IT’S always trendy to begin a new year with a “What’s Hot/What’s Not” list. So let’s talk college football in the Commonwealth.
Based on recent developments, it seems pretty clear that the trajectories of Virginia and Virginia Tech are currently headed in different directions—and the gap between the programs is smaller than it’s been in a decade or more.
Before we get too far, a couple of important points:
Don’t overreact to recent bowl results. Bowls often offer little resemblance to regular-season performance, thanks to a month-long break, unfamiliar matchups and the absence of key players due to injuries, discipline or simply sitting out to prepare for the NFL draft.
So as impressive as Virginia’s 28–0 Belk Bowl shutout of South Carolina was—and how disappointed the Hokies were after their 35–31 Military Bowl loss to Cincinnati—those games don’t completely define their respective seasons. They simply reflect them.
Second, by any measurement, Tech is still the state’s preeminent program. The Hokies have beaten Virginia 15 straight times (including an unlikely overtime win in 2018) and have capped 26 straight seasons with bowl appearances (compared to the Cavaliers’ two). Many of the state’s top high school prospects still choose Tech over Virginia (when they stay home).
All that said, Virginia is trending upward, while the Hokies are facing a crossroad.
A simple look at victory totals is a good place to start. In Bronco Mendenhall’s three seasons in Charlottesville, Virginia has gone from two wins in 2016 to six last year to eight in 2018. Justin Fuente’s identical tenure has produced 10, seven and six victories—and Tech’s first losing season since 1992.
Now look who’s returning next fall.
The Cavaliers expect to have arguably their best players back on each side of the ball. Quarterback Bryce Perkins, whose athleticism transformed an offense that has been moribund for years, will be a senior in 2019. And cornerback Bryce Hall, who ranks second in the nation in passes defended (22), announced immediately after the bowl that he’ll return for his final season rather than entering the NFL draft.
Mendenhall will have to replace several key offensive players, including career receptions leader Olamide Zacchaeus and 1,000-yard rusher Jordan Ellis. But receiver Hasis Dubois and three-fifths of the starting offensive line are expected back.
The defensive outlook is similar. Standouts Chris Peace, Juan Thornhill and Tim Harris are out of eligibility, but rising star linebacker Charles Snowden has two more seasons, linebacker Jordan Mack and defensive end Eli Hanback one each.
“I think [the bowl win] just catapults us into next season with confidence, with strength,” Hanback told reporters after the Belk Bowl. “I know it’s going to help recruiting. It’s going to help our fan base. It’s going to help everything about the Virginia program.”
Virginia Tech’s season took a hit after quarterback Josh Jackson broke his left leg in the third game of the season, but offense wasn’t the Hokies’ biggest concern. It was an uncharacteristically porous defense that allowed 35 or more points in six of 13 games. This was the first year in recent memory that Virginia’s defense was measurably superior to Tech’s.
Bud Foster may have had less to work with than at any of his 23 seasons as Tech’s defensive coordinator. Injuries, suspensions, academic issues, early NFL entry and simple poor performance meant nine of his 11 defensive starters in Monday’s bowl were freshmen or sophomores. His secondary was especially green.
That helps explain in part the defensive struggles, but Foster has worked wonders with youth before. Only he truly knows whether this season’s issues hinged more on a lack of cohesion or a dropoff from the Hokies’ high talent standard, and whether his youngsters will improve with experience. Tech’s best defender in 2018, tackle Ricky Walker, was a senior.
One of the secrets to Frank Beamer’s remarkable 29-year coaching tenure was his staff’s ability to develop players, even if they weren’t blue-chip recruits. Beamer helped turn Jim Pyne and Cornell Brown into All-Americans, but only after he started winning consistently did he attract the likes of Michael Vick, Kevin Jones, David Wilson, Corey Moore and DeAngelo Hall to Blacksburg.
In Charlottesville, Mendenhall is starting to win with modestly rated recruits. Fuente and his staff need to show a similar quality. They also need to take a hard, honest look at their recruiting; linebacker Rico Kearney and receiver Sean Savoy transferred out late in the 2018 season. Is that merely a blip or the start of a trend?
If nothing else, Virginia’s ascendance should motivate the Hokies, who have taken pride in dominating the state for the past decade and a half.
“I hope we’ll train agitated,” Foster told reporters Monday, “and train … with a purpose.”
If they don’t, their reign atop the state may not last much longer.