Well, this is awkward. 2020 was supposed to be the year for Virginia Tech football. The leap we were prepared to witness had been years in the making. Sure, Bud Foster had retired to his house on Claytor Lake, but his star pupil Justin Hamilton was poised to continue the tradition of the Lunch Pail defense. There was experience abound, talented youth and depth — MY GOD, DEPTH — at running back. Then 2020 got into full swing and...well...you know the rest.
Join us in this COVID hellscape for another year of The Key Play staff predictions, including some discussion topics that are particularly apropos. If all goes well, we'll collectively look overly pessimistic and the Hokies will be ACC Champions! If they don't? Well, we'll just get TheFifthFuller to write mock gamers and pretend this year never happened.
Season Prediction: Before this season became a game of 52-card pickup, there was much more on the line for Justin Fuente. Given the outcomes of the reshuffle — a tougher schedule, top-two ACC title game qualifications and a bevy of uncertainty — expectations should simmer. There are too many unknowns. Prior to the pandemic, a large amount of the fanbase saw 2020 as a make or break season for Fuente. The circumstances now will test depth, development and scheme adjustment/improvisation more than any other campaign. And while the results now might not be as conclusive, the data points will still be telling for a program looking to get back on track. And yes, I simply rambled without providing any sort of actual prediction.
How Many Games Does Virginia Tech Play This Season? Well, there have already been two false starts, which doesn't bode well to play a complete season. This is really tough to project because there are so many variables to account for. Each team has its own COVID quandary to deal with. Then for a scheduled game to fire, double down as two teams have to be ready to go. Finally, it's unclear how much reshuffling might occur to satisfy rivalry or must-play games. A slate of eight conference games has been tossed around by college football pundits as the magic package to bank that TV money. Sure, let's do that.
Final Regular Season Record: 5–3
Key Matchup: Virginia. Punctuate this season with an asterisk, but either the fanbase in Blacksburg and Charlottesville get to celebrate the Cup regardless of what happens in the bigger picture.
Jaden Payoute Devon Hunter Raheem Blackshear. Blackshear has received the majority of the buzz from Tech's closed door practices, the little of it that's escaped. His teammates have gushed about his athleticism and Justin Fuente has said he could play several positions on either side of the ball and poach the perfect egg. He has the right set of skills to help make Brad Cornelsen's offense hum from either the slot or tailback. Part of me wonders if that aforementioned versatility becomes a necessity and he fills in COVID-related gaps on the defensive side of the ball.
Season Prediction: This could have been the year to turn it around. Returning quarterback, veteran defense, skilled offensive line — it all had the makings of a run for the Coastal and a reminder to recruits everywhere that Virginia Tech was still a player in the ACC. And then the world burned. They should be pretty good in 2020, no matter how many games they play. And if they underwhelm (a possibility, with COVID likely throwing a wrench at the game-to-game roster) Justin Fuente's going to have another tough offseason.
How Many Games Does Virginia Tech Play This Season? Eight or ten. This may sound optimistic (it is), but I see it for two reasons. First, the ACC won't call it until they get their money, and they seem ready to keep trucking regardless of what happens. Second, the conversations we're having about college football are about the same people had with baseball. Remember how many times we all assumed the MLB would shut down after the Marlins and Cardinals had outbreaks? The league reacted on the fly, figured it out and are now on their way to an early-October postseason. I expect we'll see the same here.
Final Regular Season Record: 7–3 (OR 6–2)
Key Matchup: Carolina, and I don't think it's particularly close. The team who suffers the most if the Tar Heels ascend as high as their recruiting rankings is Virginia Tech. They recruit the same players, are in the race to be the second best team in the ACC and have been at each other's throats since Butch Davis brought his sweater vests to Chapel Hill. UVa seems to be the pick here, but even a second straight loss to the Hoos seems less dire than a measuring stick versus the Heels.
Breakout Player: The Hokies haven't had a back like Khalil Herbert in a minute. He still won't get a Ryan Williams-esque workload (there are simply too many RBs in the room for that to be the case). But add Herbert to a line that should be pretty good and we may finally see the consistent "throw to score, run to win" offense we were all promised. Also, can hear it now:
As Brian Johnson knocks through the extra point, they cut to a pre-commercial highlight of the touchdown. As we see Khalil Herbert rumble in from 10-yards out, Mark Jones narrates over the music:
MARK JONES: They call him Juice, he must be THIRSTY for a score. Hokies on top.
(Other candidates: Armani Chatman, Josh Fuga and I think James Mitchell might be able to jump to the NFL after a year as Tech's big possession threat.)
Season Prediction: I feel so incredibly torn about this season. The Hokie in me has been counting down the days to kickoff, watching Hokie Power Hours and replays on the ACC Network to scratch an ever-present itch. On the other hand, the logical side of me feels like this season shouldn't be happening in the first place.
