Well, my Calm and Beloved Reader, the season is finally upon us! And while I won't be doing game reviews this season, I can still get fired up about game previews. The familiar nausea and butterflies are already forming in my stomach as Monday approaches. The Hokies taking the field to Enter Sandman on national TV always plays well across the country. This is a high profile game and the team has been preparing for this all summer. So let's get into it.
First of all, there is no underestimating the importance of this game to Virginia Tech's season. Coach Beamer wanted every meeting with his players this preseason to wrap with him saying "Beat" and the players responding "Georgia Tech". Now I believe he's going to do that for every game this season, but because this is the first game, "Beat Georgia Tech" has been pounded into these guys' heads over and over all summer. And let's not forget that the winner of the VT-GT game has gone on to play in the ACC Championship game for the past 7 YEARS! So there is no mistaking how up for this game the Hokies will be.
VT Defense vs. Georgia Tech Offense:
This is the matchup that has decided every game in this series. GT Head Coach Paul Johnson vs. VT defensive coordinator Bud Foster is literally the best chess match you will see in any game all season. These are masters of their craft; masters of preparing schemes, making adjustments and countering what the opponent tries to do. Already, the chess match has begun with the Hokies shaking up their starting lineup on the defensive line. Corey Marshall starts at one end in place of JR Collins and Tyrel Wilson starts in place of James Gayle at the other end. Luther Maddy and Derrick Hopkins get the start inside. It's about getting athleticism on the field against the Jackets' cut blocking schemes, but it also sends a message to last year's starters (Collins and Gayle) that you have to show up in practice and you have to be tough to be a starter at VT.
The first game of the season is also usually the sloppiest game of the season. If the Hokies can throw a few wrinkles at Georgia Tech and create some turnovers, the crowd can take it from there. I've been in Lane for some potentially tough matchups where the Hokies got a few early scores and then it turned into a blowout as the crowd took the opponent completely out of their game (2005 vs. Georgia Tech comes to mind). The Yellow Jacket offense depends HEAVILY on timing and if that gets a little off, the Hokies can capitalize. However, the VT has some young guys at the back of the secondary in Detrick Bonner and Kyshoen Jarrett and I am gravely concerned about them being tricked on play action. I remember an NFL-type player like Kam Chancellor getting toasted on several pass plays against the Jackets in past seasons, so you can understand my apprehension.
More than any other, this defensive scheme is about the linebackers playing their assignments. Fortunately, the Hokies bring Jack Tyler in at Mike, slide Bruce Taylor over to backer and have JGW at whip. This is the game where that group of seniors are worth their weight in gold. They need to be so disciplined in their responsibility and fundamentally sound in their tackling because one missed play and GT can take it to the house. But Tyler and Taylor have been in this game before and been successful, and JGW while held out of this game two years ago and missing last year's due to injury, has made being in the right spot the strength of his game. In fact, he's used that to beat out two physically superior players in Ronnie Van Dyke and Alonzo Tweedy. Now we'll see if they can put all that together out there with the bullets flying.
VT Offense vs. GT Defense
Logan Thomas is getting all the hype, but this year's offensive success is about fitting a lot of new pieces together to make for a cohesive attack. The offensive line is going to involve 4 new starters, the running backs are talented but new, the receivers are new starters and the tight end will be a new starter. On top of all of that, the Hokies are going to a pistol formation and adding some uptempo no-huddle schemes. Other than that, not much is different. But seriously, that is going to require a TON of alchemy to forge that new group together. And they don't get time to do it because the first game is critical against a very tough opponent.
In previous seasons, I would have just thrown in the towel. I would have said, with that many new faces on offense, and Coach Stinespring as coordinator, the defense would have to hold GT to 14 points or less or a loss was guaranteed. But this is a new day. Mike O'Cain is actually the offensive coordinator (though not in name) and his playcalling last season was actually sane. It actually appears that O'Cain knows how to run an offense that his QB is comfortable with. And while there are new faces everywhere, there is also talent up and down the offense.
Of course, facing the Jackets involves another wrinkle - the 3-4 defense. The Jackets bring 4 linebackers in behind 3 big space-eaters at defensive line. You never know where the pressure or free man is coming from and it's going to be an incredible challenge. While the chess match between Paul Johnson and Bud Foster has been the key in years' past, this year, I think the key to the game will be if the Hokie offense can integrate all these new starters and execute without too much first game sloppiness.
VT Special Teams vs. GT Special Teams
This is the first season that Georgia Tech has a dedicated special teams coordinator. But even with that, I think the Hokies have the edge on special teams. Cody Journell worked through his off season legal "challenges" and enters as the starting placekicker. And returning kicks the Hokies have Demetri Knowles and JC Coleman who are super-dynamic players with the ball in their hands, while Dyrell Roberts makes his "return" to the return game as the starting punt returner. Georgia Tech might have an edge in the punting game as the Hokies have chosen one true freshman over another in going with AJ Hughes. But Hughes will be better and more consistent than the three headed monster of Demler/Branthover/Coale was last season, IF Hughes can get over the true freshman issues of playing his very first game in front of 67,000 people. Fortunately this game will be in the friendly confines of Lane Stadium.
The Money Shot
When you boil it all down, the Hokies have traditionally played so terribly at the beginning of games and at the beginning of the season that it's easy to see how they could bomb on Monday night. Georgia Tech is far better on offense than people are giving them credit for. This is their best offensive line in the PJ era and Tevin Washington runs the option EXTREMELY well as a senior. And unlike the Hokies, Georgia Tech has a history of big plays early in the game. I do genuinely think this game could be settled in the first quarter. If the Hokies contain Georgia Tech with their defense and can make some plays on offense to get on the board early, the Hokies can win going away. But if the Hokies get behind and GT gets their offense going with their time-eating and going for it on 4th down approach, this will be a hard way to open the season. All of you will be watching the game on Monday night, whereas if the Hokies win I will be watching it late into the wee hours of Tuesday morning. But either way,