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July 27, 2009

Improved offense key to Hokies' title hopes

GREENSBORO, N.C. - The chatter started as soon as Virginia Tech whipped Cincinnati in the Orange Bowl to give the Atlantic Coast Conference its first victory in a BCS game since Florida State's 1999 national championship season.

Now that the Hokies had ended the ACC's BCS hex, could they also give the conference a national title contender?

The Hokies don't see why not. After all, that's always been their mission.

"I'm not shying away from the fact that I think Virginia Tech can win a national championship," Hokies coach Frank Beamer said Monday at the ACC Media Days gathering at the Grandover Resort and Conference Center. "Things have to fall into place. Things have to line up for you. But I think that's your intention. When you're recruiting kids, you recruit kids who want to go win a national championship."

With relatively little fanfare, Virginia Tech has emerged as one of the nation's most consistently successful programs. Virginia Tech, USC and Texas are the only programs in the nation to win at least 10 games over the past five seasons. Yet the Hokies don't receive the same level of attention as those two programs.

The reason is easy to explain. USC has claimed a national title, a 4-1 bowl record and five top-five finishes during that span. Texas has a national championship, a 5-0 bowl mark and three top-five finishes. Virginia Tech has gone 2-3 in bowls and hasn't finished higher than seventh in the Associated Press poll. In fact, no ACC team has ended a season in the top five since Florida State delivered the last of its 14 consecutive top-five finishes in 2000. (The Seminoles joined the conference in 1992.)

Virginia Tech has been the one ACC program on the verge of breaking through as a national title contender.

"[Beamer] hangs around so close," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said. "I equate it to putting. He's lipped out so many times. One of them is going to fall here before long."

This could be the year it happens.

The Hokies have won two consecutive ACC championships and enter the season as an overwhelming favorite to do it again. In the preseason media poll released Monday, 69 of the 87 voters (79 percent) picked Virginia Tech to win the league title. Now that they have earned a reputation as the ACC's dominant program, the Hokies are ready to become more of a player in the national title chase.

"A lot of people expect us to be better than we were last year," Virginia Tech tight end Greg Boone said. "We also expect to be better."

Virginia Tech heads into the season with a chance to give the ACC its first legitimate national title contender since the end of Florida State's dynasty. Florida State finished in the top five of the season-ending Associated Press poll every year from 1987 to 2000, but no ACC team has finished in the top five since. Here's a look at the highest-ranked ACC team in the final AP poll each of the past eight years.
Season Team Rank
2002N.C. State12
2003Florida State 11
2004Virginia Tech10
2005Virginia Tech7
2006Wake Forest18
2007Virginia Tech9
2008Virginia Tech15
They'll have an early chance to prove it.

Virginia Tech opens the season Sept. 5 against Alabama at the Georgia Dome. The nationally televised showcase against a Southeastern Conference heavyweight gives the Hokies a chance to make an immediate statement.

If they win, they establish themselves as a legitimate national title contender. If they lose, they could get written off as one more ACC team that couldn't hack it on a national stage.

Frankly, this game might mean as much to the ACC as it does to the Hokies. Even though the ACC split its 12 games with SEC opponents last year, the ACC has hurt its national stature by losing early season showdowns with the SEC.

South Carolina buried N.C. State 34-0 on the opening night of the 2008 season. Two nights later, Alabama embarrassed Clemson 34-10 at the Georgia Dome. Clemson never quite recovered from that nationally televised pratfall.

Virginia Tech knows the feeling well. Two years ago, the Hokies lost 48-7 at LSU in the second week of the season. The Hokies insist they have learned from that experience.

"We were comfortable where we were at two years ago," Boone said. "I don't think in the game of football you can ever be comfortable. We went down there expecting to win, but they came out more focused and ready to play. As a competitive person, you can never allow yourself to get comfortable. You can only allow yourself to get better. We have to make sure we're not comfortable, that we're ready for that exact moment in time and don't hold anything back."

Virginia Tech's track record suggests the Hokies won't have a Clemson-style collapse if they also fall to Alabama. The Hokies recovered from that loss to LSU two years ago and went on to reach the Orange Bowl.

Of course, they'd rather not have to deal with the fallout of a second consecutive season-opening loss. They know what a victory over Alabama could mean to their program.

"Everybody's lifting harder, running faster," Virginia Tech safety Kam Chancellor said. "We're a more focused team."

They also need to be a more explosive team.

Virginia Tech somehow went 10-4 last year with an offense that was often putrid. The Hokies ranked 90th in the nation in scoring, 103rd in total offense and 111th in passing offense.

This wasn't a one-year aberration. Virginia Tech has ranked no better than 99th in the nation in total offense each of the past three years, which makes it all the more remarkable that the Hokies have continued stockpiling 10-win seasons.

Virginia Tech's chances of contending for a national title likely depend on whether the Hokies' offense can catch up to the defense. A look at the Hokies' national rankings in major statistical categories over the past five years shows they have leaned heavily on their defense. Average points and yards allowed are in parentheses.
Year Scoring Off. Total Off. Scoring Def. Total Def. Record
200425th (30.8)65th (365.5)2nd (12.9)4th (268.0)10-3
200517th (33.9)57th (380.9)2nd (12.9) 1st (247.6) 11-2
200649th (25.9)99th (295.2)1st (11.0)1st (219.5)10-3
200753rd (28.7)100th (330.5)3rd (16.1)4th (296.9)11-3
200890th (22.1)103rd (303.4)9th (16.7)7th (279.4)10-4
"Offensively, I think we got behind at a couple of positions, and I think that we've caught up now," Beamer said. "I feel better about it. I think we're in a better position now to consistently run the football and consistently throw the football. The big thing is to win football games. Sometimes you have to play to what you've got, and I think we've done a great job of doing that."

Much of the responsibility for an upgraded offense falls on the shoulders of Tyrod Taylor, who has struggled as a passer since signing with the Hokies as the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the 2007 recruiting class. Taylor's running ability has given opposing defenses fits, but he threw seven interceptions and only two touchdown passes last season.

Taylor spent his first two seasons competing for playing time with Sean Glennon. He also had the misfortune last season of throwing to a receiving corps dominated by freshmen. Now that Glennon has ended his college career and his receivers have gained a year of experience, Taylor could be poised for a breakthrough season.

"I think his leadership is kicking in right now," Beamer said. "I really think Tyrod's getting ready to have a big year."

This year, the Hokies should at least be respectable on offense. The likely emergence of Ryan Williams to team up with 1,265-yard rusher Darren Evans gives the Hokies a dynamic one-two punch in the backfield. The offensive line returns three starters.

"I really think Tyrod's in position to really be an excellent [player], not only because he's a year older and it's his job, but the people around him [are better]," Beamer said. "I think our offensive line's going to play more consistent. I think our wide receivers, they kind of know where they're going on routes this year. Last year, early in the year particularly, they were all over the place. I think our running back position's more solid."

Virginia Tech always boasts a championship-caliber defense. The Hokies have ranked in the top 10 in total defense and scoring defense each of the past five seasons, and they return seven starters on that side of the ball this year.

An awesome defense and an occasionally awful offense added up to a conference championship last season.

If the Hokies can put together an adequate offense to go along with their usual brand of defense, they just might see themselves playing for more than a mere conference championship.

"As much winning as we've done, I still think our best years are ahead of us," Beamer said. "If you knock on the door enough times, hopefully you knock it in one day."

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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