It is easy to see what Big 12 or Big Ten coaches like about their respective conferences' scheduling practices: figure out what you've got during non-conference tune-ups, then get rolling into the "real" season. Unless you are contending for a national title, the conference race is what truly matters, so your non-conference games are basically the preseason.
Other conferences, however, sometimes force you to be ready from the opening (long) weekend of the season. While conference mates like Mississippi State and Missouri were taking on FCS foes, South Carolina was traveling to Nashville to kick off Week 1 of the season and face Vanderbilt in a demanding, meaningful slog. Four nights later, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech wrapped up the long weekend with a game that very well could have already decided the ACC Coastal Division.
Make no mistake: there are plenty of games left on the schedule. Yes, Virginia Tech's 20-17 overtime win over Georgia Tech gave them an immediate upper hand in the Coastal Division race. Yes, the Virginia Tech-Georgia Tech winner has taken every division crown since the implementation of these confusing, generically-named ACC divisions in 2005. But if the Hokies' offense remains this shaky heading into October -- and with the amount of inexperience involved, it could -- they could easily drop road games against North Carolina, Clemson or Miami between October 6 and November 1 and allow Georgia Tech back into the race.
For most of three quarters, the Virginia Tech offense looked perhaps even worse than we thought it might. Head coach Frank Beamer had to replace eight offensive starters this offseason (this would have been the perfect time for the "non-conference tune-ups, then conference play" schedule), including 1,700-yard rusher David Wilson, two receivers (Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale) who had accounted for almost half of Tech's targets in 2011, and four offensive linemen who had combined for an incredible 151 career starts. He still had big quarterback Logan Thomas, but even Michael Vick would have struggled if some of the new unknowns took a while to get acclimated.
So many new pieces got involved for Virginia Tech on Monday night, and the results were both disconcerting and intriguing. After 50 minutes, the Hokies had gained just 171 yards in 60 plays (2.9 per play). Thomas' passing line: 15-for-32 for 105 yards, two sacks, and a horrid 2.8 yards per pass attempt. Redshirt freshman Michael Holmes, supposedly the next star running back for the Hokies, had gained just 30 yards in 11 carries. Tech had punted six times in 10 possessions and turned the ball over on downs twice (well, once really; the other was on the last play of the first half); after a gift of a personal foul penalty early in the fourth quarter, Tech's Cody Journell missed a 38-yard field goal wide left, and the home team still trailed, 10-7.
Even youth with wonderfully high upside is still typically forced to deal with frustrating droughts from time to time, and the first official drought of the Virginia Tech season lasted almost an entire game. But Logan Thomas figured out how to bail Tech out just in time, with help from what will be some of their key skill position players. In the Hokies' final 13 plays of the game, they gained 155 yards; Thomas went 6-for-6 for 125 yards and completed two gorgeous, clutch slants, first to senior Marcus Davis for 35 yards on 2-and-12 with eight minutes remaining (he found redshirt freshman Demitri Knowles for a 42-yard bomb on the next play), then to senior Corey Fuller for 23 yards on fourth-and-4 with just 13 seconds left (Journell then sent the game to overtime with a 41-yard field goal). In overtime, with Tech needing only a field goal to wrap up the win, Holmes tore through the Yellow Jackets' defense for 24 yards in two carries. After 50 minutes of the worst-case scenario, the Hokies unveiled 10-plus minutes of the best-case. And it was just enough. Virginia Tech survived the way it had to survive, and now the preseason portion of the schedule begins with games against Austin Peay, Pittsburgh (at Pitt), Bowling Green and Cincinnati (in Landover, MD).
Georgia Tech, meanwhile, must quickly go through the mourning period after a devastating missed opportunity. After a tune-up against Presbyterian on Saturday, the Yellow Jackets host two conference opponents they absolutely must beat to stay in the division race: Virginia on September 15 and Miami on September 22.
For the Yellow Jackets, this game was just as encouraging and discouraging as it was for Virginia Tech. The key for Georgia Tech heading into 2012 was to show enough defensive improvement to balance out the breaking-in period of an entirely new receiving corps. For over three quarters, the defense showed up in a major, major way; 10 different Georgia Tech defenders participated in at least one tackle for loss, the Yellow Jackets sacked Thomas twice, hurried him three times and broke up two passes. Star linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu was all over the field (and unlike last year, he didn't attempt to punch Logan Thomas), and cornerback Rod Sweeting was particularly outstanding: 4.5 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and two passes broken up. Meanwhile, the offense did just enough to take the lead against what might be one of Virginia Tech's best defenses under Beamer. Quarterback Tevin Washington played the role of game manager to near-perfection, keeping Georgia Tech out of any serious trouble and, with the game on the line in regulation, making some fantastic plays.
The Yellow Jackets' final drive in the fourth quarter, which put them ahead, 17-14, was a thing of beauty. Washington rushed four times for 34 yards, scrambled long enough to keep the visitors alive with a perfect 19-yard strike to sophomore B.J. Bostic on fourth-and-6 from the Virginia Tech 37, then found sophomore Deon Hill with another on a crossing route for a 10-yard touchdown. It was everything good about Washington's game in one drive. Then, of course, he showed that his downside is still pretty low; on the second play of overtime, Washington took a ferocious shot from Virginia Tech linemen Derrick Hopkins and Corey Marshall. He was stopped for no gain on the next play, and then, on third-and-6 from the 10, instead of throwing the ball away under heavy pressure from linebacker Bruce Taylor and other defenders, Washington lobbed the ball to a receiver who wasn't even looking. Kyle Fuller picked off the pass. One devastating brain fart can eliminate so many gains; this has been Washington's fatal flaw to date, and it was deadly on Monday night.
Virginia Tech is now a heavy favorite to make its sixth ACC title game appearance in eight years. But last night proved that while the Hokies' defense should be fast and effective, the Hokies are flawed enough that they shouldn't be expected to go undefeated in conference. If Georgia Tech can win home games versus Virginia and Miami, and if Virginia can overcome a rebuilt defense and win imminently winnable conference home games (Miami, Wake Forest, Miami, North Carolina), this should remain an interesting division race well into November.
For more on Hokies football, visit Virginia Tech blog Gobbler Country.
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