With Virginia Tech’s season-opening matchup with defending national champion Alabama looming, you could probably forgive the Hokies for feeling a little queasy about the impending clash.
After all, Tech just suffered through the program’s worst season since 1992 and now faces the mammoth task of unseating the squad that’s won three of the last four national titles.
But instead of despair, both the team and its fans have responded with defiance.
The popular Virginia Tech blog “The Key Play” helped popularize the Twitter hashtag “#BEATBAMA,” adding to a frenzy of like-minded fans that all believe the team truly can pull the incredible upset on August 31.
Yet for all of this fan fervor, the very idea that Tech can actually win this game is a flawed one.
While it would be nice to believe that the underdog Hokies actually have a realistic shot at toppling the Crimson Tide, unfortunately, it just doesn’t seem that likely.
Tech is certainly a strong program, but the school just underwent a truly tumultuous offseason.
The team just replaced almost the entirety of its offensive staff, most notably bringing in Auburn’s Scot Loeffler as the new offensive coordinator. While the demotion of Bryan Stinespring from the position and the firing of the team’s ineffective position coaches is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, who really knows how Loeffler will prepare the offense for the first game?
Keep in mind, Loeffler left behind a bit of a tire fire at Auburn, as his offense finished a depressing 114th in the nation in points per game.
Now, some of that ineptitude was due to Loeffler trying to make the personnel from Gene Chizik's old spread offense fit into his pro-style system, but it’s hard to completely absolve the coordinator from blame.
Beyond rehabbing an offense that ranked 83rd in points per game, Loeffler’s biggest task will be reshaping quarterback Logan Thomas. Thomas had a stellar 2011, but after throwing 16 interceptions and completing just a little more than 50 percent of his throws last year, it’s clear he needed a makeover.
The two seem to be getting along swimmingly so far, but will that translate into immediate success? Thomas will have to be at his sharpest to avoid turning the ball over against the Tide while working with some very inexperienced receivers.
The running game will also be key to controlling the ball against Alabama, but it’s another area clouded in uncertainty for the Hokies.
In 2012, the running back rotation never really took shape to the point that Thomas actually led the team in rushing. Now it’ll be up to J.C. Coleman to rebound from a disappointing campaign last year and redshirt freshmen Trey Edmunds to learn the ropes quickly.
The offensive line is similarly unsettled. New line coach Jeff Grimes has come in and completely shaken up the unit, slating true freshman Jonathan McLaughlin in at left tackle.
McLaughlin earned rave reviews in spring practice, but will he be able to contend with the Tide’s monstrous defensive line? It seems like a long shot for his first college game ever.
The defense is truly Tech’s strong point, but even that side of the ball has its problems.
Many hoped that cornerback Antone Exum would be ready for the season opener after tearing his ACL in the offseason, but he recently got the bad news that he’ll be out for several months more.
That leaves a vacancy at the cornerback spot opposite veteran Kyle Fuller. It’ll likely be filled by one of two freshmen: Fuller’s highly touted brother, Kendall, or early enrollee Brandon Facyson.
Again, both seem capable, but covering Kevin Norwood and Amari Cooper will be a daunting assignment for their first college game.
In a perfect situation, Tech’s defense will keep it a close game, while Thomas and some combination of Edmunds and Coleman help control the clock for a tight win. But all of that depends on an awful lot of sudden improvements for these players.
More importantly than the school’s actual chances at winning is the way this matchup has united and driven the team and the fanbase.
After a disheartening 7-6 season, the program could’ve easily fallen into a funk. Instead, fans are fired up for this game. It’s given everyone purpose.
Just look at a sampling of an average afternoon on Twitter for “#BEATBAMA.”
It’s a sentiment that’s now just as common as “Good morning” or “Hello” for the average Tech fan. That’s something that’s incredibly valuable for the program.
But what makes this united front truly meaningful is the way the players and coaches have adopted the mantra as their own. Exum is among the phrase’s most vocal, and entertaining, supporters, as evidenced here:
1. Dr. Andrews walked n recovery when I was drugged up and asked how I was feeling. He later told my mom I said, "I'm ready to beat Alabama"— Antone Exum Jr. (@IAmSwag1) February 6, 2013
It’s become a driving force for the team’s offseason program as well. Tweets like this one from defensive tackle Luther Maddy are commonplace, showing how the players refuse to let last season’s depressing results color the 2013 campaign.
My current situation. Bama on my mind pic.twitter.com/ZehHcdEA4E— Luther Maddy (@BigLu_Dolo) July 15, 2013
Even coaches have gotten in on the action. Frank Beamer may be a little old for Twitter, but his son Shane, the team’s associate head coach and running backs coach, certainly had a strong reaction when Thomas announced he’d return for his senior season.
What it all adds up to is the kind of engagement and excitement that an opening matchup with a team like Marshall just wouldn’t generate.
Sure, the Hokies probably won’t come away with a win in the Georgia Dome.
But with this kind of enthusiasm coursing through the program’s veins? It undoubtedly spells good things for the team’s future.