Virginia Tech moves from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference with something of a tarnished reputation. The Hokies are no longer a team to fear. They're a team with something to prove, even after going 8-5 last season and playing in a bowl game for the 11th straight season.
Tech started its 2003 6-0 and had hopes of playing for a national championship -- until it lost five of its final seven games. "It's not like the bottom fell out," Tech coach Frank Beamer said -- but no one in the Tech camp was happy with how things played out. It was the third straight season a poor finish followed a strong start.
An undefeated start this season is unlikely; Tech opens against Rose Bowl champion Southern California in the Black Coaches Association Classic. The Hokies have some key personnel to replace, most notably All-America center Jake Grove, career receiving leader Ernest Wilford, stellar tailback Kevin Jones and superb cornerback/return man DeAngelo Hall.
Tech's overall talent level doesn't appear to be what it was last year, though it isn't far off. It will be counting on a new set of running backs and a new corps of receivers. The Hokies have some defensive players they are excited about, and the defense will need to come up big if Tech's first year in the ACC is to be a memorable one.
OffenseOffense was not the problem in 2003. The Hokies could have won 11 or 12 games based on offensive production alone.
However, offense could be a problem in 2004. Tech must replace a handful of big-time players and it didn't help when tailback-to-be Cedric Humes broke his left leg in spring drills. He's expected to be back at full speed by the season opener, but Humes missed the spring opportunity to work on a fumble problem that developed late last season.
Grove did more than snap and block. He was a leader. His skills can be replaced much easier than his intangibles. Look for senior quarterback Bryan Randall to assume more of the leadership role. Many thought this would be the season sophomore Marcus Vick would take over the job, but he was suspended from the university for the entire 2004 season after run-ins with the law.
Wilford, who caught 106 passes the past two seasons, will be sorely missed. A young group of receivers appears to have some talent, but Tech can't afford to wait for them to blossom.
DefenseNot too long ago, Virginia Tech's defense was very highly regarded. The Hokies' aggressive, speed-over-size philosophy made coordinator Bud Foster one of the nation's young coaches on the rise.
But the bloom has fallen off that rose. Tech's defense was thoroughly worn out last season, and the Hokies made heroes out of many an opponent.
The return of senior end Jim Davis will help the rush. When healthy, he's as good as it gets at applying pressure. Tech also has some young linebackers it really likes, particularly redshirt freshmen Xavier Adibi and Vince Hall, but they're probably a year away from becoming standouts. An accelerated timetable would help the Hokies.
The secondary wasn't very good last year and is populated by the same folks this year, minus DeAngelo Hall -- probably the team's best cover guy. If Tech's pass rush isn't much improved in 2004, opposing quarterbacks are going to be able to spin the yardage dial to incredible heights.
SpecialistsCoach Beamer handles his own special teams, which haven't been quite so special lately. Punter Vinnie Burns is pro caliber, if he can avoid the kind of fade he had late last season. Tech missed three field goals and had three kickoffs go out of bounds in its Insight Bowl loss to California, which represented its kicking season in a nutshell. Many suspects have emerged as kicking possibilities, but no sure-fire answer has been found.
The loss of Hall will hurt on returns. He probably would have been a first-round draft pick based on his special-teams skills alone.
Final AnalysisThe Hokies have been to a bowl game for 11 straight seasons, and it is going to take considerable effort to keep that streak going. Tech's once-feared defense became porous last season. Three late games could have been won with just one stop, but the Hokies couldn't get it done. Tech plans to "tweak" its alignments and play closer to a traditional 4-3 defense than it has in recent years. But what the Hokies really need is a better pass rush, more big plays out of their linebacking corps, and better pass coverage overall.