Halfway through the College Football Season and there’s no question that among the surprises thus far is Virginia Tech. The Hokies were predicted to be about a mid-range team in the ACC’s Coastal Division as they made the transition from 29 year coach Frank Beamer to new coach Justin Fuente. After last week’s beat down of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, in all honesty Virginia Tech is now the odds on favorite to win the ACC Coastal and advance to the league’s championship game. If they don’t stumble this weekend (and we will talk more about that below), they are all set up for a showdown next Thursday night at home against Miami. A win there and Tech fans can all but buy their tickets to the championship game in Orlando on the first Saturday in December.
The way the Tech offense has performed this year is an acknowledgment of just how bad an offensive coordinator Scott Loeffler was during his time in Blacksburg. That’s now Boston College’s problem and if you’ve watched them play, you see how big a problem it is.
Now in all fairness Loeffler didn’t have Jerrod Evans at quarterback, whose proven himself to be a quarterback that can make all of the important throws and run the ball when he needs to. He’s been careless with the ball at times, but to me he appears to be one of those guys who just sort of lets it hang loose and what happens, happens. In other words, there’s more good than bad, but you have to take the bad to get to the good. He’s also getting better offensive line play which is something that’s really been missing for about a decade.
But the reason this team has been a surprise and the reason they are in a position to play for a championship can really be credited to long-time defensive coordinator Bud Foster. It’s no secret, having come to Virginia Tech with Beamer in 1987, that Foster was considered to be the heir-apparent to the Tech head coaching job. It’s likewise no secret that he really wanted it. He’s had other opportunities. Connecticut came sniffing around a couple of years ago, a job Foster said appeared to be a tough job. He’s right about that. The Vanderbilt job was his for the taking a few year’s back before they settled on Derek Mason to replace James Franklin. He passed (in fact he didn’t even take the interview with the school and they were willing to hire him without him ever visiting Nashville), and he did so with no doubt the idea in mind that he would be succeeding his long-time friend and mentor at Virginia Tech.
Had former Athletic Director Jim Weaver not become sick and eventually had to retire before he passed away, there’s no question that Foster would be the head coach right now. Weaver was known for taking the path of least resistance when it came to hiring and while he was instrumental in building some first class facilities like the new indoor football practice facility, he spent little time on actually finding the right coach. He screwed up the basketball program by firing Seth Greenberg late in the process and hiring one of Greenberg’s assistants James Johnson who had zero head coaching experience. The results were predictable. He hired Dennis Wolf as the women’s basketball coach from an administrative position on the men’s basketball staff when Wolf had never coached women’s basketball. His tenure was so-so and last spring he was shown the door. Weaver did hit a home run in hiring Kevin Dresser as wrestling coach, but even that didn’t take much work. Dresser – an NCAA Champion wrestler at Iowa – was just down the road 10 miles coaching at Christiansburg High School.
But, when Beamer did the school a solid last year by deciding on his own to retire avoiding what could have been a potentially messy break-up along with lines of Bobby Bowden and Phillip Fulmer, Foster was never a consideration for the head coaching job by new Athletic Director Whit Babcock.
Babcock targeted Fuente from day one and in all reality had probably laid the ground work before Beamer stepped aside as all of these Athletic Directors talk to coaches’ agents constantly. If you don’t think they do, you are free to join the Flat Earth Society. I guarantee you LSU’s Athletic Director has spoken to the agent of Houston Coach Tom Herman to gage his client’s interest.
I don’t know Babcock and probably never will, but he appears to be to be the typical Power-5 A.D. In other words, he’s full of crap. His job is to raise money and he’ll blow sunshine up the ass of those who have it. However, he’s proven adept at hiring coaches and there’s no question that his orchestrating of the transition from Beamer to Fuente was brilliant.
