Record: 10-4 overall, 5-3 ACC (first, Coastal, ACC champions)
Bowl: beat Cincinnati, 20-7 in the Orange
They're here: RB Darren Evans, DE Jason Worilds, QB Tyrod Taylor
They're gone: CB Macho Harris, K Dustin Keys, QB Sean Glennon
• Confidence. Terms like confidence, motivation and momentum can be nebulous but in the case of Virginia Tech football, when you watch them play, you can look at the players, coaches and even fans, and tell they expect to win.
When you win 52 games in five years, the confidence to win usually follows as does the motivation to maintain the standards of the program. That's also a sign of great coaching, and make no mistake, winning the '08 ACC title, with that young of a team and that many new parts, ranks among Frank Beamer's top accomplishments, and certainly one of his best coaching jobs, at his alma mater.
• The running game. Darren Evans (1,265 yards) was one of three 1,000-yard rushers in the ACC last season and really saved Tech's offense last season after the usual mishmash at quarterback and completely new set of receivers.
The offensive line still isn't great — nobody in the ACC allowed more sacks (42) than VT last season — but with three starters back, it will get better, in part because of Evans' ability and redshirt freshman running back Ryan Williams, who lit up the spring game.
• The passing game. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor's a lot of things but efficient passer is not one of them. Part of that is not Taylor's fault. He has been jerked around by the coaching staff — He's redshirting! He's not! — and had to share time with Sean Glennon in one of the more bizarre — yet effective — quarterback scenarios in ACC history the past two seasons.
Also in Taylor's defense, VT lost four receivers to the NFL in '08.
But the bottom line for Taylor is he threw two touchdowns and seven interceptions and completed just 57.2 percent of his attempts (99-173).
Taylor's rushing ability, he ran for seven scores, offsets some of his deficiencies at quarterback but at some point — and for VT to take the next step from ACC power to national power — Taylor needs to progress as a passer.
• Special teams. Blaspheme, I know, but VT lost a game (ECU) on punt block last year and had three punts returned for a touchdown. Meanwhile, it didn't return a punt or kickoff for a score. That's not the BeamerBall formula.
Kicker Dustin Keys was very good, limited in length strength, but made 23-of-29 field goals and was the best scoring option on a limited offensive team. He's gone, not that Beamer can't find a suitable replacement, just that there's no guarantee Penn State transfer Matt Waldron will be as good as Keys.
|Sept. 5||Alabama (@ Atlanta)|
|Oct. 3||@ Duke|
|Oct. 10||Boston College|
|Oct. 17||@ Georgia Tech|
|Nov. 5||@ ECU|
|Nov. 14||@ Maryland|
|Nov. 21||N.C. State|
|Nov. 28||@ Virginia|
What went right
• Outclassed, and down 14 points at UNC on Sept. 20, the Hokies found a way to rally and beat the Tar Heels, 20-17. After a demoralizing Thursday night loss at Miami on Nov. 13 — and seemingly out of the Coastal race — the Hokies slugged through ugly wins over Duke (14-3) and UVa (17-14).
• VT played its best two games when it mattered most, blitzing BC in the ACC title game, 30-12, and then subduing Cincinnati, 20-7 in the Orange Bowl to end the ACC's eight-year drought in the BCS.
• A week after beating VT and taking control of the Coastal, Miami got cranked by Georgia Tech, 41-23, which effectively gave VT the division title.
What went wrong
• The passing game (111th nationally), the blocking (111th in sacks allowed) and quarterback shuffle/injuries all contributed to a mostly inept offense (104th nationally), save for Evans' ground game.
• The plan to shelve Taylor, and start Glennon, lasted one game — a 27-22 loss to East Carolina.
Record: 9-4 overall, 5-3 ACC (second, Coastal)
Bowl: lost to LSU, 38-3 in the Peach
They're here: RB Jonathan Dwyer, QB Josh Nesbitt, S Morgan Burnett
They're gone: DE Michael Johnson, DT Vance Walker, DT Darryl Richard
• Running game. It's not just that 10 starters are back, or that Jonathan Dwyer led the league in rushing (1,395) and yards per carry (7.0) but that the players' experience in Paul Johnson's flexbone offense. It's no longer a foreign concept after two springs, 13 games and the extra bowl practice.
That means Johnson can expand his options on the offense. Throw in Louisville transfer Anthony Allen at running back and Tech's ground game, which led the ACC and ranked fourth nationally with 273 yards per game, will be even more difficult to stop in Year 2.
• Being different. Johnson's the only coach in the country running the flexbone. It's a form of the old triple option, which teams stopped using in the 1980s because defenses became too fast (which is why GT had so much trouble with UNC and LSU). But by being unique, Johnson begins every game week with an edge in preparation.
• The defensive line. You can't help but talk about offense when it comes to GT but the defense carried that team through stretches when either Nesbitt was hurt or opponents could slow the run (re: at Boston College). With three new starters on the defensive line, the Jackets will not enjoy the same advantage, even though the back seven returns.
• The schedule. Going back to Navy, Johnson has been the master at scheduling, stocking the slate with easy wins. But this schedule features only one Division I-AA opponent and then a few quirks that won't help the Jackets.
GT figures to benefit from the four-day turnaround between the opener and a Thursday night game with Clemson but the next Thursday they play Miami, which will be coming off a bye.
Then there's a stretch of at Florida State (Oct. 10), Virginia Tech (Oct. 17) at home and then at Virginia (Oct. 24). Virginia doesn't seem like much on paper, but the Cavs beat GT last year (that 3-4 defense helps them against the option) and UVa has been superb at home under Al Groh.
