A Rough 2002? Don't Bet on It.
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 5/16/02
Virginia Tech fans who are living in fear of the Hokie football team posting a mediocre record in 2002 need to remember one thing: history suggests otherwise.
By most measures, the Hokies had an off year in 2001. They lost four games for the first time since 1997, including four of their last six, and they only defeated one team with a winning record (Boston College). In close losses to Syracuse, Florida State, and Miami, they suffered from a general lack of playmaking ability on both sides of the ball. And they were humiliated 38-7 by a Pittsburgh team that was solid but not world-beaters.
Follow up that disappointing 8-4 finish with wholesale losses at defensive tackle and linebacker, a knee injury to a starting quarterback that never exactly set the world on fire, and a murderous 2002 schedule that includes seven teams that didn't just play in bowls but won bowls, and you've got a Hokie nation that is sweating next season.
On the message boards, regular season predictions of 7-6 and 8-5 abound. Even many of the most optimistic fans can't see the Hokies winning more than 9 games against the toughest schedule Tech has had since 1991, a year that included five straight road games against NC State, South Carolina, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Florida State.
Hold on there, Hokie fans. Things aren't as grim as they seem.
Those of you who have been reading my columns for years know that I don't make it my mission to blow sunshine up your butt. I'm not in the habit of painting a rosy picture where one doesn't exist. Sure, I almost always pick the Hokies to win in my pregame writeups, but other than that, I don't sugarcoat things.
But despite the obvious obstacles the Hokie football team faces, including the upcoming schedule, I've got a funny feeling that they're going to surprise some people next year. Call it a hunch.
And history backs me up on that. First of all, in the Beamer Bowl era (1993 to the present), there are three seasons where high expectations gave way to disappointment: 1994, 1997, and 2001. Those Hokie teams either suffered from lofty preseason rankings they didn't fulfill (1994) or in-season hallucinations of greatness created by dominating a soft early-season schedule (1997 and 2001), only to collapse down the stretch.
And there are three seasons -- 1996, 1999, and 2000 -- in which lofty preseason expectations were not only met, but perhaps exceeded (in the case of 1999, definitely exceeded).
Lastly -- and here's where the injection of optimism for 2002 comes in -- there were a handful of seasons in which not much was expected of Tech, but the Hokies delivered big-time, surprising fans and pundits. 2002 could be such a year.
Here are the seasons during the Beamer Bowl era in which the Hokies have risen above what was expected of them.
1993: after a dismal 1992 season that saw Tech go 2-8-1, Sports Illustrated ranked the Hokies somewhere around 80th out of 100+ Division 1-A teams heading into 1993 and wrote somberly, "Dark days in Blacksburg."
Indeed, the Hokies were going into 1993 with eight freshmen and sophomores starting on defense, an unproven running game, and a QB, Maurice DeShazo, who had barely thrown more TD's (12) than interceptions (11) the previous season.
What happened? Tech stormed to a 9-3 finish, including their first bowl bid since 1986, and dominated Indiana in the Independence Bowl. They made the rankings for the first time since finishing #20 in the UPI poll at the end of the 1986 season, and for only the second time since 1954.
1995: Yes, the Hokies were ranked #20 in the preseason AP poll, but with DeShazo and Antonio Freeman gone, many wondered if Tech deserved that ranking. With losses to Boston College (20-14) and Cincinnati (16-0) in their first two games, they didn't appear to. Then they finished with 10 straight wins, including a Sugar Bowl victory, and were arguably one of the top three to five teams in the nation at season's end.
1998: Tech had stumbled to a 7-5 record in 1997 and had gotten ripped by UNC 42-3 in the Gator Bowl, and with a young defense and no playmakers in sight on offense, the prognosis for 1998 didn't look good.
On top of that, the Hokies had a daunting early-season schedule that included a home game against tough ECU and road games against Clemson and Miami. 0-3 was a distinct possibility.
Instead, what the Hokies got was a 3-0 start and an eventual 9-3 record, including a dominating 38-7 win over Alabama in the Music City Bowl. Tech was this close to being undefeated but couldn't pull it off because of a punchless offense, but when all was said and done, the 1998 season was viewed as a pleasant surprise.
Parallels to Past Seasons
At the first look, the 1997 and 1998 seasons are most like 2001 and 2002.
The similarities between the 1997 Hokies and the 2001 Hokies are eerie. Both teams started off with winning streaks over inferior competition and rose in the rankings. The '97 Hokies bolted out of the gate at 5-0 before losing to Miami of Ohio and reached #12 in the polls, while the 2001 Hokies got off to a rousing 6-0 start and went as high as #4 in the rankings.
Both teams collapsed and went 2-4 in the last six games, leaving the Tech faithful with a bad taste in their mouths. The collapse in 1997 was much worse than it was in 2001. The 1997 team couldn't get out of its own way by the end, absorbing embarrassing losses of 34-20 to UVa and 42-3 to UNC. The 2001 team was competitive to the end, though, losing to #1 Miami 26-24 and to FSU 30-17, in a game that was closer than the final score.
