You could have forgiven Virginia Tech fans for fearing their seemingly annual swoon had started a month early when kicker Brandon Pace missed a 43-yard field goal attempt as time expired resulting in a 17-16 setback at NC St. last September. However, unlike the past few years, the Hokies shook off the defeat and won their 8 remaining regular season games, culminating in a de facto ACC championship victory over Miami in the Orange Bowl. How did the Hokies avoid the late-October/early-November sag that had affected them the past 3 seasons? The answer is simple: They were a better team. Not exactly a groundbreaking revelation. To emphasize this point lets analyze the Virginia tech teams from 2001-2003.
Virginia Tech began the season 6-0. They then proceeded to lose 4 of their last 6 contests and finish 8-4. However, of their first 6 victories, only 2 came on the road – at perennial Big East doormat Rutgers (2-9) and rebuilding West Virginia (3-8). Additionally only 2 of those wins came against teams with winning records – Central Florida (6-5) and Boston College (8-4). In their last 6 games Virginia Tech faced 4 teams with winning records, including Syracuse (10-3) at home, Pittsburgh (7-5) on the road, eventual National Champion Miami (12-0) at home, and Florida St. (8-4) in the Gator Bowl. They lost all 4 of those games. The reason for their slide is pretty evident, they faced stiffer competition.
Virginia Tech began the season 8-0. Just like the season before, they lost 4 of their last 6 and finished 10-4. However, this 8-0 start was not fueled by home dates with lesser competition. At this point in the season, Virginia Tech had won 3 road games, at Texas A & M (6-6), at Western Michigan (4-8), and at Boston College (9-4). They also claimed quality victories at home over Louisiana St. (8-5) and Marshall (11-2). The backend of the schedule was once again strong. The Hokies faced 5 teams with winning records, Pittsburgh (9-4) at home, West Virginia (9-4) at home, Virginia (9-5) at home, Miami (12-1) on the road, and Air Force (8-5) in the prestigious San Francisco Bowl. Virginia Tech managed to win 2 of those games, against Virginia and Air Force. However, they would also lose on the road to Syracuse (4-8). Again the reason for the slide is fairly simple, an upgrade in competition. The road loss to a poor Syracuse team may look like an anomaly, but remember Virginia Tech has only beaten Syracuse once in the Carrier Dome with Frank Beamer as coach (and that required a 55 yard TD run to seal the game by Ron Mexico).
Virginia Tech again began the season 6-0. This year the slide was even more magnified as they lost 5 of their last 7 to finish the year 8-5. Their first 6 games included only one against a team with a winning record, Connecticut (9-3), and only one on the road, at Rutgers (5-7). Their last 7 games included 4 road games and 6 contests against teams with a winning record. The schedule consisted of West Virginia (8-5) on the road, Miami (11-2) at home, at Pittsburgh (8-5), a little breather at Temple (1-11), a home date against Boston College (8-5), at Virginia (8-5), and a shootout with Cal in the Insight Bowl. They defeated Temple and (amazingly) Miami, and lost the remaining 5 games. Again the prime culprit for the slide is the schedule. Without a major upset over Miami, the Hokies would have finished the year on a 1-6 slide.
The Hokies of 2001-2003 were a solid middle of the pack Big East team that fooled the general public into thinking they were a championship contender for several reasons:
1) Frank Beamer, the head coach, who raised the Virginia Tech program from the doldrums in the late 80’s to National Championship contenders in the late 90’s. Too much emphasis was put on Beamer and not enough on the Hokies talent level relative to the rest of the Big East.
2) The legacy of Michael Vick. The Hokies lost only 2 games with Michael Vick at quarterback (to Florida St. and Miami). People, especially the poll voters, tend to overrate teams who performed well the previous year(s).
3) Great starts powered primarily by home games and contests against inferior competition. Poll voters will continue to move ‘name’ programs up in the polls as long as they win. ‘They beat Western Michigan 31-0. They have to be in the Top 10.’ 2002 was the exception, but the next reason still applies.
4) A back-loaded schedule with road games and games against winning teams (and sometimes a combination of both).
2004 was the polar opposite of the previous 3 seasons as the Hokies lost their opening game against eventual National Champion Southern Cal, and began the season only 2-2 after their defeat at the hands of NC St. The schedule was again back-loaded with home games against West Virginia (8-4) and Virginia (8-4) as well as road tests at Georgia Tech (7-5), North Carolina (6-6), and Miami (9-3). This time Virginia Tech finished the season strong because they were a better team.