The Syracuse Orange football season is approaching quicker than you think, which means we're full-speed ahead on preview materials for 2016. Lately, we've been taking an advanced look at our opponents, which are... still incredibly difficult. Each week (roughly), we'll take a look at a team on Syracuse's 2016 schedule. Today, we continue with the:
Virginia Tech Hokies
School: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
#BRAND Slogan: "This Is Home."
Alternate #BRAND Slogan Suggestions: "Let's Be Frank (Beamer)." "Yeah, We'll Claim Mike Vick Again."
Recommended Blog(s): Gobbler Country, The Key Play
Coach: Justin Fuente, 1st year. Fuente represents the first coaching change for Virginia Tech football in decades, and with that comes the balancing act of establishing a new era while keeping the old success alive. Like his predecessor Beamer, however, Fuente has experience creating a culture. He comes to Blacksburg after four years at Memphis where he went 26-23, and won a share of a conference title with a top-25 ranking in 2014. Before that, he was at least partially responsible for the impressive TCU offenses of 2007-2011. He's one of several new, spread-focused additions to the ACC this fall.
2015 Record: (7-6) (4-4)
Recapping Last Season:
Frank Beamer's final season could've gone poorly -- and after a 3-5 start, it did seem like it was headed in that direction. Instead, the Hokies rallied for wins over Boston College, Georgia Tech and Virginia, then a fireworks show against Tulsa in the Independence Bowl. Despite an offense that had been spiraling toward ineptitude for several seasons on end, Tech bounced back in the final weeks of 2015 to average 38.5 points per game (including a 55-point output vs. the Golden Hurricane).
For the entire year, admittedly, there were positive steps forward overall with Tech's offense. Quarterback Michael Brewer was improved when he could stay on the field, and between him and Brendan Motley, the passing game made strides (64th overall in terms of passing yards per game). Unfortunately, that progress was hindered by a rushing attack that's fallen on hard times since David Wilson's departure after 2011. The Hokies averaged just under 160 yards per game on the ground, coming in at 82nd in the country. Total offense was in the bottom half of the country, and the scoring average, while sitting in the middle of the road at 53rd, was assisted by the bowl game scoring outburst.
Defensively, the team fell back on its typical strengths under Beamer and defensive coordinator Bud Foster: pass defense. At 19th in the country, the group shut down the pass better than most, even if interception totals fell short of the program's typical standards. The run defense, never amazing but also not poor, did drop off quite a bit, however, as teams simply opted against throwing the ball at all. Hokie opponents averaged over 180 yards per game (75th in the nation) to go with 22 scores on the ground. Per-game scoring figures didn't look great, but you can attribute some of that to the aforementioned Tulsa game. Tech did allow 40 or more points two additional times, though (Ohio State and Duke)... so not necessarily an isolated bit of futility.
2016 Season Outlook:
The offense is all-new for Fuente's Hokies, and that could mean growing pains in the early portions of the season -- especially without much personnel to really fit the uptempo attack he's looking for. The line returns nearly in full, as do weapons like receiver Isaiah Ford and halfback Travon McMillan. Tight end Bucky Hodges is one of the country's best at his position, and should help out whichever young passer takes the reins this fall. Brendan Motley got plenty of reps in 2015, but the team didn't add JUCO transfer Jerod Evans for nothing. Evans is a top-rated dual-threat and could be the key to this group getting off the ground quickly in this system.
Defensively, little will change in the immediate-term. Foster's still on staff and will preach similar ideals to what he always has: ball-hawking, sound tackling, and an emphasis on quality secondary play. In a "down year," Tech's defensive backs are still better than the vast majority of the country's options there. Beyond the coaching continuity, there's a lot of consistency in the back-four too, as the entire group returns. The young DBs will need to up their takeaways this season to make up for the losses elsewhere. Virginia Tech loses five of the starting front-seven from a year ago.
Fuente's job is not made easier by an admittedly tough schedule. If in-conference road games against North Carolina and Pittsburgh weren't difficult enough, the Hokies visit Notre Dame and play Tennessee at Bristol Motor Speedway. Still, the Coastal's full of enough parity where you could conceive a winning campaign without trying too hard. The secondary being in place already is huge for them. Now Fuente just has to hope the quarterback situation resolves itself early and they don't pick up too many injuries in the September to October stretch of contests.
Syracuse Game Date: October 15
Location: Carrier Dome, Syracuse, N.Y.
Odds of Orange Victory: 40 percent
Very Early Outlook:
The Orange and Hokies will be in a quiet race to see which newly-installed spread is operating better by mid-October. But Virginia Tech gets an automatic advantage since they'll be facing off against Syracuse's secondary at the Carrier Dome (while 'Cuse faces a top-20 group). These two teams don't look so far apart based on outputs last year, but coaching staff changes and the fact that Tech still possesses more talent on the roster will ultimately tilt the balance in their favor. Not so much so that this would be a huge upset (though if the Hokies beat Tennessee in September, look out...). But enough to have them looked at favorably. These two old Big East foes haven't played at the Dome since 2002, a 50-42 win for Syracuse. Perhaps SU can capture some of that old magic again.