Revisiting the Road to Contention: Where VT Stands Midway Through the 2020 Season
With six games played for Virginia Tech, they are officially at the “halfway point” of the 2020 season, as they will likely play 12 games including their bowl. Granted, it is strange to say a team is halfway through its season on November 2, but that’s 2020 for you.
With that in mind, I think now is a good time to revisit the Road to Contention I laid out in July for the Hokies to get back to a perennial 10+ win program: (link)
If you recall, I laid out what I believe Virginia Tech needs to do for the program to rise to the same consistent national prominence it experienced from 1995-2011. I broke it down into a few categories, which include: winning, player development, recruiting, and community engagement. With half the season out of the way, let’s check in on where VT stands in each category.
So far, the Hokies are 4-2 on the season with wins over NC State, Duke, Boston College and Louisville along with losses to UNC and Wake Forest.
In the article, I wrote that Virginia Tech had the potential to be a 10-win team in both the 2020 and 2021 seasons, and doing so would be monumental in gaining the momentum needed to earn national respect. Frank Beamer, Dabo Swinney and Art Briles each took teams that were not riddled with 4-and-5-star talent and overachieved, winning 10-12 games and setting themselves up well to contend on a national stage in the years to come.
Where do the Hokies stand in that regard? Unfortunately, getting 10 wins seems pretty improbable at this point. Assuming the Hokies don’t make the ACC Championship (which is a safe assumption given their two conference losses with Miami and Clemson still on the schedule), they would need to win out to get to 10 wins.
That is a very unlikely scenario. However, if the Hokies somehow managed to upset both the Tigers and Hurricanes without dropping another game to a lesser ACC opponent, conversations would be had all over the country about the Hokies, giving them the exposure needed to gain traction with higher-level recruits.
But again, the odds of that are slim-to-none. Unfortunately for the Hokies, their two losses so far this season are going to haunt them for a while.
The UNC loss (which was the Hokies’ only nationally-televised game and only game against a ranked opponent) was a missed opportunity, as UNC has proven not to be even close to the #8 ranking they had at the time. Yes, the Hokies were missing a few key players in that game, and perhaps that is a valid excuse. Regardless, the result is the same.
Despite that loss, the Hokies still could have moved forward and set themselves up for a run at the ACC Championship. But that dream died two weeks later when they lost to Wake Forest, a team that had no business beating this Virginia Tech team.
To already effectively be out of the ACC Championship race halfway through the season is backbreaking. The Hokies will now likely only see two nationally-televised games before their bowl.
The overachieving season needed to gain momentum has almost certainly been lost, barring a miracle winning streak to close the season. Should that streak not happen, the Hokies will have to look to next season to find eye-catching success.
Despite not winning as much as needed, as far as player development goes, Justin Fuente and his staff have actually fared pretty well this season.
In the article, I pointed out the importance of a transcendent, Heisman-caliber QB to building the program’s brand. The Hokies certainly do not have that this season, as QB uncertainty to start the season coupled with inconsistent play from Hendon Hooker has put that idea to bed.
Hooker played well against Boston College and Louisville, but neither game was a Heisman-level performance. Between those games, he also put together his worst performance as a starter, throwing three interceptions against Wake Forest.
But do you know what’s almost as good as a transcendent QB? A transcendent running back.
Khalil Herbert has been sensational for the Hokies this season, rushing for over 800 yards on less than 100 carries. Herbert has also made some impacts as a receiver and kickoff returner, putting it all together to average 205.8 All-Purpose Yards Per Game, which leads the nation.
He is not currently on ESPN’s Heisman Watch, but he has been mentioned sparingly in other outlets as a potential dark horse. If Herbert can sustain or increase his yardage production for the rest of the season, there is an outside chance he could earn an invite to New York.
I would be shocked to see him win the award, but if he can become a finalist, that would likely more than make up for the disappointing losses in recruits’ eyes. Crazier things have happened.
Apart from a potential award-finalist, the Hokies could also see national attention come through the NFL Draft. Caleb Farley is likely a top-15 pick at worst, and though he opted out of the 2020 season, that VT logo will still pop up on every graphic shown for him.
Additionally, Christian Darrisaw is playing himself into a late-first round talent, meaning the Hokies could have two first-rounders in the 2021 Draft since the Edmunds brothers did it in 2018. Beyond that, the Hokies could see Herbert, James Mitchell and/or Divine Deablo go in the second or third rounds, giving the program up to five first-or-second-day players.
This could be huge, as NFL Draft pedigree is one of the primary factors recruits gravitate toward. Should those five players finish the season strong (if they are playing) and perform well at the Combine, the Hokies could see a significant increase in their appeal to recruits trying to make it to the highest level.
Though the factors we’ve discussed so far will go a long way in either helping or hurting the Hokies’ future recruiting, it is important to keep tabs on what they are accomplishing in that field this season.
Since the original article published, the Hokies have gained nine 2021 commitments, including their second, third and fourth-highest ranked players: Jack Hollifield, Kenji Christian and Jaden Keller. These commitments are good, but the Hokies still have yet to gain a commitment from a single four-or-five-star player in this class according to 247 Composite.
We cannot expect the Hokies to bring in a slew of that level talent, but a few four-star guys is a more than reasonable expectation. Every class under Fuente has had at least one four-star player.
What is most notable is this class’s standing among other ACC classes. This VT class ranks 11th in the conference (12th if you add Notre Dame), which does not come close to aligning with the Hokies’ standing in the conference on the football field.
Three teams the Hokies have beaten this season (NC State, Louisville and Boston College) all have higher-ranked classes than VT. If you can beat them on the field, you should beat them on the recruiting trail too.
So far, there are reasons for some disappointment in this class, and that will negatively affect VT in the long-term should that not change.
The last factor talked about in my original article was the need to be present and active with the local community. This is essential, as it encourages the alumni base to donate more money to the program.
It is pretty difficult (if not impossible) to engage with the community during a pandemic. You are not going to see Justin Fuente walking around Blacksburg on a Tuesday afternoon, but you probably would not see that anywhere else during this time either.
COVID-19 has kept everyone cooped up indoors, so, understandably, Fuente has not been the most prominent Blacksburg resident this year.
One thing Fuente has done since mid-July to engage with the fanbase is his interview with the Sons of Saturday. At the risk of sounding too much like a Sons homer, his appearance on the podcast was pretty spectacular. (You can listen to it here)
Fuente was loose, fun, and above all else, honest. Any VT fan who has listened to that podcast should be pleased with how Fuente carried himself.
Fuente has brought the same energy to his weekly radio show/podcast, Tech Talk Live, which gives fans an inside look at his thoughts and observations regarding the state of his football team.
To further engage with the community, it would serve Fuente well to seek out more opportunities like those podcasts. The pandemic makes it nearly impossible for him to engage in person, but finding creative ways to do so without having to leave his house or office could potentially bring more money into the Hokie Club.
Overall, this season has left a lot to be desired. Unfortunately, becoming a national contender is still a decent ways away for the Hokies.
If they can finish the season strong with some big wins and/or putting prominent players in the spotlight, they can salvage a decent bit of momentum to hopefully take a big step next season.