Once he decided on Fuente he had Foster fly to meet with him before Fuente officially became the Tech head coach. Foster got on the plane not knowing it was bound for Memphis. Babcock says he never told Fuente that he had to keep Foster, and that’s probably true, but having the Defensive Coordinator spend time with the new head coach before he’s the new head coach is a not-so-subtle hint to Fuente that you’d better keep him on as Defensive Coordinator. It was also a way to appease Foster’s supporters who wanted to see him elevated to replace Beamer. If Babcock doesn’t want to continue in College Athletics, he’d make a great politician.
There was a school of thought that Foster may have lost his touch as a defensive coordinator over the past couple of years. He didn’t suddenly forget how to coach defense. The decline in the Tech defense is directly correlated to the decline in the offense. With an anemic offense struggling to score points, Foster’s defense was stretched to the limit and under constant pressure to win games. The pressure caused them to crack at times and to Foster’s credit he not once threw the offense under the bus (although he must have been tempted at times) and justified his defensive unit’s struggles with excuses like youth and players out of position. In reality it was simple. His defensive players couldn’t play loose and concentrate on their assignments because they knew they had to make plays to win games and keep the other team out of the end zone. They are after all kids between 18 and 22 and that pressure caused them to crack.
No such problems now. Fuente’s offense is humming just like it did during his time at Memphis and with the offense putting up points, Foster has turned back the clock and is turning his defense loose. They are playing confident and most of all…relaxed. There are probably still players out of position, but those deficiencies are hidden better when your offense is scoring points. This year, his defense is second in the nation in third down conversion defense. In six games, opponents have converted just 10 of 82 third down attempts and frankly most of those were probably by Tennessee, the only game they’ve lost. They are number one in the nation having allowed just 57 first downs all season and third in the nation in total defense (behind Michigan and Florida) allowing just 237.6 yards per game this season.
For all the numbers you can rattle off, the success of this team is probably more attributable to something Foster didn’t do off the field. There’s probably no question that he was disappointed to not become Beamer’s successor and probably a bigger disappointment to not even be considered. He could have easily become a cancer on this team and undermined his new boss setting him up for failure or putting Fuente in a position where he had to make a change. He didn’t do that. He put his ego in a drawer, which couldn’t have been easy and did what is best for Virginia Tech and if this team continues to roll toward an ACC Coastal Title and a spot in the Championship Game, then Tech fans should not just thank their A.D. for hiring Fuente to fix the offense, but for orchestrating a scenario where parts of the old Tech staff met the new Tech staff and created something special.
Having said all that, this week presents a major challenge to Virginia Tech when they travel to Syracuse. I know Syracuse isn’t very good, but that’s not the point. The point is that the Carrier Dome (which is named after an air conditioning company, but actually has no air conditioning) has been Tech’s little shop of horrors. Tech is 2-7 overall in the Carrier Dome and has lost 4 of their last 5 games at Syracuse. They haven’t visited the Dome since November 9, 2002 when they lost in Triple Overtime 50 – 42. This is the first meeting between Virginia Tech and Syracuse as ACC schools, but they did play 9 straight years in the old Big East from 1995 – 2003. In opposite divisions they won’t see each other very much in the ACC. Also factoring in is that Tech has this game and a very short week before Thursday night’s showdown with Miami in Blacksburg. Fuente however seems very focused on the task at hand each week and if the players are looking ahead, it won’t be coming from him.
After starting the year 0-3, Virginia has won two straight and has a chance to get to 3-3 if they beat Pittsburgh on Saturday in Charlottesville. Granted wins over Central Michigan and Duke aren’t anything to get all that excited about, but when you consider that after three games, it appeared U.Va. was going to struggle to win one game, having a chance at a .500 record through half of the season has to be encouraging to those who sing the good ole song of Wahoo-Wa every Saturday in a salute to “Dear Ole’ U-V-A.”. Interestingly enough Saturday is the 85th anniversary of the first game ever played at Scott Stadium. Dr. John Risher was a player in that game for U.Va. He’s now the school’s official statistician and will be at the game Saturday at age 106.
