We’re in the same league? Could’ve fooled me…
The 2021 season is getting closer and closer as we we’re now less than three months away from Syracuse Orange football kickoff. “Get to Know” pieces are in full swing, preview magazines all seem to be picking SU to finish last in the division, and we’re getting that familiar sense of dread mixed with mild optimism.
As always, the approaching season means we’re continuing our early looks at all 12 Syracuse opponents on this year’s schedule. Earlier this week, we talked about our internet rivals over at Clemson. This time around, it’s a team many fans over 35 would claim should be an actual rival:
School: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
#BRAND Slogan(s): Closest thing they seem to have right now is an athletics-wide #HokieNation
Alternate #BRAND Slogan Suggestions: “Nothing Hokie About It” OR “The Program Formerly Known as Special Teams U”
History vs. Syracuse: The Hokies are 8-10 against the Orange over the years, losing the most recent matchup — a 31-17 upset win for Syracuse at the Dome back in 2016 (you may recall). When both programs were members of the Big East, they split 12 matchups while regularly battling it out for supremacy near the top of the league (or at least just behind Miami). The home team in the series has had a pretty distinct advantage. Tech’s 6-2 vs. SU at home, but just 2-8 on the road.
Coach: Justin Fuente, sixth season. After playing QB at Oklahoma and Murray State, Fuente played Arena Football for a couple years before entering into coaching. He spent six years on the Illinois State staff, then another five with TCU before getting his first head job with Memphis. Following a middling first two years with the Tigers, Fuente went 19-6 over the next two years, which was enough to earn him the chance to succeed Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech. Fuente had the Hokies ranked in each of his first two seasons, but has gone just 19-18 since and could potentially be on the hot seat.
2020 Record: (5-6) (5-5)
Recapping Last Season
Tech started off the 2020 season looking decent enough. They picked up two wins over NC State and Duke, hung around vs. UNC and Wake, and beat both Boston College and Wake Forest. Following the 4-2 start, though, they dropped four straight before beating Virginia to take back the Commonwealth Cup. The team opted out of playing in a bowl game, sitting out the postseason for the first time since 1992.
Fuente’s an offensive coach, so it shouldn’t surprise that the Hokies were 31st in the country by yards per game (440.7), and also scored 31.1 points per (43rd in the country). Starting QB Hendon Hooker couldn’t always stay on the field, but when he was under center, he had nearly 2,000 total yards and 18 scores. Running back Khalil Herbert was the team’s first 1,000 rusher in half-a-decade, piling up an impressive 1,182 yards and eight TDs. Though the passing game was hot and cold at times, both Tayvion Robinson and Tré Turner had over 500 yards receiving.
On defense, however, things weren’t really up to this program’s typical standard. They allowed over 447 yards per game and opponents scored over 32 points per game against Tech. Just the same, the Hokies still managed to force 17 turnovers and get after opposing quarterbacks quite a bit, finishing fifth in the nation in sacks with 36. Divine Deablo led the team with four picks, while both Justus Reed and Amaré Barno managed 6.5 sacks on the year.
2021 Season Outlook
You could make the case that this year’s schedule is a bit more difficult. Game one is against North Carolina, and the Hokies face both Notre Dame and West Virginia in non-conference play. Road games against BC, Miami and Virginia (the latter two to end the season) won’t help matters either, nor will the fact that Virginia Tech needs to replace several departures.
Most notable among those is Hooker, who left for Tennessee. Braxton Burmeister (687 passing yards, two TDs last year) is back, however, and the team added transfer Connor Blumrick from Texas A&M. Herbert was drafted by the Bears, but former Rutgers transfer Raheem Blackshear could fill in well, to an extent. Jalen Holston is also back after rushing for nearly 300 yards last season. The Hokies’ top receivers are all back, and they made offseason additions to help bolster line depth.
On defense, seven of the team’s top 10 tacklers are back from last year, though Rayshard Ashby’s a sizeable loss at linebacker. Last year’s interceptions leader, Deablo, is gone. As is co-sack leader Reed. They’ve made some additions like Clemson transfer Jordan Williams to help matters there. And like many teams in the country (Syracuse included), they also used last year to get a lot of young players on the field that wouldn’t have during a normal season. So while there are plenty of underclassmen near the top of the depth chart, the group does have experience.
Syracuse Game Date: Saturday, October 23
Location: Lane Stadium, Blacksburg, Va.
Odds of Orange Victory: 40%
Very Early Outlook vs. Syracuse
Tech is not as formidable as they were the last time out facing the Orange, but talent-wise, the Hokies do still have a clear advantage. Defensively, they’ll have an ability to take advantage of Syracuse’s offensive line issues, should they occur. But the bigger questions come on offense. If the line changes haven’t worked, there’s a lot that could go south quickly for Burmeister in the passing game, and he doesn’t have Herbert to rely on this time around with the ground game. Virginia Tech has an advantage here — especially at home — but wouldn’t call it an overwhelming one.