Virginia Tech 35, Ohio State 21.
Wake Forest 6, Virginia Tech 3 (OT).
Eight months later, those scores still don’t make any sense. They might not in another 80 years, either.
How did Virginia Tech beat Ohio State, the eventual national champion, on the road Sept. 6 last season but lose at Wake Forest, otherwise winless in the ACC, on Nov. 22?
Actually, Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson has a pretty logical explanation.
“The team that finishes the season always looks a lot different, and hopefully better, than the one that starts,” Clawson said.
That was certainly the case for Ohio State, which went from out of the national race to national champions in a span of five months.
But for Virginia Tech? The opposite.
22Consecutive bowls for Hokies
5 Coastal titles in seven years (2005-11)
22-17 Record 2012-14
The season peaked in Columbus, Ohio, in Week 2. The rousing two-touchdown win over the Buckeyes was followed by back-to-back home losses to East Carolina and Georgia Tech. The low point was when neither the Hokies nor the Deacs scored in regulation – a first in ACC history – and Wake Forest emerged with one more field goal in overtime. In between there were three consecutive ACC losses to Pittsburgh, Miami and Boston College, which effectively knocked the Hokies out of the always open Coastal Division race.
Only by the grace of a rare miss by sure-footed Duke kicker Ross Martin and a four-point home win over Virginia did the Hokies extend their 22-year bowl streak.
So why the optimism for 2015? Two reasons: the defense and the schedule.
Even with major injuries, Virginia Tech ranked 14th in the country last year in scoring defense (20.2 points per game). To Clawson’s point, personnel losses reduced Virginia Tech’s defense by the end of the season. The group that ravaged Ohio State’s offensive line for seven sacks wasn’t the same by the end of the season.
Defensive tackle Luther Maddy (knee), who missed all but four games, is expected to be back and healthy. So is cornerback Brandon Facyson (leg), who missed the entire season.
Combine their talents with returning ends Ken Ekanem (9.5 sacks) and Dadi Nicolas (9 sacks) and junior cornerback Kendall Fuller (ACC-best 17 passes defended), and the Hokies should be able to win the division in spite of any potential issues on offense.
And there are issues on offense. The Hokies ranked 96th in scoring (24.1 points per game) and 108th in yards per play (4.93). But quarterback Michael Brewer (18 TDs, 15 interceptions), who started every game last year, should be more prepared and familiar with the offense.
Receivers Isaiah Ford (56 catches, 709 yards, 6 TDs) and Cam Phillips (40-498, 3 TDs) should be better as sophomores, and tight end Bucky Hodges (45-526, 7 TDs) gives Brewer a solid red zone option.
There are more questions at running back with sophomore Marshawn Williams trying to come back from a major knee injury and sophomore Shai McKenzie’s legal problems. But senior J.C. Coleman came on at the end of the season, with 468 yards in the final four games, and there’s usually talent in the backfield.
However, there are no such issues with the schedule.
There’s no arguing avoiding Florida State and Clemson during the regular season works in Virginia Tech’s favor, just as it did for Duke when it won the division in 2013. Virginia Tech, Duke, UNC and Pittsburgh all have a distinct advantage over Georgia Tech and Miami, which have to play Florida State and Clemson.
The Hokies’ schedule is not easy, but after the Labor Day opener against the Buckeyes in prime time, there’s a good chance they won’t be an underdog until the ACC title game.
The Hokies are often the default choice in the division because of their previous success — five division titles in seven years between 2005 and ’11 — and the usual lack of options.
Despite Virginia Tech’s recent woes (7-6, 8-5 and 7-6 in the past three years), taking them to win the division is not only the easy way out, it’s the logical one. Even if we can all agree that after what Virginia Tech did last season, the value of logic is low.
ACC preview schedule
May 31: No. 1 Florida State
June 7: No. 2 Clemson
June 14: No. 3 N.C. State
June 21: No. 4 Louisville
June 28: No. 5 Boston College
July 5: No. 6 Syracuse
July 12: No. 7 Wake Forest
July 19: No. 1 Virginia Tech
July 26: No. 2 Georgia Tech
Aug. 2: No. 3 UNC
Aug. 9: No. 4 Duke
Aug. 16: No. 5 Pitt
Aug. 23: No. 6 Miami
Aug. 30: No. 7 Virginia
Virginia Tech at a glance
2014: 7-6 (3-5 ACC)
Coach: Frank Beamer (231-115-2, 29th year at Virginia Tech).
Returning starters: Offense (6), Defense (7), Special teams (2).
▪ The Hokies ranked fourth in the country in sacks last season and should again be one of the nation leaders with all four starters on the defensive line back and the return of senior defensive tackle Luther Maddy from a knee injury.
Clemson star and Atlanta Falcons’ first-round pick Vic Beasley was the only player in the ACC with more sacks than senior ends Ken Ekanem and Dadi Nicolas last season.
▪ With a healthy Marshawn Williams at running back, the skill players represent one of the best groups in the ACC. Williams shares a hairstyle and first name with Seattle Seahawks star Marshawn Lynch but also his punishing running style.
With Williams, receiver Isaiah Ford has more room and the play-action opens up for tight ends Bucky Hodges and Ryan Malleck.
▪ The offensive line wasn’t great (34 sacks allowed) and does not return anyone who started more than nine games last season.
▪ Without Williams, who missed the final five games with a major knee injury, the offense got a little stagnant. J.C. Coleman has speed but not necessarily the size to be a durable week-to-week option.
▪ Granted, quarterback Michael Brewer was playing catch-up after graduating from Texas Tech last summer, but he needs to be more consistent and productive than he was last season.
After throwing for seven touchdowns in the first three games, Brewer had 11 in the last 10 games and threw for less than 190 yards in six games.
The defense stays healthy and treats every team like it did Ohio State, and the offense finds a groove with improved skill players, which results in another double-digit win season and an ACC title.
The defense can only do so much, the offense can’t get any better or out of its own way and the recent program decline continues with another barely-there bowl trip.
This feels like Frank Beamer’s last hurrah. After three mediocre seasons, the Hokies win the Coastal and pick up their 10th win in the bowl game.
Newcomer to watch
Tim Settle, DT
A classic case of the rich getting richer here. Settle, rated a five-star prospect by ESPN, is a luxury option for the Hokies’ deep line this season but the space eater (6-3, 325 pounds) has a bright future.
Sept. 7 Ohio State
Sept. 12 Furman
Sept. 19 at Purdue
Sept. 26 at East Carolina
Oct. 3 Pittsburgh
Oct. 9 N.C. State
Oct. 17 at Miami
Oct. 24 Duke
Oct. 31 at Boston College
Nov. 7 OPEN
Nov. 12 at Georgia Tech
Nov. 21 UNC
Nov. 28 at Virginia
Opening the year with No. 1 is no picnic, and the trip to Greenville on Sept. 26 won’t be easy, but Virginia Tech could not have asked for a better ACC schedule.
There’s no Florida State, Clemson or Louisville and there’s an open date before the Georgia Tech game. Virginia Tech can probably lose to Georgia Tech and still win the division.
Put it this way: Georgia Tech would be picked by the media in Pinehurst this week at the ACC Kickoff as the prohibitive favorite if it had Virginia Tech’s schedule.