When I was a teenager, I dreamed of becoming a writer. Not your normal wears polos and complains about airline delays kind of writer, but someone who could write with a Hunter S. Thompson edge while prolifically profiling some of the world's most famous people. Like how Norman Mailer embedded himself with Muhammad Ali in Zaire for months in the lead up to the Rumble in the Jungle, or how Gay Talese meticuously stalked Frank Sinatra for months to build one of the most famous magazine profiles of all time (all without an interview from the man himself). And of course, as any wanna be journalist would, I was obsessed with the movie Almost Famous.
In short, it's about a teen who gets hired by Rolling Stone to go on tour with the fictional band Stillwater. Hilarity ensues, until he eventually publishes an epic saga about a middling Stillwater's struggles on their ascent to fame. It's fun, and one of those movies that has grown with me over time.
Earlier in my life, for obvious reasons, I wanted to be William, the aspiring journalist (played by an over-his-skis Patrick Fugit). But even as my life changed — spoiler, I did not become Hunter S. Marcolini — pieces of Almost Famous still resonate in my soul.
Now, as a grumpy hipster who just turned 30 and frequently finds himself at odds with what's popular at the moment, I can't stop relating to Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lester Bangs character — William's mentor and a grumpy hipster who frequently finds himself at odds with what's popular at the moment. And as he dispenses pearls of wisdom about rock and roll being dead, and how "the only currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we're uncool," he and William have the following exchange:
Lester: (After complimenting William on being able to write with such quality despite only being a teenager What are you, the star of your school?
William: (long pause) They hate me.
Lester: Well, you'll meet them all again on your long journey to the middle.
This exchange rolls around my brain all the time. It's one of those things an adult says to a younger person, fully knowing they won't understand how true it is. Because how could you? When you're young you can dream unencumbered by knowledge of the way the world works. Whoever's popular or unpopular, what you do in the moment when you're in high school, it doesn't matter all that much. Life finds a way to put you all in (basically) the same place.
Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you just end up running right back into the middle, and maybe no one in sports has learned that lesson as much as the Virginia Tech football team and its fans. Because over the last decade, the Hokies have lived there. They've been there so long that they actually built a nice three bed, two bath craftsman home smack dab in college football's melancholy suburbia.
Over the last 10 years and five games (from the 2011 Logan Thomas Sugar Bowl team until now), the Hokies are 81-54, a respectable-but-not-great .600 over that period. It's an era that spans coaching staffs, athletic directors and full cycles of recruiting classes. A timeframe that's seen schematic changes (lol remember when Mike O'Cain just decided they were going to run the pistol that one year?), gamut-spanning quarterback play, good defenses, bad defenses and even that year where they just didn't want to play defense at all.
And when you think back on the last decade and find yourself in an honest moment, you'll accept that's who they've been. They're not great, and sometimes not even good. But they're not bad, either. There are no bottom-falls-out two-win stinkers in there, nor are there any panic-inducing "the house is on fire, and we're all still inside" seasons where a team quits on a coach halfway through (go Vols, baby).
The Hokies have just been...average. Fine. Middle of the pack. They've shown the occasional ability to aspire to a greater standing, only to be put in their place the following year.
If you're someone who's been a Tech fan for a long time, the middling likely drives you crazy. Depending on your age, you likely crave something more like the Tyrod era (or the Randall era, Vick era, or even the Druckenmiller era.) .500 football and inexplicable ACC Coastal losses are simply inexcusable.
And if you became a fan since 2011, you're probably a little less angry. This has been what you've known, and though you've experienced an immeasurable amount of heartbreak, the tight losses and the eight-ish-win seasons are second nature by now.