Moving forward one year, the 1998 and 2002 schedules are similar, as well. In conference, they're identical. Out of conference, they look like this:
Yet more eerie similarities. At home, this year's Marshall game is much like the 1998 ECU game was, though Marshall is probably better than the Pirates were. Virginia, however, is not better than they were in 1998. Arkansas State should be a cakewalk, while LSU has no comparison to any game played in 1998, which is one of the reasons Hokie fans are thrilled to see it on the schedule.
On the road, Western Michigan equals the 1998 UAB game, and the line of thinking on this year's Texas A&M game matches the mindset towards Clemson prior to the 1998 season: it's a game against a name team steeped in tradition, on the road in a big, loud stadium. The 1998 Clemson game intimidated Hokie fans somewhat, but Tech turned in a shocker with their easy hammer job back then, and they can win a tough one on the road again this year.
In conference, road games against Boston College, Syracuse, and Miami loom large, but they did back in 1998, too, and the Hokies went 2-1. At home, Rutgers, Temple, and WVU don't appear to be threatening at this early juncture, and the key home Big East tilt is against Pittsburgh.
Coiled and Ready to Strike in 2002
Taken as a whole, the slate of LSU, Marshall, @ Texas A&M, @ Boston College, Pittsburgh, @ Syracuse, and @ Miami is daunting. But these games are played one at a time, not all at once, and the Hokies could very well be very successful against those seven teams, as well as the rest of their schedule.
Virginia Tech, in the Beamer Bowl era, has never turned in two "blah" seasons in a row, and a 7-6 or 8-5 campaign against this year's 13-game schedule would be "blah," in my opinion. 9-4 is a little more stimulating, and 10-3 or better would be considered a pleasant surprise.
And I think it (10-3 or better) will happen. But some things are going to have to fall into place.
Referring back to 1998, the biggest boost the Hokies received was the emergence of Corey Moore at defensive end. Moore rose from relative obscurity in 1997 to record 13.5 sacks in 1998, and his domination of games from the defensive end spot was a key to the Hokies' success in 1998 -- perhaps the key, given how ineffective the Hokie offense generally was in key situations that year.
For Tech to surprise people in 2002, someone, in particular someone at the defensive end spot, is going to have to step up into the realm of double-digit sacks. The Hokies have four defensive ends who have seen significant playing time throughout 2000 and 2001, and at least one of them is going to have to stop piddling around with sack totals of 4 or 5 for the year and put up 10 or 15, instead.
In the Hokie defensive scheme, you can have as many hundred-tackle linebackers like Ben Taylor that you want, but what really makes that defense go is a crazy, quarterback-eating defensive end in the mold of Cornell Brown or Corey Moore. Junior Cols Colas seems most likely to fill that role, but it doesn't have to be him; it just has to be somebody, or this team will continue to be vulnerable to clutch passing by its opponents, as it has been the last couple of years.
Everyone is talking about the inexperience the Hokies will have at defensive tackle and linebacker in 2002, but if the defensive ends step up and pressure the QB, the youth at tackle and linebacker won't be as noticeable.
On offense, the power running game needs to get back to form, and the quarterback -- be it Grant Noel or Bryan Randall -- must be more effective. Last season, the running game suffered from all-or-nothing syndrome, and it seemed as if they either gained two yards or twenty yards, but very little in between.
And in every Hokie loss last year, the offense suffered from a lack of ability to put a score on the board when it was needed, much like the 1998 Hokies. Say what you want to about Grant Noel's plusses and minuses -- his foot speed, his four interceptions against Miami, his 1,826 yards passing, and his 16 regular-season TD passes, whatever. When it came time to simply will the team into the end zone, he couldn't do it like Druckenmiller and Vick could.
To be successful in 2002, the Hokie offense has to be able to put points on the board when it needs to. Period, no excuses, whether the quarterback is Noel or Randall.
But, and call me an optimist here, the spark will come from somewhere. The Hokies have a habit of having a good season the year after they have underperformed. A season that is perceived as being a disappointment motivates them the following year, and 2001 can be characterized as a disappointment. That bodes well for 2002, tough schedule or not.
It's hard to say where the leadership and playmaking will come from this fall, but my guess is, it will come from somewhere. Including the bowl game, I see at least a 10-4 season for the Hokies, which bucks conventional thinking. If they take care of business in the six games they play against non-bowl teams (Ark. State, Western Michigan, Rutgers, Temple, WVU, and Virginia) and win at least four of the seven against bowl teams (LSU, Marshall, Texas A&M, BC, Pitt, Syracuse, and Miami), they'll have ten wins or more before bowl bids even get handed out.
I'm not a betting man, but if you told me you had fifty bucks that said the Hokies weren't going to win at least ten games this year, including the bowl game, I would match it. I've got fifty bucks that says they will. And history is on my side.