Coach: Justin Fuente (33-20, fifth year)
2019: 8-5 (5-3 in ACC), 38th in SP+
2020 projection: 8-4 (5-3), 31st
Five best returning players: LB Rayshard Ashby, NB Chamarri Conner, LT Christian Darrisaw, QB Hendon Hooker, CB Caleb Farley
Was your quarterback good? Y/N
Was your quarterback healthy? Y/N
It's too simplistic to boil a coach's entire tenure down to those two questions, but damned if it doesn't tell a lot of the story sometimes.
How well quarterback Hendon Hooker plays might define Virginia Tech's season.
Fuente's four-year Virginia Tech tenure, told through these questions:
2016: Juco transfer Jerod Evans thrives, throwing for 3,552 yards and 29 touchdowns and rushing for 1,008 non-sack rushing yards and 12 more scores. Tech wins 10 games in Fuente's debut, takes the ACC Coastal title and nearly upsets Clemson in the conference title game.
2017: Evans goes pro a year earlier than anyone expects, and Josh Jackson enters the starting lineup earlier than planned. He starts well but fades late; Tech does, too, starting 7-1 and finishing 2-3.
2018: Jackson produces a 170.4 passer rating during a 2-0 start but is lost for the season with a knee injury in the third game. The Hokies lose six of eight, and while they eke out bowl eligibility, they finish under .500 for the first time in 26 years.
2019: Jackson transfers, and successor Ryan Willis starts out at the helm. Tech starts 2-2 and gets rocked by Duke, however. Hooker takes over, and in his first six healthy games, Tech goes 6-0. The Hokies lose to Virginia and Kentucky to end the season but score 30 points in both games.
Fuente enters 2020 under a decent amount of pressure. In large part because of QB instability, he's gone just 14-12 the past two seasons, and now he has to break in a new defensive coordinator (Justin Hamilton) following the retirement of the legendary Bud Foster. But Fuente's recent history suggests that, if Hooker is as good as he looked last season, and if he can remain in the lineup, Tech will contend in the Coastal. Tech averaged 36 points per game with Hooker behind center, brings back its entire offensive line (including potential all-conference left tackle Darrisaw) and three of its top four receivers, and welcomes running back transfers Khalil Herbert (Kansas) and Raheem Blackshear (Rutgers) to a group that includes high-efficiency sophomore Keshawn King.
We don't know how much Hamilton, a fast-rising coach, will attempt to change from Foster's structure, but we know he inherits playmakers in linebacker Ashby (17 tackles for loss, 25 run stuffs), nickel Conner (10 TFLs, 9 passes defensed) and cornerbacks Jermaine Waller and Farley (combined: seven interceptions, 22 breakups). Every defensive tackle in the rotation returns, and Fuente added prolific Youngstown State end Justus Reed (19 TFLs, 12.5 sacks) as a grad transfer. Tech, 39th in defensive SP+, was dramatically all-or-nothing on defense -- seventh in marginal efficiency, 110th in marginal explosiveness. This group should assure plenty more nothings to go with the alls.
Tech will have a chance to to start quickly, with five of its first seven opponents projected 58th or worse. But how the Hokies finish, and how well Hooker plays and/or stays on the field, might define the season
Emphasis mine. I think those polarizing defensive numbers tell the story of our defense last year. Obviously an enormous improvement, but still extremely susceptible to boom/bust type plays.
Overall, Bill C thinks that it will be a 3 horse race between UNC, Miami, and VT.