mental and physical rigors of major college football? What is the injury situation? Have the multitude of question marks that litter the offensive and defensive lineups been largely answered? Can Justin Fuente solve Paul Johnson's riddle? I worry about the state of the defensive line and how formidable the two-deep is. I worry about the young linebackers and corners and their ability properly defend the Bees' option attack. This game marks the beginning of the season's stretch run, with consecutive games againstBC, at Pitt, Miami and UVa. Thus, I worry about how this team fares in the wake of this game, win or lose.
Breakout Player: Divine Deablo. For a guy with little collegiate experience in the secondary, Deablo flashed some serious talent last season before going down with a foot injury four games into the campaign. The rangy converted wide receiver has speed, hands and is a physical specimen. The prospect of a long and physical compliment to starting rover Reggie Floyd is exciting, assuming Deablo can hold off Khalil Ladler in fall camp. If Deablo wins the job, he'll be responsible for providing support to an inexperienced crop of corners and linebackers (*drink*). It's an incredibly important role, one that Deablo appears primed to excel in.
Season Prediction: Hello. I won't lie to you, friends. Things are bleak. The best receiver, gone. The best offensive lineman, gone. The best defensive lineman, gone. Linebackers, gone. Virginia Tech lost more defensive backs than LOLUVA had fans at their spring festival. No Fullers to replace them. Frank tha God spends his days walking Hank. The crown rests heavy upon Justin's brow. Is this the year one or more of the streaks end?
Lol, hell no. Josh Jackson is the second coming of Bryan Randall. The receiving corps is poised to blow up. French won't stop hyping the offensive line. Ricky Walker is still here to wreck some fools. If you worry about the secondary, you clearly haven't followed Hokie football very well. All of those things add up to...
Final Regular Season Record: 15–0, baby!
Key Matchup: Georgia Tech. Miami is the easy answer, but the front half of the schedule (aside from Florida State and the Domers) is shaping up to be relatively light. Chop Block O'Clock comes on a Thursday night in the Terror Dome, and this is really the tone setter for the second half of the year. If Tech can get through with a win and minimal injuries to the defensive line, it'll be set for a strong November.
Breakout Player: So I don't know if the leading rusher from last season counts as a breakout player...maybe it's like he's almost broken through and he just needs some giant dudes to step up and help him finish, sorta like...
Yeah, and then Deshawn McClease is gonna blow up this year like:
Season Prediction: As always seems to be the case that when a large number of contributors depart, it's easy to see this season going any number of directions. I wouldn't be surprised to see the bowl streak end or the Commonwealth Cup depart, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Tech to win the Coastal. Even if the Hokies drop the opener against FSU, a team better than last year's record would indicate, the next few games shape up nicely for first year starters to get some experience and rhythm. Don't sleep on Boston College this year, but don't stress aboutECU either. If I'm being a little optimistic, but not a total homer, losses come against FSU, ND, and Miami; realistically I'd bet the Hokies take one of these but then lose to BC or Georgia Tech.
Final Regular Season Record: 9–3
Key Matchup: Virginia. This season is unlikely to be about winning the ACC, but rather a stepping stone towards what should be a highly anticipated 2019 team. The optimism surrounding the program would take a major hit with a loss of the Commonwealth Cup, as would the perception needed to keep recruits in-state.
Breakout Player: Well almost any player that has a good season would be a "breakout" since most of the major contributors left. I've talked myself into and out of Hazleton several times already, and Hollifield as well. I think McClease splits carries too much to break out even if he does prove to be the best back. In the end, I keep coming back to the newcomer with college experience getting rave reviews at a position of dire need: Hazleton. He proves to be a reliable receiver with elite potential and competes with Savoy as the biggest producer at WR.
Season Prediction: The general consensus is that the offensive talent is really trending upward. While the star ratings are comparable to the Beamer era, I believe Fuente and his staff are doing a better job at evaluating players. This season will show if they are also able to develop those players. After rewatching the first few games from last season, I realized I had forgotten how impressed I was with JJ's early performance. If he can show improvement, and if part of the issue last year was indeed injury, then I feel good with him under center. On defense, we can all agree that depth at DT is a big concern. I think Tech will be ok this year, as the starters will do great. But just like last year, it will be very noticeable when they are on the bench resting. Next year though — unless Tech lands a game ready JUCO, grad transfer, or gets a freshman surprise à la Luther Maddy — reach for the the panic button. As for the rest of the defense, I think they will make a lot of young mistakes early on, which makes starting the season against FSU a true trial by fire. With that said, the Hokies still have Bud, so with an improved offense there is reason to be optimistic.
Final Regular Season Record: 9 – 3. I think this season plays out a lot like last year. Get hyped up winning the easy games, then deflated after Tech loses the big ones. Losses to FSU, ND, and Miami.
