Quick — how many states are there in the U.S.? You might say 50, but technically you’d be wrong.
Virginia is one of four “commonwealths” (Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts are the others) but the distinction is in name alone, although the term exudes something a little bit more special than the name “commonwealth” would suggest.
No matter what happens this fall in the commonwealth, neither Virginia nor Virginia Tech enjoy being told they have much in common with the other. For Virginia, it’s a bit of “old school ACC vibe” that has Cavalier fans believing their true rival is North Carolina (friends in Durham and Raleigh will beg to differ), while Hokie rooters believe a rival is one that beats you in football more than once every 17 years.
But past the initial reluctance, these schools do have quite a bit in common: Each head coach is in his sixth season with the school, and has guided his team to a Coastal Division title (and the corresponding loss to Clemson in the Championship Game). Each school is coming off a disappointing 2020 that saw multiple games moved, including one where the Cavaliers had made the trip to Tallahassee before Florida State canceled the game due to COVID-19 concerns.
They’re each of the mindset that last year was an aberration in an era where the program will contend for division title and lock up bowl berths on a regular basis. And even though 80 of 130 schools reach postseason play while every Coastal school has won the division since 2014.
Fuente’s Hokies look for a rebound season
Since taking the Coastal in his first season at the helm, head coach Justin Fuente’s Hokies have gone 19-15 in conference play. The Hokies return plenty of talent on both sides of the ball this fall, including quarterback Braxton Burmeister who started the team’s win over Virginia Tech last December. Two years removed from Oregon, the junior’s arm and legs will definitely expand the playbook.
“You try to get Braxton to use some of that athleticism, whether that’s moving the pocket or creating plays to get him to kind of get on the move,” Fuente said. “I think the focus more so is not just what can you do, but why are you doing what you’re doing and how can you play to the strengths of those players.”
Burmeister’s receiving corps returns almost intact from 2020 with Tayvion Robinson and Tre Turner (not to be confused with the former Nationals/current Dodgers infielder) stretching the field — and a full year in Blacksburg can only help.
“I feel like there were times last year where I was dropping back and wasn’t as comfortable as I should be with the offense and receivers,” Burmeister said. “I feel like I’ve had a whole spring ball and fall camp to get on the right page and feel going into the season about it.”
They’ll have to find a new primary running back after Khalil Herbert was picked by Chicago in the NFL Draft, with junior Raheem Blackshear providing a potential dual threat (288 yards rushing and 154 yards receiving last year).
The Hokies D ranked 10th last season in the ACC, and the defensive line is expected to spearhead that unit’s return to its previous form. Clemson transfer Jordan Williams likes the mix.
“I came in and I felt like I fit in right away with the guys, and we all got along right away,” Williams said.
“When you talk about effectiveness, you’ve just got to go out there and make plays, and I feel like we’ve got the guys up front in our room to be able to do that.”
Junior Amare Barno (6.5 sacks in 2020) is the player to watch up front while the back seven boasts returning leading tackler Chamarri Conner at nickel back and Dax Hollifield at middle linebacker.
Virginia Tech begins the season by hosting preseason Coastal favorite North Carolina and pro prospect Sam Howell, but previous Labor Day weekends have seen showdowns with nationally ranked foes like West Virginia at FedEx Field and in Tallahassee at Florida State.
“We’ve played in big opening games before. We haven’t really been a stranger to that, at least in our time here.” Fuente said. “I don’t know that it changes a tremendous amount.”
The Hokies are 4-1 in openers since he took over. The rest of the month doesn’t lighten up as they’ll visit West Virginia 15 days after facing the Tar Heels. No. 9 Notre Dame comes to Blacksburg Oct. 2, and Tech closes the season with four road games in five weeks.
Cavilers look to match ‘thrilling’ 2019 season
Virginia would have been hard-pressed to match a 2019 where the football team captured the Coastal after beating the Hokies in thrilling fashion (and that’s after a spring where U.Va. won national championships in men’s basketball and men’s lacrosse). The pandemic moved the game with Virginia Tech twice and wiped out a trip to Florida State the morning of the game.
Coach Bronco Mendenhall returns eight starters on offense and six on defense, and what was once the most volatile position in the ACC is becoming the most stable with Brennan Armstrong returning for a second season at starting quarterback.
“A lot of times as a first-time starter, you’re focused on your performance,” Mendenhall said (he completed 59% of his passes for 2,117 yards and 18 touchdowns with 11 interceptions last year).
What is he looking for this year?
“Not only maintaining and improving the execution level in Brennan’s play in our offense,” Mendenhall said, “but then applying it in context to defensive recognition and possible alterations of a given play.”
The sophomore led the team in rushing last year, and although his legs can make plays, the hope is for Wayne Taulapapa and Mike Hollins to provide running threats. Armstrong also gets his top two receivers back in Billy Kemp IV (6.7 catches per game last year) and Lavel Davis (25.8 yards per reception in 2020).
The defense allowed 30+ points in six of the team’s 10 games last fall to allow the most points per game since Mendenhall’s first year at the helm. Linebacker Zane Zandier and his awesome nickname “ZZ Stop” may be gone, but linebackers Nick Jackson and Noah Taylor are back to extend his legacy.
The secondary returns three starters-including a healthy Joey Blount (five games missed with injury in 2020)-and looks to be much better than the unit that allowed the most yards per game through the air in the ACC.
“Quite frankly in the world of college football, the secondary controls points.” Mendenhall said. “In that position you need to have enough quality and enough depth.”
While Virginia also plays North Carolina in September, the team does have a pair of tuneup games in William & Mary as well as Big Ten West-bottom feeder Illinois. The Cavaliers’ date with Notre Dame is in mid-November (perhaps Fighting Irish fans can get a package deal on two flights to Roanoke this fall?) and the Cavs play three of the final four ACC games at home, including the Saturday after Thanksgiving against Virginia Tech.
We all know what happened the last time the Hokies went to Charlottesville, and if you don’t there are more than a few U.Va. alums who are happy to fill you in.