Presto’s Picks: Football’s coaching carousel stops in Blacksburg

Six years ago, Maryland, Virginia, and Virginia Tech each went through coaching changes in different ways. The Terrapins fired Randy Edsall after a 2-4 start, the Cavaliers let Mike London resign after a 4-8 finish, and the Hokies’ Frank Beamer announced his impending retirement Nov. 1 when the team was 4-5.

While each of the new hires had success at some point, from Maryland reaching a bowl in 2016 under D.J. Durkin and Virginia capturing the Coastal Division in 2019, no move seemed so good so soon as Justin Fuente at Virginia Tech. The Hokies went 10-4 and 9-4 his first two seasons in Blacksburg with a Coastal Division title in 2016.

But somehow it soured. Blame the revolving door at quarterback (exactly what undermined London at Virginia) or upset losses to in-state Group of Five schools like Old Dominion and Liberty (kind of like Beamer’s losses to East Carolina in 2014 and 2015).

There are those who have written that Fuente maintained a distance from the Hokies culture he walked into (the same was said by some regarding Edsall). Whatever the case, there’s a new search in Blacksburg.

It’s always tough to replace a legend, and Hall of Fame coach Frank Beamer was definitely that as he put Blacksburg on the map while turning a minor independent that was a steppingstone job for Wake Forest into a Big East and ACC juggernaut (seven conference titles from 1995-2010).

The case could be made that Beamer made the Virginia Tech job better than it actually had any business being, from owning Thursday Night Football to spectacular special teams to “Enter Sandman” playing as the team ran onto the field.

And like any legend, the fact that the Hokies went 29-23 with a 16-16 ACC mark during Beamer’s last four years is forgotten amid the glare of the glory years.

It’s always a little easier to replace the guy who replaces the guy, and the Hokies will have their pick of “hot coordinators” as well as successful non-Power Five head coaches.

But whoever takes over won’t have a lock on the 757 (North Carolina’s Mack Brown is getting players from Tech’s hotbed, and while James Madison is only Sun Belt-bound — unless they provide another FBS option), while the program will be at least a decade removed from its last ACC title.

Athletic Director Whit Babcock has already made the right head coaching hire in men’s basketball twice, and Fuente seemed to be the perfect move for the first two years.

But consecutive coaching misfires can drag down a non-blue blood program while their fan base expects the glory days to return yesterday.

Maryland (5-5, 2-5 Big Ten) vs No. 8 Michigan (9-1, 5-1), 3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network.

The Terrapins get a third shot at clinching a bowl berth while the Wolverines are looking to stay in contention for the Big Ten East as well as stay on the potential path to a College Football Playoff berth. Michigan has won five straight in the series after Maryland’s victory in Ann Arbor seven years ago and is led by a punishing running game that averages over five yards per carry. Can the Terps contain Hassan Haskins (162 yards per game rushing in November)? While the defense has had its moments this fall (two takeaways last week against Michigan State), Maryland’s currently 12th against the pass in the Big Ten, 13th against the run, and 14th in scoring and allow more than their share of explosive (20+ yards) plays. Taulia Tagovailoa prepares once again to face an outstanding defense (Wolverines allow the 4th fewest points in FBS while ranking 8th in pass and total defense) minus a running game (just 3.5 yards per carry) to keep the pass rush honest.

Presto’s Pick: Terrapins tumble, 34-14.

Navy (2-7, 2-4 AAC) vs East Carolina (6-4, 4-2), 3:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network

It’s Senior Day at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium for a class that went 9-2 their first two autumns in Annapolis and 2-8 the last two years. This fall’s schedule has been a meat-grinder, with the Mids losing a pair of one-possession games to ranked teams at home.

The Pirates have won three straight to punch their postseason ticket behind the running of Keaton Mitchell (983 yards at 7.1 yards per carry) and passing of Holton Ahlers (much better than the kid who completed 11 of 23 passes for 138 yards and an interception in a 42-10 loss to the Midshipmen in 2019).

While he’s run the ball a lot less this season (183 yards to the 592 he had as a freshman), Ahlers has still tallied six scores on the ground. But Navy’s had two weeks to prepare for ECU while the Pirates are 2-2 away from Greenville.

Presto’s Pick: Mids come up big, 27-20.

Virginia (6-4, 4-2 ACC) at No. 20 Pitt (8-2, 5-1), 3:30 p.m., ESPN2

Can the Cavaliers keep their Coastal Division hopes alive? The Panthers lead the ACC in passing efficiency and total offense behind quarterback Kenny Pickett while Brennan Armstrong remains in the land of limbo with the injury suffered at BYU.

If he can’t go, backup Jay Woolfolk facing a Pitt pass rush that leads the conference with 36 sacks. And although coach Bronco Mendenhall said this week that pass protection is not a problem, UVA has allowed the second most sacks in the league.

Virginia has had issues rushing the passer as well with an ACC-low 12 sacks, which has led to a defense that ranks 11th in passing efficiency and last against the run en route to allowing over 30 points per game. UVA is also 3-18 in road finales this century.

But just like they began 2019 with a win at Pitt, Mendenhall’s team is going to have to triumph at Heinz Field if they want to stay in contention for a second straight division title (the ACC suspended divisions last year).

Kippy & Buffy have their eyes on the prize as well. They’re going to tailgate this week with a winner as Josh Cellars was named the 2021 American Winery of the Year by Wine Enthusiast.

The 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon “has flavors of blackberry, toasted hazelnut and cinnamon, complemented by hints of vanilla and toasted oak,” according to its website. Break out the aged cheddar and Bremner Wafers.

Presto’s Pick: Cavaliers get toasted with Pickett passes all afternoon in a 41-20 loss.

Virginia Tech (5-5, 3-3 ACC) at Miami (5-5, 3-3), 7:30 p.m., ACC Network

Game one of the J.C. Price Interregnum has the Hokies waking up Saturday still in contention for the Coastal Division title, although it won’t be if Pitt beats Virginia earlier in the day.

The Hurricanes’ last-minute loss to Florida State last weekend robs us of a potential four-way tie atop the Coastal.

Miami’s three one-possession losses in league play has coach Manny Diaz on the hot seat, and the once-untouchable empire (14 ten-win seasons from 1983-2003) has an even less realistic picture of itself than Virginia Tech (Canes have one double-digit win season since they joined the ACC).

A hot seat is often cooled by a hot arm, and freshman quarterback Tyler Van Dyke has thrown for 300+ yards in four straight games. The Hurricanes have also won 10 of 13 Senior Days, whether their coach on the hot seat at the time has been Diaz, Mark Richt, Al Golden, Randy Shannon or even interim Larry Scott.

Presto’s Pick: Hokies are humbled, 31-16.

Georgetown wins at Morgan State, Howard beats Virginia Lynchburg, Towson tumbles at James Madison, William & Mary wins over Richmond.

Last Week: 8-1

Overall: 73-23

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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