In the Big XII, the conference’s playoff hopes hinge on 5-0 Baylor and 4-0 West Virginia. I doubt anyone saw that coming. This Saturday the Mountaineers head to Lubbock, Texas to face Texas Tech. The last time WVU went to Lubbock unbeaten was in 2012 when they were ranked 4th in the A.P. poll. They were blown away like the West Texas wind 49-14. Texas Tech leads the nation in passing offense at 544 yards per game, and is second in the nation in scoring offense scoring 55.2 points per game. In the Red Raiders last nine home games, they’ve never failed to score less than 50 points.
That brings us to the banks of the Tennessee River for the third Saturday in October and the meeting between number one ranked Alabama and Tennessee. There are a lot of old geezers in Tennessee. Not as many as Florida or Arizona, but boy are there a bunch of them. A percentage of those geezers (particularly in Knoxville) played football at Tennessee. These old farts want Tennessee to play Alabama at 1:30 p.m. and have Tennessee wear its Orange Uniforms while Alabama wears its Crimson. Why? Because that’s tradition. It likewise rankles the senior set that the Alabama-Tennessee game isn’t annually played on the third Saturday in October. In fact, this Saturday is just the 9th time since 1995 that Tennessee and Alabama have met in their traditional spot on the calendar. Tradition went out the window when Conferences began expanding to 14 teams. In fact, it’s just my opinion that the SEC needs to dispense of the annual playing partner arrangement across its divisions which allows these two to play every year and go to a more round robin format. It’s ridiculous that 12 years passes between visits to Knoxville from other SEC West schools. I can hear the geezers groaning right now. How dare I?
This is the 99th meeting and it comes just a week after Tennessee frankly threw one away against Texas A&M so instead of Number 1 vs. Number 9, it really should be a top 5 game, but it’s not. This match-up goes in cycles. Alabama has currently won 9 in a row and Tennessee has won just 3 of the last 14 meetings between these schools. Prior to that there was an eight game Alabama winning streak from 1986 – 1992 and from 1995 – 2001 Tennessee won 7 in a row. Peyton Manning never beat Florida, but he never lost to Alabama and that might be more important to Tennessee fans. The Vols struggle with rushing sometimes unless their quarterback is involved in the running game. Hint, Hint O-Coordinator. They are 50th in the nation in rushing offense. Alabama is tops in the nation in rushing defense yielding just 69.2 yards per game.
The FCS Game of the Week takes us to Charleston, South Carolina where the 8th ranked Citadel Bulldogs host the 5th ranked Moccasins of Chattanooga. Don’t you dare call them by their actual name UT-Chattanooga. The Citadel is 5-0 and someone needs to explain to me how this Military School can win at Football and VMI can’t. Chattanooga is 6-0 making this the final regular season meeting of the FCS season between two unbeaten teams. Both tied for the league title last season and made the playoffs. It matches the Southern Conference’s top offense in The Citadel against the conference’s and nation’s top FCS defense.
For Division II, we go to Winona, Minnesota where the 5-1 Winona State Warriors host the 6th ranked and undefeated Cougars of Sioux Falls. Another match-up of offense-defense here. Sioux Falls has the top Division II rushing offense. Winona State has the top Division II rushing defense.
Division III takes us to Alfred, New York where the 23rd ranked Alfred University Saxons host the Courtland Red Dragons in an Empire-8 Conference Game. Alfred is just Southeast of Buffalo, New York. Courtland State’s official name is State University of New York at Courtland it’s part of the State University of New York system. It’s located just off interstate 81 between Syracuse and Rochester. Alfred has the distinction of being only the second college in the nation to admit a Native American student in 1850. The first, was NAIA school Berea College in Kentucky.
And so, for our NAIA game of the Week we go to Kentucky, Campbellsville to be exact where the struggling Campbellsville Tigers at 1-4 host the undefeated and 18th ranked Bethel University Wildcats. Bethel – located in McKenzie, Tennessee – is trying to get the NAIA playoffs for the first time since 2012.
Have a great weekend everyone…