With the conclusion of the 2016-2017 college football season after an amazing BCS National Championship Game (congratulations to the Clemson Tigers), I thought it would be a good time to collect my thoughts on Justin Fuente’s first season as head coach of the Virginia Tech Hokies.
When I heard that Frank Beamer was retiring a little over a year ago, I definitely had conflicting emotions. As a member of Virginia Tech’s 2003 graduating class, I have been a Hokie for nearly 20 years (God, that makes me feel old). Frank Beamer was the only head coach that I had ever known for Virginia Tech. He had delivered unbelievable levels of football success to a college in a tiny little town in southwest Virginia that had no reason to ever expect to become a football powerhouse. It was undeniable that Beamer had lost his touch a bit in recent years, as the Hokies had gone from contending for ACC championships to barely qualifying for bowl games. It was hard to imagine Virginia Tech being able to find anybody to replace Frank Beamer who could return the Hokies to the levels seen during their heyday. While it may be a bit premature to say Justin Fuente will return the Hokies to the glory days of contending for a national championship, he’s off to a damned good start.
A brief rundown of some Virginia Tech football accomplishments under Justin Fuente this year:
- ACC Coach of the Year (an honor Frank Beamer had last won in 2005)
- ACC Coastal champions for first time since 2011
- Extending the longest active bowl streak recognized by the NCAA to 24 games
- A 10 win season for the first time since the 2011-2012 season
Not to mention hanging with eventual national champion Clemson blow-for-blow and having an amazing 35-24 victory in the Belk Bowl thanks to a comeback after a 24-0 halftime deficit. Perhaps most impressive, though, is what Fuente has been able to do with an offense that had been pretty anemic in recent seasons. Just look at a comparison of Tech’s offensive production in the past 4 seasons in terms of yards per game:
|349.2 ypg||354.8 ypg||368.7 ypg||444.8 ypg|
And points per game (numbers from Team Rankings):
|20.7 ppg||23.2 ppg||30.1 ppg||34.9 ppg|
That’s an impressive amount of improvement in a single season, especially for a a new head coach largely dealing with the former coach’s players. Of course, Fuente’s offensive wizardry will be put even more to the test next year in dealing with replacing his record setting QB (Jerod Evans) and and two pass catchers who led the team in TD receptions (Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges).
There were, of course, some frustrating moments as well. At the much-hyped Battle at Bristol, the Hokies jumped out to a 14-0 lead over Tennessee before fumbling the game away for an early season disappointment. There were also two baffling duds where the Hokies lost to mediocre Syracuse and Georgia Tech teams (the latter at home and with the ability to wrap up the division on the line). Turnovers, particularly fumbles, were a recurring theme in those losses, with Tech losing an incredible 5 fumbles in the loss to Tennessee alone. The Hokies averaged 1.3 fumbles per game in the 2015-2016 season (63rd overall). This past season they averaged 2.1 fumbles a game (119th overall). If the Hokies are to contend at the highest level, that is a trend that has to be reversed.
Still, these disappointments need to be put in perspective. In Fuente’s first year as head coach, the Hokies were ACC Coastal champions and prevented from being ACC champions only by the eventual national champions. They had a 10 win season for the first time in five years, won their bowl game and had a markedly improved offense. Even Beamerball seems like it’s still alive, with Tech ranking favorably in blocked kicks.
The future is looking bright for Hokie football. I can’t wait to see what’s next.