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ACC Preview: With soft schedule, Hokies should roll

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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With Tyrod Taylor off to the NFL, Logan Thomas takes over under center for the Hokies. (US Presswire)  
With Tyrod Taylor off to the NFL, Logan Thomas takes over under center for the Hokies. (US Presswire)  

PINEHURST, N.C. -- For Virginia Tech, the season doesn't start against Alabama. Boise State also is nowhere to be found and even James Madison has disappeared from the schedule.

In each of the past two years, the Hokies opened with a loss against a top five program. This year, they are opening with four tomato cans: Appalachian State (an FCS member) along with East Carolina, Arkansas State and Marshall, who combined for 22 losses last season.

Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer called the Hokies' non-conference slate "tough." Tough or fluff, call it what you wish, but the bottom line is the Hokies will be favored in all 12 regular season games. That's something even league favorite Florida State can't say, yet Beamer still says FSU is the team to beat.

However, without an early season minefield on this year's schedule, this could be a very special season for Virginia Tech in a lot of ways. Not only will it be Beamer's 25th as the head Hokie, but could Virginia Tech take advantage of its schedule and make a national title run?

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"The way I look at it, that [winning a national championship] has got to be your goal," Beamer said. "And it is our goal. It all starts with trying to win your division, then winning the ACC [championship game], which we were fortunate to do last year, and if you do you're going to be in a position to win the national championship or go to the Orange Bowl."

The Hokies' only shot at a national title came in 1999 when they were still members of the Big East. They lost to Florida State in the Sugar Bowl. They have the nation's third-longest current postseason streak, having gone to a bowl game in 18 consecutive years, including four BCS bowls in the last seven years. They also have finished among the top 10 in the final Associated Press poll four times since 2004.

Close to being a national title contender, but yet so far.

"We're in the mix," Beamer said. "What has happened is we just haven't quite fit together. When we were good defensively we were a little bit too young offensively. And then when we were good offensively last year we were a little bit too immature defensively.

"It's all got to come together and then you have to be a little lucky. I think we're in the mix. It just has to fit together. That's what you shoot for. It's hard. Things have to fall right and you've got to be good and be a little bit lucky. We're going to keep working for that, though."

The fact the Hokies will keep working is a given.

In the past 24 years, BeamerBall has averaged a remarkable 5.3 touchdowns a season via its defense and special teams and also blocked an average of 5.29 kicks a season.

Virginia Tech also is the only FBS team in America with at least 10 victories in each of the past seven seasons. No other school has accomplished that: not Alabama, Auburn, LSU or Florida. But then again those SEC schools have something Virginia Tech doesn't -- a national championship.

The Hokies are hoping that can change. Doing it in Beamer's 25th season would make it even more special, especially since there were times where Beamer wasn't sure he would still be at Virginia Tech this long.

In 1987, Beamer took over for Bill Dooley, who had guided the Hokies to seven consecutive winning seasons. Beamer's debut season (2-9) was not good. His second season wasn't much better: 3-8. In fact, he had four losing seasons in his first six years, capped by a 2-8-1 record in 1992.

In 1993, however, Virginia Tech went 9-3 under Beamer. It marked the start of the Hokies' 18-year bowl streak. Also, the Hokies have finished with two or few regular season losses nine times in the past 16 years.

"I'm very appreciative," said Beamer, who said he came "real close" to taking the North Carolina job in 2000. "It makes you think how fortunate you are. It's a place you want to be, a place that means a lot to you. From that standpoint, I realize how fortunate I've been. I've had a lot of good players and coaches and the administration hung with [me] when things weren't so good."

The Hokies' program is so good now, so dependable and reliable that frankly, it's taken for granted. They've won three of the past four ACC titles and last year's club set school records for total offense and points.

Virginia Tech returns 12 starters off that team led by wide receivers Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale and defensive backs Eddie Whitley and Jayron Hosley.

The Hokies' non-conference schedule should prove to be a perfect testing ground for sophomore quarterback Logan Thomas, who takes over for Tyrod Taylor. Not only will the Hokies have a new quarterback, but also a new play caller as quarterbacks coach Mike O'Cain takes over those duties from offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring.

"Logan will be as well prepared as he can be," Beamer said. "The thing he hasn't gotten is a lot of game experience. I think he'll get better and better and go through a little bit of a learning curve."

The 6-foot-6 Thomas played in only seven games last season, attempting 26 passes. Even with an inexperienced quarterback, the Hokies still should be in position for another ACC title and, with a little luck, maybe even in the national title hunt.

That's a much different viewpoint for the Hokies than during Beamer's early years.

"What I'm most proud of is that Virginia Tech is not thought about the same way now as 10 years ago, 15 years ago," Beamer said. "How we're thought of on the national level has changed. You have to be consistent for your name to be mentioned at a high level."

