What to do with Virginia Tech?
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For a game that ultimately has no bearing on any of the most immediate goals for this year’s Nebraska football team—in order, win the Big 12 North, win the Big 12, go to a BCS bowl—I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about that September 19th trip to Virginia Tech.
As Nebraska’s first big glossy nonconference road game since the unsatisfying “batten down the hatches” trip to USC in 2006, you can expect all of the television promos and mid-week prognostication afforded the increasingly rare meeting of two top programs. But national interest aside, this game is intriguing on a number of levels for the Husker affiliated.
On one hand, this is almost assuredly a better Tech team than the one that won in Lincoln last year. Regardless of the Huskers own improvements, that alone makes winning seem like an unlikely prospect. Another part of me--a hand, I suppose just to keep the clichés consistent—thinks there are a few reasons to believe that, as far as intersectional games go, the Hokies might represent the perfect match-up.
Take a look at the magazines, statsheets, and websites that collectively comprise “on paper” these days and you’ll see a lot to like about Virginia Tech. Bring back sixteen returning starters, 100 percent of your rushing yards, 90 percent of your receiving yards, an older and presumably wiser Tyrod Taylor and what is sure to be yet another stout defensive unit backed by that inimitable special teams unit that Frank Beamer coaches himself, and you have all the makings of a preseason top five team. And the experts agree, one consensus list has the Hokies at #5 the other #6. Should the Hokies start at either five or six in the AP or Coaches poll, it would mark the highest preseason rank in school history.
But the truly interesting thing about Tech and the polls is how appropriately they've been rated by the pundits. Over the last four years the Hokies have finished within two spots of their preseason rank in the final poll of the season every year. Over the past decade, Virginia Tech has started nine seasons ranked somewhere between 7 and 17 in either the AP or Coaches polls and finished within that range seven times. In '99 and '00, the final two years of the Michael Vick era, the Hokies finished higher than 7th twice and in 2004 they started as the 10th best team in the country and finished unranked. The next year they balanced things out by starting unranked but finishing 10th. The polls, particularly the middle of the polls, rarely shake the Hokies.
With all that in mind, now you have to choose a side. Are you feeling damn confident the Hokies are one of the five or six best teams in the country based on their consistent preseason to postseason poll performance, or are you feeling like they're destined to end up somewhere closer to the 8-15 range where they seemingly always find themselves at the end of the year?
For me, with all due respect to the talent Beamer returns and the Hokies' consistency during his tenure, I'm not buying Virginia Tech as a top five team because, in all but their best two seasons, they haven't quite been one. There's no shame in that. For the majority of Tom Osborne's tenure you could have called Nebraska a 3-13 program as that's where they almost always finished in the polls yet no one would've argued that the Cornhuskers weren't a national power. Consistency accounts for a lot and Virginia Tech's consistency over the past decade certainly ranks them among the nation's 10 or 12 best programs. But top five? That still feels largely like unchartered waters and, for Nebraska, that's a very good thing. Virginia Tech represents value.
Take a look at that larger consensus list again and ask yourself this: Of the top ten teams, where would you rank a trip to Blacksburg in terms of difficulty? Would you rather play OSU at the Horseshoe? LSU in Death Valley? Both teams will likely start the season ranked lower than Virginia Tech. Of the consensus top 10, only road games at Ole Miss and maybe Oklahoma State--owing largely to conference familiarity--seem less daunting. Again, the margin may be slim, but that's value too.
Make no mistake, going to Lane Stadium represents a steep challenge. The Hokies are 52-9 at home over the past nine years, nearly six percent better than Nebraska at Memorial Stadium. But I still can't shake the feeling that the Cornhuskers have a chance to claim a victory over a top five team on the road without truly facing a "top five team on the road" and it's about more than just Virginia Tech: no ACC team has finished in the top five of either poll since Florida State in 2000.
To do it Nebraska will surely have to play their best game of the short Bo Pelini era and probably play better than the Hokies played in their win in Lincoln last year. That's what happens when both teams are presumable better and the home and home flips. But there are some some things to like here. The Huskers are 10-4 all-time against current ACC members and the Hokies are only 34-38-1 against Top 25 teams, which Nebraska figures to be, under Beamer. There are some things not to like, namely that Nebraska hasn't won a road game against a Top 5 opponent since 1997 at Washington or any game against the Top 5 since Oklahoma in 2001.
And then there's the fact that Alabama could render all this top five business moot in week one with a victory over Virginia Tech in Atlanta, at which point the Hokies would probably fall to what I think is appropriately ranked. But this is the offseason and through that admittedly fragmented view, September 19 looks like yet another statement game for Nebraska. But in this case, the Huskers might be playing with a little bit of house money.
The Huskers could take a big step to get back to being a 3-13 program by beating a 7-17 program who has a decent chance to be ranked number five. Make sense? Don't worry about it. Let the pollsters sort it out on September 20th.