The ACC Coastal is a division known for its parity. There's no better reflection of the division's lack of a dominant power than each of the seven Coastal teams winning the division at least once in the last seven seasons. What's easy to forget, however, is that parity is a recent phenomenon. Before everybody got into the "sharing is caring" philosophy, Virginia Tech was the division's dominant force.
From 2005 (when the ACC split into divisions) to 2011, Virginia Tech won the division five times in seven seasons. The Hokies also went on to win the ACC three times between 2007 and 2010. All in all, Virginia Tech has won six Coastal titles. Georgia Tech is the only other Coastal team to win more than once with four.
When you consider that history, it might be hard to imagine Virginia Tech as a dark horse within the division and the ACC entering 2020. It is, though, because the last of those six division titles came in 2016, and last year saw the Hokies finish the season with their first loss to Virginia since 2003 -- a loss that directly resulted in Virginia winning the Coastal and earning an Orange Bowl bid as restitution for serving as a human sacrifice to Clemson in the ACC Championship.
As a result, the Hokies entered the 2020 offseason with questions surrounding the program, questions that only grew louder when coach Justin Fuente openly flirted with the vacant Baylor job. He returned, however, and might be happy he did. The Hokies enter a new season with the chance to surprise a lot of people, and let me explain why.
1. The 2019 season only felt disappointing because of the way it ended: The Hokies finished 8-5, but it was a record that was somewhat misleading. After getting off to a 2-2 start in September, they would go on to win six of their next seven games. The lone loss was a 21-20 defeat on the road against a Notre Dame team that finished 11-2. The loss to the Irish saw the Hokies leading for nearly the entire fourth quarter before the Notre Dame put together an 18-play, 87-yard drive that resulted in the game-winning touchdown with 29 seconds left.
The Hokies went on to win their next three games, blowing out Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and Pitt by a combined score of 109-17. But then came the Virginia loss. The Hokies held a fourth-quarter lead in that game as well before the Cavaliers scored the final 12 points of the game, including a fumble returned for a touchdown with a minute left that led to the final score being 39-30.
The loss in the regular-season finale was followed by another close loss to Kentucky in the Belk Bowl. It was another defeat in which the Hokies held a fourth-quarter lead only to see it slip away late. Trailing 30-24, Kentucky went on an 18-play, 85-yard drive that took over eight minutes off the game clock and culminated with Lynn Bowden finding Josh Ali for a 13-yard touchdown pass with 15 seconds left. That made it 31-30, and the game finished 37-30 when Virginia Tech lateraled the ball in desperation on the final play of the game and Kentucky's Jordan Wright picked up the loose ball and housed it.
The final three losses of the season came by a total of 17 points. Twelve of those points came on fumble returns in the final minute.
How much different would we view Tech's season if it hadn't blown the lead to Virginia? Let's say that the Hokies hold on to win that game. Suddenly, instead of being 8-4 and finishing second in the division, the Hokies are 9-3 and going to face Clemson in Charlotte. They likely lose that game and then end up in the Orange Bowl instead of Virginia. There's a good chance they lose that game as well, and while a 9-5 record isn't that much different than 8-5, a 9-5 team that won its division and lost the Orange Bowl is a lot more palatable than 8-5 with a Belk Bowl loss.
2. Hendon Hooker was a catalyst for the turnaround: While it'd be wrong to give him all the credit, it's no coincidence that Virginia Tech went from a 2-2 team that had just been blown out at home by Duke 45-10 on a Friday night to a team that won six of its next seven when Tech made the switch from Ryan Willis at quarterback to Hendon Hooker.
Hooker ignited the offense the moment he took over as a starter. While he struggled in his first start against Miami, completing only 50% of his passes, he averaged 9.2 yards per attempt, threw three touchdowns and didn't throw an interception. Willis had averaged only 7.5 yards per attempt and, more importantly, had thrown five picks in the first four games.
Just take a look at how different the Hokies offense performed under both Willis and Hooker.
|VT Offense||Completion %||Yards Per Attempt||TD %||INT %||Points Per Game|
While Hooker's overall completion rate was lower, it was able to make up for it by pushing the ball further down the field. Hooker managed to keep his interception rate nearly three times lower than Willis' despite being more aggressive down the field as well. All of which helps explain why the Hokies scored 11 points more per game with Hooker than Willis.
Hooker's presence boosted the run game, too. Just look at these numbers.
|VT Rush Offense||Yards Per Game||Yards Per Carry||TD Per Game|
With Hooker entering his redshirt junior season as the likely starter, and even more comfortable in the offense, we could see an even better version in 2020.
3. The Hokies have one of the best pass defenses in the country: During his tenure as Virginia Tech's defensive coordinator, Bud Foster saw plenty of his players move on to the next level. A lot of those players were defensive backs. Since 2010, the Hokies saw 15 players drafted off their defense into the NFL, and 11 of them were defensive backs. Guys like Kam Chancellor, Kyle Fuller and Terrell Edmunds. So it would only make sense that in Foster's final season, the Hokies had one of the best pass defenses in the country.
According to Sports Info Solutions, the Hokies pass defense had an Adjusted Catch Rate Allowed (think of it as "how often did the offense catch a pass that was catchable") of 84.70% last season. That ranked third overall, with only LSU and Notre Dame finishing above while defenses like Ohio State and Alabama were directly behind.
It was a performance made even more remarkable when you realize the youth in the secondary. Of the regular starters, only Reggie Floyd was a senior and has moved on. Caleb Farley, Jermaine Waller and Chamarri Conner did all of this as sophomores.
Farley, in particular, is a name college football fans should become acquainted with. Of FBS defenders who were targeted at least 40 times last season, nobody had a lower Adjusted Catch Rate Allowed than Farley's 52.17%. The next closest was Jeff Okudah's 57.14%, and you may remember him as the guy who just went third overall in the NFL Draft. Farley's counterpart, Jermaine Waller, ranked fourth at 64.29%.
|Player (min. 40 targets)||Adj. Catch Rate Allowed|
Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech
Jeff Okudah, Ohio State
Jermaine Waller, Virginia Tech
Trevon Diggs, Alabama
Furthermore, if you want to look at QBR Against, Farley's was 17.19. The only player to perform better was Alabama's Trevon Diggs.
If any ACC team is going to have the slightest chance of getting past Trevor Lawrence and his cadre of weapons, it will need a standout secondary. The Hokies do.
4. The ACC Coastal is still the ACC Coastal: North Carolina is a popular pick this offseason to win the division, and for good reason. With Sam Howell, North Carolina has a legitimate claim to the best QB in the conference not named Trevor Lawrence. We've also seen a talent infusion on the Tar Heels roster since Mack Brown took over, but I think projecting North Carolina as the team to beat in the division in 2020 is a season too early.
It's easy to look back at the Heels nearly knocking off Clemson last season and think it's close, but apparently, it's even easier to forget this team also lost to Wake Forest, Appalachian State, Virginia, Pitt, and Virginia Tech. The only FBS team the Tar Heels beat to finish the season with a winning record was the 8-5 Temple team in the Military Bowl.
Virginia Tech was the better team last season, and will likely be the better team this season.
Elsewhere, it's likely Virginia takes a step back considering its talent losses, and who the hell can ever predict what to expect from Miami? Maybe Pitt takes a step forward, but it's hard to imagine Duke and Georgia Tech doing so. The Hokies should be the favorite to win the Coastal in the 2020 college football season.