70F Lane Stadium/Worsham Field, Blacksburg, VA
With nine starters returning to one of the nation's top defenses, Virginia Tech appears to have a good chance of regaining its spot atop the ACC.
Those defenders for the No. 16 Hokies might get an early test against conference rival Georgia Tech's option attack during Monday night's season opener at Lane Stadium.
Virginia Tech's current group of defenders is seeking to become one of the best in school history and will try to improve on a performance that put them in the top 10 nationally in yards (304.6) and points (17.6) allowed per game. The Hokies also finished tied for first in the ACC with 41 sacks last season, going 11-3 and losing the conference title game to Clemson and suffering an overtime defeat to Michigan in the Sugar Bowl.
Virginia Tech's 2006 squad led the nation by giving up 219.5 yards and 11.0 points per contest. That team, though, failed to win one of the program's four ACC titles, the most recent of which came in 2010.
"We feel like we have the talent on our side of the ball to be the best defense that's ever come through here," said Antone Exum, who is moving from safety to cornerback.
Exum's move is to try to help the Hokies replace standout Jayron Hosley, and safety Eddie Whitley is the only other starter not returning.
Virginia Tech, however, does have defensive ends James Gayle and J.R. Collins, who combined for 13 sacks. Linebacker Bruce Taylor is also expected to return from a foot injury that sidelined him the final six games in 2011 and spring practice.
With those players back in the fold, the Hokies will try to make an early statement on their conference title hopes. They could help themselves with a third consecutive win over the Yellow Jackets, the nation's second-ranked rushing team in 2011 at 316.5 yards per game.
After letting Georgia Tech top 300 yards on the ground in each of the previous two matchups, Virginia Tech allowed 243 - the fewest in the series' past four games - during a 37-26 win in Atlanta on Nov. 10.
Logan Thomas threw for 209 yards and three touchdowns on just seven completions for the Hokies and added a career-high 70 rushing yards while scoring two more TDs.
Thomas finished with a school-record 3,862 yards of total offense in 2011 and played a part in 30 touchdowns with 11 on the ground. The junior, though, will have some new receivers, and running back Michael Holmes has the unenviable task of trying to replace ACC player of the year David Wilson.
The Hokies also have four new starters on the offensive line and will use more spread formations to buy more time for Thomas.
Georgia Tech, meanwhile, will again run its triple option, led by quarterback Tevin Washington, who had a team-best 986 yards and 14 TDs in 2011. Running back Orwin Smith returns, as does David Sims, the team's second-leader rusher with 698 yards.
Sim, who had offseason surgery to repair a stress fracture, is listed as the starter over sophomores Zach Laskey and Charles Perkins in the latest depth chart.
"I think we've got good depth. In my mind, we're at least two deep at every position," coach Paul Johnson said.
The Yellow Jackets are hoping whoever starts can help them rebound from last year's lackluster finish. Georgia Tech, 14-12 over the past two campaigns, started 6-0 but lost five of the last seven, capped by a seventh consecutive bowl defeat.
The team is also seeking to shore up a defense that gave up at least 30 points in each of the final four games in 2011 and ranked eighth in the ACC with 26.1 allowed per game.
The winner of this game over the past seven seasons has gone on to win the Coastal Division and advance to the conference championship game. The Hokies, who lead the series 6-3, have won five of those games.