Hokies hopeful about title chances
Every day, on his way from the football office to the team meeting rooms down the hall, Virginia Tech senior cornerback Stephan Virgil passes by an empty glass display case in the Merryman Athletic Center that reminds him exactly what he's playing for this fall.
The case is on a pedestal in a memorabilia area in the Hall of Legends and has a small plaque indicating it is reserved for a national championship trophy. "I'm waiting to see a trophy in there," Virgil said.
He's not the only one.
"[Frank Beamer] hangs around so close," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said. "I equate it to putting. He's lipped out so many times. One of them is going to fall here before long."
Bowden would know. He's one of the reasons that glass case is still empty.
This season will mark the 10-year anniversary of the last time Virginia Tech played for the national title and, coincidentally, also the last time the ACC had a team representing the conference on college football's biggest stage. Virginia Tech plowed through the 1999 season undefeated before falling to Florida State 46-29 in the Sugar Bowl.
This year, the Hokies began summer camp carrying the momentum from their third ACC title in five years and an Orange Bowl win over Cincinnati. Virginia Tech's win over the Bearcats marked the ACC's first win in a BCS bowl since Florida State's 1999 national title. While Florida State and Miami are in the midst of rebuilding their once-storied programs, the Hokies have been the ACC's best hope for a national title contender. That hope was shaken, though, when Virginia Tech lost its leading rusher, Darren Evans, for the season with a torn ACL.
"Obviously we've a lost a great player, but at the same time, everybody on the team has to kick it up a notch," said running backs coach Billy Hite. "We lost a heck of a football player, but everybody that's been involved in it understands it's part of the game. Now it's up to each one of these individuals -- especially my backs -- to play like he played. There's no reason why you can't, that's what I told them all. What it did is give somebody else an opportunity."
Which ACC team will surprise in 2009? Which one will disappoint? How will Virginia Tech deal with the loss of Darren Evans? Heather Dinich examines the ACC race, makes some predictions and raises a few questions. ACC blog
The Hokies still have plenty of talent in their backfield to choose from. Freshman David Wilson, who did eight backflips at practice one day, was slated to get some playing time even before Evans was injured. And redshirt freshman Ryan Williams had a standout spring and is eager to prove himself. Josh Oglesby, who had 38 carries for 88 yards, is the No. 1 back now and the most experienced.
They've also got a shifty, athletic quarterback in Tyrod Taylor. And they've got a defense that has been among the best in the nation over the past five seasons and should reload again.
Most of all, Virgil said, they've got the desire.
"I think we have the right team right now to do it," Virgil said. "We have the attitude to do it. We want to do it. Everybody on this team wants to be there, wants to be a national champion this year. It's up to us. We have to do it ourselves to get there. It's big because we want to do it so bad. Guys coming out this year want to practice hard, harder than we've ever practiced before to get to the national championship."
Last year, Evans flourished at the expense of injured teammate Kenny Lewis Jr., who is still recovering from a torn Achilles. Evans started the last eight games of 2008 and became the first Tech freshman to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. So it's hardly as if the Hokies haven't dealt with adversity before.
Considering the youth and inexperience the Hokies overcame last year, it's only natural to assume this year's team will be even better, but Beamer still wonders if his team isn't still a little too sophomoric. There are only four seniors on the preseason two-deep offensive depth chart, and two of them -- Ed Wang and Sergio Render -- are offensive linemen. The others are Boone and fullback Kenny Jefferson. All of the receivers and tailbacks are either sophomores or freshmen, and much more will be needed from Taylor, who made more use of his feet (738 yards rushing, seven touchdowns) last year than his arm (two touchdowns, seven interceptions).
"One worry is, are we mature enough?" Beamer said. "We were a young team last year, and we're still a young team. But we're an experienced young team -- at least a year in most cases. We've got a chance, but we also know there are a lot of teams right now that have a chance. It's what we do from here on out. Can we stay healthy? There's a lot of variables involved, but the fact we do have an opportunity to be a very good football team, you're very appreciative of that."
In order to be a great football team, though, the Hokies need to find their offense. Over the past three seasons, Virginia Tech has ranked no better than 99th in the country in total offense. In 1999, when the Hokies played for the national title, they finished the season ninth in total offense with 451.8 yards per game. Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring has repeatedly come under fire from even the most loyal of Virginia Tech fans.
"Let me say this about our offense," Beamer said. "I think you look at your football team and you do what you need to do to win. I think offensively we've done that. There are kind of some unselfish coaches involved there, too. Sometimes you've got to do what your talent says you can do and play to your strength. I'm pleased that we're one of three teams that's won 10 games each of the last five years. You think about that, and offensively, I think we've gotten behind in a couple of positions, and I think we're really getting caught up now and I feel better about it. I think we're in a better position to consistently run the football and consistently throw the football. The big thing is to win football games, and sometimes you have to play to what you've got, and I think we've done a great job of doing that."
Virginia Tech lost four games last year by an average of just 5.5 points per game. This year, there will be an even slimmer margin for error. The Hokies don't have one Football Championship Subdivision team scheduled, and the entire ACC is expected to improve, particularly in the Coastal Division, where Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Miami all have similar aspirations of building championship programs.
Despite their overwhelming success since joining the ACC in 2004, Beamer said he believes the Hokies' best days are yet to come. "I think things have to fall into place," Beamer said. "I think our recruiting, overall, is probably going the best it's ever gone. The kids we get, the caliber kid we get, has never been better. That translates into winning. As much winning as we've done, I still think our best years are ahead of us. If you knock on the door enough times, hopefully you knock it in one of these days, and I think that's where we are."
Heather Dinich is ESPN.com's ACC football blogger. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the ACC blog.
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