Neither of those POVs are right or wrong, simply the outcome of a once-great team stuck in place for the last 10 years. And to be fair to those in charge of the Hokies, they're certainly not the only program in America dealing with a long running stretch of mediocrity. Take a look at this smattering of other Power Five programs experiencing the same thing:
Tennessee: 64-64 (.500)
North Carolina: 70-62 (.530)
Pitt: 71-62 (.534)
North Carolina State: 74-58 (.561)
South Carolina: 74-57 (.565)
West Virginia: 74-56 (.570)
Texas: 77-55 (.583)
Miami: 78-53 (.595)
Virginia Tech: 81-54 (.600)
Auburn: 83-52 (.615)
Washington: 83-46 (.643)
Florida: 85-47 (.644)
USC: 86-44 (.662)
Michigan: 86-42 (.672)
That, as Lester Bangs so eloquently put it, is the perfect portrait of the long journey to the middle. The Hokies aren't the exception, they're the norm. College football is a forever-stratifying entity. There have always been a group of programs at the top, and a section of teams clambering to make it in the club, even if just for a fleeting moment.
(Okay yeah, that last one was a joke. But you get it.)
And despite how homogeneous the College Football Playoff participants have been year-in and year-out, there are always a few teams trying to break into the top. Sometimes it's TCU and Baylor. Other times it's Cincinnati or UCF or Penn State. Teams that, at least for one season, rise up from the masses and knock on the door. And no matter how unlikely it is that they make the CFP, it's still much better than the alternative.
Each program has its own reason for being in this tier. Miami and Texas have had the talent but not the coaches. Pitt and West Virginia may never have the players to rise above their means, and NC State seems destined to be mid forever. But regardless of why, they're there all the same.
As bleak as this may sound, it's the reality that Justin Fuente and his staff have created over the last six seasons. He took over a team with talent, but stuck in neutral largely due to coaching and offensive atrophy. After winning in 2016 and '17, he now finds himself at the helm of a group that's decidedly mediocre. They have talent, but some inescapable flaws. The coaches have improved as recruiters, but don't always put their guys in the best positions to succeed every Saturday.
But most of the programs on the Hokies' schedule are also in the same boat, sputtering along for one reason or another. Which gets us to the best (and worst) thing about this widespread group of average-to-above-average teams. Just about any of them could win on a given week.
Think about it, the Hokies are good enough every season to beat just about everyone on their schedule. Maybe there's a stray non-conference game against Alabama or another high powered SEC team, and occasionally the ACC schedule will make them play Clemson. But outside of that? Tech has the players and the ability to compete with anyone else they play.
But on the flip side, there are now so many teams in the middle, guaranteed wins are harder to come by. Outside of an FCS game and the annual matchup against a non-P5 opponent, there are very few locked-in wins (and even some of those Conference USA games aren't always so guaranteed either).
Unlike the mid-2000s Beamer years — where games against Duke, UNC and UVA could be chalked up as Ws in August — the margin for error between five and 10 wins is miniscule. With decent play, solid coaching decisions and a little luck, you'll win more games than not. But if you want to win consistently, you need to take care of business when the games get tight. And over the last five seasons, the Hokies simply haven't done that.
Out of the 29 games that Tech has played since 2019, a stunning 15 of them came down to a single score (counting 2019 Virginia, which was a three-point game until the Hoos scored on a strip sack on Tech's last possession). More than half! That is WILD.
The Hokies are 16-13 over that stretch (again, very firmly average.) But let's do a quick roll call of their losses during this time period:
Losses by more than one score:
2019: L vs Duke 45-10
2020: L @ North Carolina 56-45
2020: L @ Pittsburgh 47-14
2020: L vs Clemson 45-10 (I know this sounds dumb, but they did play the Tigers pretty damn well for three quarters.)
Losses by one score:
2019: L @ Boston College 35-28 (Ryan Willis turns the ball over five times, Tech gives up 28 first half points.)
2019: L @ Notre Dame 21-20 (leading by three in the fourth, Fuente elects to kick a 25-yard field goal to go up six. Ian Book scores with 29 seconds left to win.)
2019: L @ Virginia 39-30 (see note above, Hokies give up 19 fourth quarter points and fall apart down the stretch to lose to the Hoos for the first time in 15 years.)