CBSSports.com's Chip Patterson predicts order of finish:

Atlantic Division

1. Florida State

In just his second year at the helm, head coach Jimbo Fisher already has pieces in line to make a run at the Seminoles' first ACC Championship since 2005. Florida State returns 57 letterman, including 17 starters, from a team that knocked off the SEC East champs in the Chick Fil-A Bowl on New Years Eve. Junior signal caller EJ Manuel officially began his reign in the high-pressure position of Florida State quarterback. Senior linebacker Nigel Bradham leads a talented defensive unit that is highlighted by Preseason All-ACC selection Brandon Jenkins. The Seminoles have to travel to Clemson on Sept. 24 and Boston College on Thursday Nov. 3 under the lights. Other than that, the conference schedule shapes up nicely, and Florida State should find itself back in the ACC Championship Game for the second year in a row. Get real-time Florida State updates

2. Clemson

After an inconsistent and disappointing 6-7 finish in 2010, head coach Dabo Swinney had a busy offseason working to make sure the Tigers don't repeat that performance. The most notable staff change was bringing in Tulsa offensive coordinator Chad Morris, whose high-tempo system hopes to eliminate some of the offensive woes that plagued Clemson a season ago. The Tigers averaged just 14.8 points in the last five games of the regular season, falling in three of those games by six points or less. If quarterback Tajh Boyd can develop some consistency in the system, talented skill position players like Andre Ellington, DeAndre Hopkins, and highly touted freshmen Mike Bellamy and Sammy Watkins should help solve those offensive deficiencies. Defensively the Tigers are solid on the front line, with a pair of top-5 freshman linebackers (Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward) waiting to break out as well. The Tigers will be fast, but I imagine there will be some consistency issues at times due to inexperience and shifts in the scheme on both sides of the ball. Get real-time Clemson updates

3. North Carolina State (tie)

I've got the 3, 4, and 5 spots in the Atlantic Division as a complete toss up. Whether it's 5-3 or 4-4, I imagine each of these teams will be around .500 in conference play and find themselves on the cusp of bowl eligibility in November. N.C. State's success this season will have a lot to do with junior quarterback Mike Glennon. When Tom O'Brien released Russell Wilson from his scholarship, the spotlight officially moved to the highly-recruited quarterback from Virginia. The 6-foot-6 gunslinger has looked impressive in drills and spring games in the past, but has yet to see any significant time on the field. One concern with Glennon will be keeping him on his feet, as the Wolfpack finished last in the ACC in sacks allowed (40) in 2010. Considering that number was even with the shifty Wilson in the backfield, there needs to be some improvement to give Glennon time to operate. Reports out of camp have been very high on the defense, where N.C. State returns eight starters. The schedule is favorable, getting Clemson and Maryland at home near the end of the season, and the Wolfpack should be right in the mix and bowling once again under O'Brien. Get real-time N.C. State updates

3. Maryland(tie)

Head coach Randy Edsall always seems to get the most out of the talent on the roster, and the good news for Maryland fans is he inherited a pretty talented group of players. ACC Rookie of the Year Danny O'Brien returns under center with over half of the offensive line and leading rusher Davin Meggett. The question offensively will be at the receiver position, as Kevin Dorsey, Ronnie Tyler, and Kerry Boykins will need to step up to replace the production of Torrey Smith (37.8% of team receiving yards in 2010). Defensively, star safety Kenny Tate moves to linebacker, and new defensive coordinator Todd Bradford has installed a new scheme for the seven returning starters. The schedule does not play in Maryland's favor, with eight of the twelve opponents participating in the 2010 bowl season. But Edsall have enough tools from last year's 9-win team to keep Maryland competitive in the conference and take them back to the postseason. Get real-time Maryland updates

3. Boston College (tie)

The Eagles came on strong at the end of 2010, winning their last five games to become bowl eligible. Chase Rettig has settled into the starting quarterback position, which already puts them ahead of where they were at this time a year ago. If Montel Harris stays healthy he should be consistently putting up big numbers, and I expect he will come close to (if not break) the ACC career rushing record before the season's end. On defense Luke Kuechly and Kevin Pierre-Louis anchor arguably the best linebacking corps in the conference, and defensive coordinator Bill McGovern will try to put together another impressive season for a unit that seems to always rank near the top of the conference in total defense.

6. Wake Forest

Wake Forest suffered from inexperience in 2010, but the upside is 17 returning starters in 2011. From quarterback Tanner Price to most of the secondary, freshmen could be found all over the field a year ago. Now that group's challenge is to use that experience together to their advantage and try to improve on last year's 3-9 record. Jim Grobe has always been known for strong player development, but I do not think this team is developed enough to avoid the ACC cellar in 2011.