If and when Virginia Tech's season kicks off, I'll be screaming (as quietly as possible so as not to wake up my sleeping kids) from the opening kick to the final whistle. Regardless of how it all plays out, I can't help but feel like this season will be disappointing. COVID-related absences, opt-outs and an abnormally high risk of injuries will likely put a damper on what was shaping up to be a promising season. This program took its lumps over the past few seasons in hopes of building a deep, well experienced team primed to contend for a division and conference title. Instead, they're left with this massive unknown.
How Many Games Does Virginia Tech Play This Season? I may be in the minority here, but the conversation surrounding Tech's COVID situation feels incredibly unfair to me. Not only did Tech return to campus sooner than many other schools, but the program has appeared to be strictly following protocols for both positive tests and contact tracing. Given what we've learned from other universities that continue to have students on campus, I find it difficult to believe that other programs are taking a similarly prescriptive approach — specifically with regard to contact tracing — which is clouding the perception of the situation within the team but ultimately protecting the health and safety of those in and around them. The numbers seem to bear this out and, if true, I commend Justin Fuente and his staff for their vigilance. I can't help but feel like more postponements and/or cancellations are on the horizon. With such a tight calendar already facing the Hokies, I feel resigned to a reduced schedule. Eight feels like the right number to me.
Final Regular Season Record: 6–2
Key Matchup: North Carolina. I think Brian nailed it. This game transcends what takes place between the sidelines that day. Continued supremacy over the Heels will help reinforce their status as a step below the Hokies, which will hopefully pay dividends both in the polls and on the recruiting trail. With in-person recruiting on a prolonged (and seemingly indefinite) hold, on-field results and national perception are going to have significant impacts across the sport this year.
Breakout Player: Keonta Jenkins. I'm going to go out on a limb here and take the true-freshman safety to turn some heads this season. One of the bigger surprises in Tech's Week 1 depth chart, Jenkins is slated as the starter at
Rover Boundary Safety ahead of fellow freshman Lakeem Rudolph. Jenkins was a bit of an underrated recruit, nationally, likely due in part to his skinny frame and in spite of great length and both elite speed and quickness. He may struggle against big bodied receivers, but he plays with a big shoulder and has the quickness to both close and turn and run. It will be interesting to see how new Defensive Coordinator Justin Hamilton utilizes Jenkins and how quickly he takes to leading the defensive backfield. With Devon Hunter indefinitely suspended, it's Jenkins' time to shine.
Season Prediction: Whit Babcock, realizing the ACC has promised to put the two top records in the ACC in the championship game, shrewdly keeps so many players in contact tracing quarantine that the Hokies avoid playing any games until the December 12 matchup against UVA. Fresh off months of practice and no real competition, the Hokies dominate the 'Hoos and take their undefeated record to the ACCCG.
Or, more realistically, the chaos of canceled games continues and specifically which games don't get played may make or break the Hokies' season. The impact of COVID cases on the roster isn't just about missing games, but also not being able to practice together as a full team. But I think the Hokies are going to take a step (but not a leap) forward from 2019, so they manage their early games and only take losses to Clemson and either UNC or Miami. Otherwise I expect the defense to be shaky as there are some schematic changes happening on little practice time, but the offense to be its best in years with solid play at all positions. I'll give an ACCCG appearance a 10% chance.
How Many Games Does Virginia Tech Play This Season? There is no wiggle room left here — any further canceled games are likely canceled completely or replace another game. The biggest risk here isn't COVID positives, it's contract tracing...while other sports like MLB get to return after testing negative, for some reason the players must sit for 14 days no matter how many negative tests they get back. Based on season to date and there not being a compelling reason to see things improving as long as other students are around, I'll go with 7.5 as the O/U.
Final Regular Season Record: 6-2. The ACC feels improved, but a returning QB and really solid OL has me slightly bullish on the Hokies.
Key Matchup: Clemson. The Hokies need to prove to the region and conference that last season's loss to Virginia was just a bump in the road and not part of a larger changing of the guard in the state. But let's be honest: the Hokies aren't losing in-state recruits to UVa. They're losing them to out-of-state powerhouses and no amount of domination over UVa changes that. Turning the ship around on in-state recruiting requires elite high schoolers to believe Virginia Tech is a program that will soon play for regular ACC Championships and potential playoff spots. Only a win or really strong showing against Clemson can convince them of that.
Breakout Player: Nick Gallo. With James Mitchell effectively a WR now, look for Gallo to play a much more prominent role in the offense as the "true" TE.
The Fifth Fuller
Season Prediction: Promising returning starter at quarterback? Check. (Over?)hyped backfield? Check. Highest confidence in the offensive line since...uh, shit, a long time ago? Check. SKRONG linebacking corps and the constant faith in DBU? Check! Let's put aside the facts that our wide receiving corps is Tre Turner, Tayvion Robinson and lots of question marks, Tech's operating under a new defensive coordinator for the first time since Alanis Morisette was a thing, the best player is (correctly) not playing and the defensive line is a mystery grab bag. When you don't lose a game, you get to claim a national title! So let's go 1-0 every week (or maybe in total?) baby!