Key Matchup: I am going with Miami here. This is the game that is going to tell us more about the direction of the program and position in the ACC than any other. Most pundits have Miami tabbed as the new kings of the Coastal after their success last year. This game will be late in the season on the Hokies' turf. It's Tech's chance to make a stand and show the world that the Hokies are still the team to be feared in the division. I know I said I am putting it down as a loss, but trust me, nothing makes me happier than knocking Miami down when they are perceived to be "back".
Breakout Player: Deshawn McClease. I was pumped to see him pack on some pounds this offseason and he looks like an animal in his before/after HilGains photo. I expect the o-line to create more holes for the backs this year, so I am going to go bold and say McClease breaks 1,000 yards even with some rotating.
Season Prediction: Where to even start? It's been a nightmarish offseason in Blacksburg, one plagued by freak injuries and early departures of several would-be contributors. That said, the Hokies seemingly escaped a twelfth-round knockout blow with Josh Jackson safely back under center, providing at least some semblance of quiet confidence as a Labor Day matchup with Florida State looms large.
At the danger of echoing our fearless leader Joe, I think a favorable conference schedule gives this young but talented Hokies team the chops to compete for a Coastal Division title. There's certainly questions to answer on the defensive side of the ball, but entering fall camp with Bud Foster's group as the primary concern feels strangely comforting. Depth is a towering issue up-and-down the roster, but if the Hokies can avoid the injury bug, don't be shocked if the Nov. 17 showdown with Miami decides the Coastal.
Season Record: 8–4
Key Matchup: Miami. Extending the Commonwealth Cup streak is an annual necessity, sure, but Mark Richt's squad promises to be the biggest obstacle in the Hokies' quest to return to Charlotte.
Breakout Player: Not sure if Deshawn McClease counts, but after picking Tremaine Edmunds last year (nailed it!), I'd say the shifty 757 tailback is a step in the right direction. The Hokies desperately need a home-run threat to emerge from a crowded backfield, and McClease's dynamic playmaking ability should give him a leg up on the returning duo of Steven Peoples and Jalen Holston. Give me 1,000+ yards and 7 touchdowns, please and thank you.
Season Prediction: I'm going to admit, I'm down on this upcoming year. Maybe it's because there's yet another primetime opening kickoff that historically has been less than ideal, or because last year's bowl game left a bad taste in my mouth, or because this offseason has been a rollercoaster of news, or any other number of reasons, but I feel like Fuente and his staff are really going to have to dig deep this year to keep the wheels from coming off. The end of the offseason and the start of fall camp appears to have brought some stability, so hopefully I'm dead wrong and the freshmen gel with the veterans and steamroll FSU in their opening number on their way to a TheFifthFuller 15-0 dream.
That all said, the schedule lines up pretty well, even with the ACC Wheel of Chaos looming in the shadows, so I think Virginia Tech is safely extending the bowl streak one more year.
Final Regular Season Record: 8–4
Key Matchup: Since I don't expect Tech to compete for the ACC title, UVa. The rest of the season won't matter one lick if the streak ends this year.
Breakout Player: I'm going to say Deshawn McClease, but it'd be fun to see the running game as a whole get a breakout year for the first time since David Wilson rolled through town.
Season Prediction: So, uh that offseason was fun, yeah? As the news of departures continued to come out one after the other, I continued to be more and more negative about this season. I even got to a point where I genuinely believed both the bowl streak and the UVA streak would end. That was...not a good time.
But you know what? I've turned it around. I've been around this coaching staff and these players a few times now. Their confidence has brought new life to my expectations for this season. That's not to say Virginia Tech is going 15-0 (sorry TheFifthFuller). But the Hokies are definitely not losing to UVA and their 27 ACC caliber players. And I think it'll be easy to find six wins on this schedule. But man, after that sixth win, it gets tougher. Florida State is an opening weekend toss-up. Boston College is going to be sneaky good. Duke is not the pushover they used to be, especially in Durham. Georgia Tech has Fuente's number. Notre Dame is, well, Notre Dame. And Miami is, well, Miami.
Final Regular Season Record: 7–5 Ducks to avoid shoes.
Key Matchup: Notre Dame. I don't know if Tech will be in contention for the Coastal when Miami comes to town. But a win against the Irish, presumably on national TV, will be huge for Tech's perception on a national stage. And who knows. With that game being in early October, maybe it launches Tech towards an exciting end to the season.
Breakout Player: Quincy Patterson. Fight me. He's going to get his 4 games worth of playing time, and he's going to show that he's the future. Tech will go into the 2018-19 offseason with a full blown quarterback race on its hands.