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WASHINGTON — Blacksburg and Charlottesville: Two opposite sides of the college football coin in the Commonwealth.
Virginia Tech is coming off of the school’s ninth 10-win season since it joined the ACC and a league-best sixth division title, while Virginia suffered through its second 10-loss season in four years and has finished higher than third just twice since divisional play began. And then there’s the thing about how the Cavaliers haven’t beaten the Hokies since their poor country cousin crashed the Atlantic Coast Conference party in 2004.
The contrast between the two programs also goes against recent form. Virginia returns stability at quarterback while Virginia Tech has question marks surrounding the position this fall. Yes, you read it here first — the Cavaliers plan to start the same QB two straight seasons for just the second time in 13 years.
Kurt Benkert threw for 2,552 yards and 21 touchdowns (second-most all-time in school history behind Matt Schaub’s 28 in 2002). The transfer from East Carolina certainly has the arm to compete in the ACC, but head coach Bronco Mendenhall knows he’ll need more than just that.
“(He has) to use the arm that he has but also make the good decisions and not think he has to throw the ball every single play,” said Mendenhall. “Sometimes a scramble and a slide or just throwing the ball away is effective.”
Virginia Tech will start a redshirt freshman in Josh Jackson, who sat and learned last year watching transfer Jerod Evans tear up the ACC. Coach Justin Fuente said he used three criteria to determine his quarterback competition.
“How many times were you executing what we asked you to do on a consistent basis, to see them protect and value the football, and the third was a little bit of a feel thing — a little bit harder to measure.”
Plans B and C at the position are a pair of players who have yet to take a snap as a Hokie: Junior college transfer A.J. Bush and true freshman Hendon Hooker.
The contrast continues on the defensive side of the ball, where the Hokies look to build off last year’s strong showing (third in the ACC against the pass and fourth overall), while the Cavaliers look to plug holes in a unit that allowed the third-most points in the conference. Coach Mendenhall feels last year’s defensive shortcomings were created by inexperience and unfamiliarity with the scheme installed.
“I hope that we’re not nearly as volatile,” he said. “Usually inexperience leads to volatility — you’ll play a stretch where it looks like good football, and then there’ll be some miscues and balls go over your head.”
UVa’s top player on defense remains safety Quin Blanding, who led the team in tackles last fall. Tech also returns its leading tackler in linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka along with six other starters, but coach Fuente knows the key will be how well his backups step up.
“The days of only playing defense with 11 guys are just over. Offenses run too many plays with too many personnel groups — you’ve got to create depth,” he said.
The two teams kick off the 2017 season in contrasting fashion: Virginia Tech begins the year with a bang by facing #22 West Virginia at Fed Ex Field. The two teams previously played at the Redskins’ home field in 2004, 2010 and 2012.
“There are a lot of Hokie fans up there,” Fuente says. “I think it’s a neat venue for us to play in and we have a quality opponent. I know it’s given us something to work towards.”
A trip to East Carolina (the Pirates have given the Hokies fits over the last decade) also awaits before Virginia Tech starts the ACC slate by visiting defending National Champion Clemson. Tech also visits preseason Coastal Division favorite Miami.
Virginia begins its year with three straight home games, potentially providing the program momentum entering play against a league that enjoyed a stellar 2016.
“The numbers say a year ago that the ACC was the best conference, by national champion, postseason record and crossover record with other conferences,” Mendenhall said. “After being in the league one year, I think it’s very strong top to bottom.”
Florida State and Clemson are in the preseason Top 5, while Louisville and Miami start the year in the Top 20.
The two contrasting Commonwealth roads converge the day after Thanksgiving when Virginia entertains Virginia Tech at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville. Could the Cavaliers be playing for a bowl berth? Will the Hokies have another Coastal Division theirs for the taking with a victory? One thing is certain: Fans of both schools will find their respective roads intriguing, encouraging and surely, at some point, frustrating.
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