HOW TO GET TO POSTSEASON
At this stage in Tech's evolution it's not so much a matter of how it'll get to the postseason (it has gone to bowls in 19 consecutive seasons), but rather how good the postseason will be for the Hokies. Games at Clemson, at North Carolina and against Florida State look to be the significant potential stumbling blocks, but Tech is capable of winning all of them, and likely will be favored in two of them (UNC and FSU). If Tech gets to bowl season with one loss, it easily could be in the thick of the Bowl Championship Series national title discussion, but that would, of course, require it to win its fifth Atlantic Coast Conference championship. Given Tech's inexperience in the backfield, unknowns on the offensive line and safety positions and banged up linebackers, it seems more likely that shooting for a goal of a ninth straight 10-win season would be more realistic.
KEY SCHEDULE STRETCH
The last time Tech played Clemson and FSU in the same season was 2007, and the Hokies came away with a win on the road against the Tigers and a victory in Blacksburg against the Seminoles. Neither Clemson nor FSU was as talented in '07 as they should be this season. Tech will hit the meat of its conference schedule during a critical five-game run in October and November when it plays at UNC, against Duke and at Clemson before back-to-back Thursday night contests at Miami (12 days after the Clemson game) and against FSU. Tech has sustained success at UNC (four straight wins in Chapel Hill since joining ACC in '04) and Miami (won three of four games on road since '04), but the trip to Clemson is troublesome given what the Tigers did to the Hokies last season in their two meetings. Perhaps momentum will play a role if Tech can get out of September with a 5-0 record. Tech went undefeated (4-0) in the first month of the season last year for the first time in six years.
Though James Gayle insists Tech's defensive line is getting slightly undue praise this preseason, there's no denying the Hokies have a ton of ability and quality depth at both end and tackle spots. Gayle, a Bethel High graduate, has All-ACC caliber skills at end. Junior J.R. Collins has similar potential at the other end. While Derrick Hopkins will man one of the starting tackle jobs for a second straight season, his brother, Antoine (back from a torn ACL), and Luther Maddy are interchangeable pieces at the other tackle. Corey Marshall, who plays end and tackle, and defensive end Tyrel Wilson, a Hampton High graduate, have enough experience to make them potential starters if they were on other teams. Zack McCray, who also plays both line positions, and defensive tackle Kris Harley are both highly recruited backups. Tech was 14th in the nation in rushing defense last season (giving up 104 yards per game). With this kind of depth up front, Tech could hold opponents under 100 yards rushing per game for first time since '07 (87 yards per game that season).
Since becoming a member of the ACC, Tech has had more first-team all-conference representatives at kicker and punter (four players) than any other team in the conference, which has to frustrate coach Frank Beamer because he's not really strong at either spot going into the season. The biggest issue is punter, where true freshmen Hunter Windmuller, A.J. Hughes and Brooks Abbott competed in the preseason. That's the very definition of uncertainty. Late last season, Tech was so unsettled at punter it had to resort to using wide receiver Danny Coale at the position … and he was by far Tech's most successful punter, averaging 43.5 yards per punt while neither Scott Demler nor Michael Branthover averaged more than 36.6 yards per attempt. Cody Journell is back at kicker after settling legal transgressions in the offseason. He was strong overall last year, connecting on 14 of 17 field goals, but his longest successful kick was 42 yards. Beyond 29 yards, he made six of nine attempts. What kind of range does he really have?
While the impact of new faces will obviously be felt at punter, there's also going to ample opportunity for true freshmen to step in and get a ton of reps in the backfield and in the secondary. J.C. Coleman will split carries with redshirt freshman Michael Holmes, and freshman Trey Edmunds could find his way on the field in certain situations, or if injuries take a toll on other running backs. In the secondary, cornerback Donaldven Manning enrolled in January, participated in spring practices and established himself right away as a No. 2 option. Donovan Riley has also had a promising preseason, working at No. 2 cornerback. After sitting out last season following his transfer from Georgia, sophomore Brent Benedict has taken over the starting job at right guard. At wide receiver, there's a chance true freshmen Joel Caleb and Joshua Stanford could see significant playing time after making favorable impressions from the start of preseason practice.
It wouldn't be too surprising to see outside programs begin to covet secondary coach Torrian Gray for a defensive coordinator role. At 38 years old, his star is definitely still on the rise. For the past 21 consecutive seasons, Tech has had at least one defensive back earn first- or second-team honors in the Big East or ACC. In his first six years at Tech, Gray coached All-ACC selections Brandon Flowers, Victor Harris, Kam Chancellor, Jayron Hosley, Davon Morgan, Kyle Fuller and Eddie Whitley. Gray also has been responsible for the recruitment of seven Tech starters or projected starters in the last four years, including linebacker Jeron Gouveia-Winslow, left guard David Wang, safeties Detrick Bonner and Kyshoen Jarrett and former Hokies Ryan Williams and Hosley. Gray also has brought in promising receiver Joshua Stanford, cornerbacks Davion Tookes and Manning and defensive end Jarontay Jones. Gray nabbed All-American prep cornerback Kendall Fuller and cornerback Brandon Facyson for the class of '13, and '14 class safety Javon Harrison from Kathleen High in Lakeland, Fla. — Gray's high school alma mater.
BEST/WORST CASE SCENARIO
By the end of the season, Tech could have a school single-season passing yardage record-setting quarterback in Logan Thomas and All-America caliber defensive standouts in James Gayle and Kyle Fuller. The bad news is all three of those guys are juniors and could take off for the NFL after the season. As much as Beamer may hate the distraction, everything will point to the importance of Oct. 20 and Tech's game at Clemson if the Hokies can somehow get off to a 7-0 start before the game against the Tigers. If Tech remains undefeated through the Clemson game, look out, because the national media will surely jump on the Hokies' bandwagon for the last month of the regular season. Of course, getting to that point without a loss is a big if. Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and UNC are capable of hanging losses on Virginia Tech. A nine-win regular season seems like a reasonable settling point for Tech, but the Hokies have enough talent to — believe it or not — run the table.
HOW TO GET TO POSTSEASON
It's pretty simple: win the games they should win. U.Va. will be favored to beat Richmond, Louisiana Tech, Duke, Maryland, Wake Forest, likely Miami and possibly Penn State and North Carolina. Last year, U.Va. got it done without having much of a pass rush (only 20 sacks, 90th in the nation in the category), but the Cavaliers were 15th in the nation in third-down efficiency defense (denying offenses a first down on 66.7 percent of third-down opportunities). U.Va. may need to generate more pass rush this season to help a young secondary. With so many quality running backs, grinding it out on the ground could be U.Va.'s modus operandi, but that's not really offensive coordinator Bill Lazor's style. Still, with a potentially dynamic running game, whichever quarterback winds up getting the bulk of the snaps doesn't have to be spectacular. He just has to take care of the ball, and U.Va. should have a good chance to get back to a bowl.
KEY SCHEDULE STRETCH
We'll discover everything we need to know about U.Va. this season before the end of September. Sure, U.Va. can stink up the joint pretty bad in September and still have a decent chance to make a bowl game, but the slate in the first month will let us know if U.Va. has taken a big step forward or if the season will be an uphill climb. After opening with Richmond, U.Va. will play Penn State, at Georgia Tech, at Texas Christian and against Louisiana Tech (not a pushover by any stretch) — all in September. A winning record at the end of the month could propel U.Va. to a special season, especially if that winning record is an unexpected 4-1 or better. The last time U.Va. got out of September with more than two wins was 2007, when it went 4-1 in the opening month, played in the Gator Bowl and finished 9-4.