Coastal Division

1. Virginia Tech

The Hokies have owned the Coastal Division since their arrival in the ACC, and with their schedule it is hard not to see the defending champs finish on top once again. Starting quarterback Logan Thomas is a tremendous athlete with a lot of buzz, but very little experience under center. Luckily, he has a majority of 2010's offensive line along with receivers Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale to help the transition. Home-run threat David Wilson will step into a new role as the primary running back after Ryan Williams and Darren Evans left for the NFL. Wilson was dominant in the return game and brought some big plays for the Hokies last season, but will have something to prove as an every down back. Defensively Jayron Hosley is one of the best cornerbacks in the league, but there are depth concerns on the defensive line. The Hokies draw Wake Forest, Boston College, and Clemson from the Atlantic this year -- getting to play the Tigers at home a week after they face Florida State. In addition Virginia Tech gets their two toughest opponents in the Coastal -- Miami and North Carolina -- in Blacksburg as well. Get real-time Virginia Tech updates

2. Miami

The Hurricanes are my sleeper pick to break out and finally win the Coastal Division for the first time since ACC expansion. New coach Al Golden has rejuvenated a talented roster that has been criticized for underperformance the past three seasons. The biggest question mark for the Hurricanes is the quarterback position, though I believe that either Jacory Harris or Stephen Morris will be a better option than the 2010 version of both. Lamar Miller and Mike James should emerge as one of the most dangerous running back tandems in the conference, and the wide receiver position is loaded with talent and waiting for a star. The defense could be something really special, led by Sean Spence and loaded with upperclassmen desperate to experience the success they expected when they arrived at The U. However, the Hurricanes have fooled me before so it's not unbelievable if they do it again. But I think this could be the turnaround year in Coral Gables. Get real-time Miami updates

3. North Carolina

Losing head coach Butch Davis just eight days before training camp sent all kinds of sirens off in the North Carolina football community. But with camp underway under interim coach Everett Withers, the noise has quieted (a little) and the focus has been diverted to the players on the field. The Tar Heels' strength this season will be in the trenches. The defensive line is deep and loaded with NFL talent, while the offensive line is one of the best North Carolna has had in recent years. The latter is particularly important with new starting sophomore Bryn Renner under center. Renner is a fiery quarterback who reportedly has stepped up into a leadership position on the team, but until he picks up some quality game experience all the talk is just hot air. Quinton Coples, Tydreke Powell, and Dontae Paige-Moss have all received nods from the preseason watch lists, and they will be joined by touted JUCO transfer Sylvester Williams. There are certainly concerns though, particularly in the secondary and depth at the linebacker position. The schedule does the Tar Heels no favors either, with three of the last five matchups being away games against Clemson, N.C. State, and Virginia Tech. Get real-time North Carolina updates

4. Georgia Tech (tie)

Until Josh Nesbitt broke his arm making a tackle, it looked like the Yellow Jackets were on their way to another successful season in 2010. But a mistake-plagued second half of the season finished with Georgia Tech losing five of their final six games, the conclusion being a dismal 14-7 loss to Air Force in the AdvoCare V100 Indepence Bowl. Tevin Washington has separated himself as the starting quarterback, with Synjyn Days and Vad Lee both competing for snaps since camp opened. He will be joined in Paul Johnson's backfield by a stable of game-ready A-Backs and B-Backs led by Roddy Jones and Orwin Smith. Defensively Georgia Tech looked uncomfortable in year one under Al Groh's 3-4 system, but all reports suggest that the team is much more comfortable this go-around. Get real-time Georgia Tech updates

4. Virginia (tie)

Call this a gut-feeling, hunch, or whatever. But there is something about Virginia head coach Mike London that makes me feel like the Cavaliers are on the verge of breaking through. The Cavs may have only won one conference game in 2010, but 19 returning starters and a talented recruiting class make me think London has the program moving forward. Cornerback Chase Minnifield is a danger on the corner, and there are just too many returning juniors and seniors in the front seven for the Cavs not to improve. 2011 might not be a bowl season for Virginia, but they can certainly pull off a 3-5 conference record and avoid the cellar in the division.

6. Duke

Quarterback Sean Renfree along with wide receivers Conner Vernon and Donovan Varner will have a big year offensively for the Blue Devils. There are lots of reasons to get excited about the potential for the Blue Devils to break through, but until they show some improvement on defense it will be hard to pick them much higher than 5 or 6 in the division. Duke finished dead last in the ACC in total defense, giving up 450.1 yards per game -- and they only return six starters from that unit. Might be another frustrating season in Durham for the Duke football fan(s).

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