After playing consecutive games against the preseason favorites, how interested will GT be in a trip to UVa? That's the classic definition of a trap game, my friends.
To top it all off, GT doesn't get a bye until Week 11. That's a lot of football.
If the division race is as close as last year, all of those little things can add up.
|Sept. 5||Jacksonville State|
|Sept. 17||@ Miami|
|Oct. 3||@ Mississippi State|
|Oct. 10||@ Florida State|
|Oct. 17||Virginia Tech|
|Oct. 24||@ Virginia|
|Oct. 31||@ Vanderbilt|
|Nov. 7||Wake Forest|
|Nov. 14||@ Duke|
What went right
• Even with two easy wins on the schedule, GT surpassed all expectations in going 9-4, tying for first in the Coastal Division.
• With 273 rushing yards per game, GT ranked fourth nationally in rushing offense and led the ACC — by almost 100 yards per game.
• A 45-42 win in Athens ended a seven-game losing streak to rival Georgia.
What went wrong
• Given the emotion in beating Georgia, it would have been difficult for the Jackets to beat the Little Sisters of the Poor in the Peach Bowl, but the 38-3 demolition at the hands of Louisiana State University raised the age-old questions about the effectiveness of Johnson's system on the elite level.
• A late stumble at home to Virginia cost the Jackets the Coastal Division.
Record: 8-5 overall, 4-4 ACC (third, Coastal)
Bowl: lost to West Virginia, 31-30 in the Meineke
They're here: LB Quan Sturdivant, QB T.J. Yates, RB Shaun Draughn
They're gone: WR Hakeem Nicks, WR Brandon Tate, S Trimane Goddard
• Speed. If UNC's defense looks familiar it should, it's the same blueprint Butch Davis, and Jimmy Johnson before him, used at the University of Miami. There's size up front and speed in the back.
Davis is stockpiling talent on the defensive side of the ball. It's not just the nine starters coming back but the new bodies he's bringing in — and will get reps this season. In linebackers Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter, Davis has two of the best athletes in the ACC.
The entire line returns and Davis has added one of the best recruits in the country in end Donte Moss. Defensive tackle Marvin Austin's hype still outmatches his production but his talent is indisputable and if he's motivated to go the NFL after this season, he should have his best season.
The Heels gave up too many yards (365 per game) and points (21 per game) to be considered a great defense but with so many parts back, they have a chance to take the next step this season.
• From the jump, Davis has been decisive in his support of quarterback T.J. Yates. He named Yates, then an unknown redshirt, the starter before the '07 season, despite the experience of returning starter Cam Sexton.
A year later, Yates got hurt in the third game. Sexton performed admirably in the interim, keeping UNC's season afloat.
In the short term, Davis would have been better off sticking with Sexton at the end of the '08 season but he views Yates as the long-term solution. He went with Yates and finished 1-2, including an ugly 41-10 home loss to N.C. State.
Why is that a "Plus?" Because in backing Yates, Davis gave the kid confidence. Identifying the roles of your players on the team is the top priority of any coach, in any sport on any level. Davis' decision last November told Yates, "You're my guy."
That kind of loyalty usually pays off in the end. In Yates, Davis has a quarterback for the next two seasons. And in an offense where there are so many questions at receiver, the coach doesn't have to worry about the quarterback.
In turn, Yates doesn't have to look over his shoulder or worry what happens if he has a bad game. He's the Guy, and with that kind of support from his coach, you can expect Yates to play like it in '09.
• Receivers grow on trees in college football but Hakeem Nicks was the best in school history. And in terms of big-play ability, Brandon Tate was one step ahead of Nicks.
UNC just doesn't have talent like those two players in the program. That doesn't mean they won't be able to throw the ball — Josh Adams, Dwight Jones and Greg Little will likely put up respectable numbers — but can those receivers change games like Nicks and Tate did?
Think of it this way — Tyler Hansbrough is leaving the basketball program. They'll still play basketball at UNC and they will have new talent at the position but it's not the same. That's how good, and important, Nicks was to the football program. He was the equivalent of Hansbrough.
• Depth on the offensive line is in short supply and it wasn't helped when guard Aaron Stahl graduated and did not use his final season of eligibility. The unit already lost tackle Garrett Reynolds and guard Calvin Darity.
The ground game struggled at times, particularly early, but that was offset by the explosive ability of the passing game. That explosion won't be there, or at least as much, which means the line has to stay healthy and establish a consistent running game.
|Sept. 5||The Citadel|
|Sept. 12||@ UConn|
|Sept. 26||@ Georgia Tech|
|Oct. 10||Georgia Southern|
|Oct. 22||Florida State|
|Oct. 29||@ Virginia Tech|
|Nov. 21||@ Boston College|
|Nov. 28||@ N.C. State|
What went right
• The team went from four wins to eight with a gigantic season from Nicks, an improved defense and some impressive improvisation with all the important injuries.
• For the first time since 2002, UNC left the state of North Carolina and won a football game, pummeling Rutgers 44-12 on national television.
• The Heels delivered a 29-24 win over Notre Dame in a thrilling atmosphere to start 5-1 and, if only for a moment, make football the most important sport in town.
What went wrong
• The usual loss at Virginia, UNC hasn't won there since 1981, killed the momentum from the Notre Dame win and started the Heels on a 3-4 slide to the finish.
• The injuries to Yates and Tate sidetracked what could have been a division championship. Even still, a missed 28-yard field goal against Maryland ultimately proved to be the difference between first and third place.
• The 41-10 home loss to N.C. State was humiliating and dropped Davis to 0-2 against the Wolfpack and 0-4 against State, ECU and Wake Forest.
— By J.P. Giglio