2019: L vs Kentucky 37-30 (Fuente kicks a 27-yard field goal to go up six in the fourth quarter, Kentucky wins on a game ending 18 play, 85 yard drive led by a wildcat quarterback.)
2020: L @ Wake Forest 23-16 (Tech loses despite SP+ saying that their post game win expectancy was 77%)
2020: L vs Liberty 38-35 (I don't want to talk about it.)
2020: L vs Miami 25-24 (Tech gets shut out in the fourth quarter, blows five point lead)
2021: L @ West Virginia 27-21 (Tech has four plays from the three yard line to win, don't convert.)
2021: L vs Notre Dame 32-29
Nine losses by one score. Pure and total agony.
In the most recent episode of the disappointing show we all know so well, the Hokies handed the No. 14 Irish a win, despite leading by eight points with less than four minutes to go. I won't go into the specifics, because by now you've read a billion recaps questioning Fuente's in-game decision making. But let's just say it shouldn't have happened.
Instead of dwelling on Notre Dame, we need to look at the bigger picture. The Hokies aren't just stuck with the rest of the teams trying to fight their way out of the rat race, they have consistently failed to do so when given the opportunity.
Under Fuente, the Hokies are 4-11 in games where the spread is within 3 points. They've lost to Duke by 35 and to Syracuse by two touchdowns. They've dropped games against every other FBS team in Virginia. They've lost to Pitt by 30 twice in three years. They're 2-3 against Miami, 3-2 against Boston College and Pitt and a ghastly 1-3 against Georgia Tech.
Consistently coming up short against the rest of the middling teams in the ACC is the difference between an Orange Bowl, a Belk Bowl and "electing not to play" a bowl. It's the difference between writing this story, and one about a 5-0 team on the rise that looks like it's really turning a corner after a few down seasons. It's the difference between being considered one of the best coaches in the ACC and the one closest to a pink slip.
And even when they do have a chance to punch above their weight class, they consistently can't. Fuente's Hokies are 6-13 against top-25 opponents, with no wins coming against teams who were ranked by the end of the season. And though that may not be their fault — at some point you can only beat whoever's on your schedule — every time Fuente's had an opportunity to put a pelt on the wall, he's fallen short.
He was 23 yards away from potentially getting Clemson in 2016. He was a blown call here or a turnover there from beating Oklahoma State in 2017, Notre Dame in '19 and '21 and ninth-ranked Miami in '20. But he's never been able to do it. He's placed himself and his squad squarely in the middle, and trending horizontally.
This, more than anything, will be Fuente's calling card whenever his time at Virginia Tech comes to a close. Regardless of what you may think of him, the head coach has been tantalizingly close to bringing the Hokies back to their former glory. Just think about it. If Cam Phillips can reel in one more pass in 2017, and the Hokies actually hold on to their leads against Notre Dame and Kentucky in 2019, we'd be talking about a coach who won 10 games in three out of five seasons. It's not an unrealistic alternate universe.
But that's the thing about being in the middle. You can't simply chalk things up to bad breaks, you have to figure out what you're doing wrong and fix it. Want to know why I'm not Norman Mailer? Outside of a general lack of talent, it's because I didn't know how to work hard until I was 25. You can't write well if you don't want to write well.
The Hokies have a multitude of issues their head coach simply hasn't been able (or willing) to fix. Bad calls in bad moments, ignorance of modern analytics, faulty clock management and an overall lack of depth have plagued this program in the fourth quarter over the last five years. Against the Irish, Brian Kelly was able to turn to a bench full of former four-star quarterbacks and use one of them to gain a momentary advantage on offense. At one point in time, Fuente also had that luxury. But just like fans' trust in his late game decision making, the depth on his roster has eroded.
It's not bad luck anymore, it's simply part of Fuente's program's identity.
Due to the fact that there really are so many programs in the same spot as the Hokies, there has always been a chance for Fuente to pull a Beamer and get things headed in the right direction six years in. But if last week's game was any indication, Tech will be stuck with the same heartbreaking results week after week until something changes.