How Many Games Does Virginia Tech Play This Season? I was tempted to just put a shrug emoji here, because we're a week away from Tech's first game and I honestly don't know if we're going to play that one or, hell, ANY of them. The Hokies already had their
first second game postponed, meaning there's only one bye week left to deal with any further rescheduling. It feels like Tech used almost all its lifelines on the $100 question and the only one left is Phone a Friend and who is my drunk uncle. So I'm going with a completely unconfident FIVE GAMES. Maybe SIX. No...FIVE. Four? No way. FIVE. Yeah. DEFINITELY. Maybe.
Final Regular Season Record: [A number to be named later] AND 0, baby! First undefeated season since Shyrone Stith was tearing it up in the Terror Dome!
Key Matchup: Welp, I originally went with LOLUVA here since they had a significant chance of being Tech's ONLY game this year, but...well. Since we now know that Miami is BAK this year, circling that game on the calendar is tempting, but lolol if football will still be playing in November. Potential back-to-back-to-back wins against Clemson at the end of the year are now off the table since LOLUVA inserted themselves into Tech's (alleged) mid-December schedule. I'm going with UNC. One of the big perception issues around the program is recruiting, and that Tech sucks at it, and UNC's bagmen have been BUSY. The only thing the Hokies can do at this point is continue to kick their ass on the field and put players in the NFL, because I'm not sure the recruiting thing is gonna get fixed without that.
Breakout Player: Jermaine Waller. The defensive backfield is now somewhat in a state of flux, to understate things mildly. While I am moderately comfortable at coverage at safety with Devon Hunter out indefinitely, I honestly have no idea who is starting on the corner opposite Waller. I think Hamilton is going to shade coverage to that side to compensate for that and leave Waller out on an island. He got overlooked a bunch in the conversation around how good Caleb Farley was (trying to remember who called him as Breakout Player last year...oh yeah, ME) and I think he's got a bunch of opportunities to play against some pretty damn good quarterbacks and show that he is ready to be the number one corner.
Season Prediction: Let's be honest: I can't predict things in normal circumstances. Twelve months ago, I said the 2019 Hokies would open the season with a "tone setter" against Boston College and cap off an 8-4 regular season with a 16th straight victory against the 'Hoos. (To be fair, little league coaches always said 1-out-of-3 puts you in Cooperstown, and four picks from everyone's favorite State Farm agent did set quite the tone).
Flashforward to 2020, and we're all working in athletic shorts, ordering "GRIT face shields" to wear in Zoom meetings, and desperately praying that Virginia Tech can finally take the field this fall.
So yeah, predictions feel a bit uncertain right now. But damn if I'm not excited for Virginia Tech football. The Hokies have a few question marks — depth in the secondary and breaking in Justin Hamilton feel like the biggest unknowns — but a proven quarterback, replenished running back room, road-grading offensive line (on paper), and a veteran defense all bring promise to an otherwise dreary fall. Knowing full well I'm likely to regret this statement, I like the Hokies to battle through a conference-heavy schedule and finish at 8-3. (Assuming they play a full season, which brings us too...)
How Many Games Does Virginia Tech Play This Season? Yeah, 11 games seems
reckless optimistic. I think they'll start (why not at this point?), but spotty postponements early will finally give way to a full halt sometime in November. I'll take 7.
Final Regular Season Record: 5-2
Key Matchup: The 'Hoos were my initial choice when they appeared first on the schedule, but I'll switch gears and take the Tar Heels. UNC falls early enough on the calendar that it feels likely to happen, and keeping Mack Brown's surging program at bay for another year seems important should Justin Fuente want to remain relevant on the recruiting trail.
Breakout Player: Alan Tisdale. The rangy North Carolina product showed glimpses of greatness in 2019 but was stuck behind Ashby and Dax for long stretches of game time. With a new defensive coordinator and COVID-19 putting a premium on depth, I think Tisdale blossoms into an All-ACC type player.
Season Prediction: This season had the makings of something special in all our minds. The excuses regarding youth and locker room tension were supposedly gone. Tech was loaded with returning talent and I just had this feeling the Hokies were going to win the Coastal and enjoy some time in the rankings. This whole season now has an asterisk on it which I have now come to terms with the simple truth that VT fans just can't have nice things. That doesn't mean Tech can't turn some heads this season and continue to build momentum as a program.
How Many Games Does Virginia Tech Play This Season? As the schedule is running out of weeks to allow the ACC to shuffle and postpone it feels like a video game where there are no extra lives. Even with a single life, though, I had every confidence I was running the table in Mario and that remains the same here. 11.
Final Regular Season Record: 9–1
Key Matchup: UNC. They are the team with so much hype and recruiting momentum that Tech needs to squash them early. It would be a big early win to build confidence and set the tone for the rest of the season.
Breakout Player: Khalil Herbert. The size the Hokies have on the o-line has me drooling and I can't wait to see the energy Brock Hoffman brings. I know Blackshear has received a lot of hype and I think he will be moved around and used all over the field which should garner the status of "breakout," but I see Herbert as the primary workhorse that everyone will know by the end of the year.