Virginia Tech last won an ACC title in 2010, when it went 9-0 in conference play and defeated Florida State 44-33 in the ACC Championship Game. It was the fourth such championship for the Hokies in seven years.
Fast forward to today, and while Virginia Tech is a good team, it will need to hold off programs such as Miami, who appear to be in the midst of a resurgence under Mark Richt, in order to regain prominence in the ACC Coastal Division. But whoever gains that trip to Charlotte, N.C., will likely go toe-to-toe against Clemson.
Can the Hokies become the team to beat in the ACC? Here are five things that need to happen:
See Josh Jackson continue to develop
One of the most important storylines for the Hokies in 2018 is the progression of Josh Jackson. Sure, he had a strong start to his career in Blacksburg, but his last few games left some things to be desired.
The good news: He was a freshman last year, which means that he’ll be much more comfortable with the college game as a sophomore this upcoming season. While coach Justin Fuente has vowed that no job is safe on the Hokies roster, Jackson is the quarterback barring a dramatic collapse.
If he can erase his mistakes from last year, Jackson could be one of the top quarterbacks in the ACC and a player who could carry his team to a conference title if everything falls into place.
Get production from the wide receiver corps
Cam Phillips’ graduation leaves a gap in the Hokies offense. Fortunately, promising starts to the careers of both Sean Savoy and Eric Kumah provide hope the team can at least partially overcome losing a player who had 983 and 964 receiving yards in the last two seasons.
Of course, it won’t start and end with the two sophomores. Keep an eye on freshman Tre Turner, who enrolled in January but didn’t play in the spring game due to his recovery from a shoulder injury sustained in high school. We may also see offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen design packages to feature tight ends Chris Cunningham and Dalton Keene a little more.
While he won’t benefit from having a player like Phillips on the field, Jackson will have plenty of receiving options to choose from in 2018.
Put together a strong running game
Virginia Tech’s rushing attack wasn’t impressive in 2017; it ranked 54th in the country at 173.4 yards per game. The team might face more uncertainty with Deshawn McClease (90 carries, 406 yards, 3 touchdowns) potentially sliding into a starting role this season. Coleman Fox and Jalen Holston will be other names to watch, while Jackson brings his dual-threat tendencies to the table.
Establishing a strong running game will give the Hokies an added dimension to their offense and could play a part in helping them claim a conference title.
Overcome key departures on defense
Virginia Tech said goodbye to several major contributors on defense following the conclusion of last season, including Tremaine Edmunds, his brother Terrell, and Andrew Motuapuaka.
While there’s still plenty of talent for defensive coordinator Bud Foster, including Reggie Floyd, Mook Reynolds and Ricky Walker, there are questions. Divine Deablo — who missed 2017 with an injury — and Adonis Alexander will be looked upon to carry part of the load in the secondary. Trevon Hill underwent surgery in January and his health will be in the spotlight. Besides Reynolds, how will the new-look linebacker group turn out, and could we see a freshman like Dax Hollifield play immediately?
We won’t get those answers until later in the season, but they’re important points to consider if the Hokies are to challenge for an ACC title.
Steer clear of avoidable losses
One game the Hokies probably should have won last season was their contest against Georgia Tech in Atlanta on Nov. 11. Whether it was due to a disappointing showing by Jackson or a lack of a consistent running game, the loss to the Yellow Jackets spelled the end of the Hokies’ already thin Coastal Division title hopes.
If Virginia Tech is to reach the upper echelon of the ACC, it needs to be able to beat the top teams above in the conference. While it couldn’t do that last year — see Clemson and Miami — that’s no excuse for dropping results against the second-tier programs, something that it will need to fix in 2018.