The Virginia Tech Hokies ended their season on a bad note, losing to Cincinnati in the Military Bowl on New Year’s Eve, 35-31. That brought the Hokies to 6-7 — the first losing record the program’s put up since 1992, when a 2-8 record also had a tie on the end of it. There are no longer ties in college football.
It’s also, of course, a low point in Blacksburg for Justin Fuente. The third-year coach had won 10 and nine games in his first two seasons after coming over from Memphis. Fuente has a strong track record, but he figures to be in a difficult position if his team isn’t a lot better in 2019.
The Military Bowl was a pretty good game, and the immediate problem isn’t that the Hokies lost to an 11-win Cincy. The Bearcats scored a touchdown to go ahead with 1:29 left, and Virginia Tech couldn’t answer. A defense that ranked 79th in S&P+ entering the game gave up 35 points, which wasn’t great but wasn’t all that bad either. The game ended with VT moving across midfield going for a winning TD, then getting picked off:
Defensively, the unit that finished ranked ninth in S&P+ a year ago went into Monday’s bowl game ranked 79th in the country. Sure, VT could have won if the defense came up with one or two more stops, but this loss certainly wasn’t entirely on the defense.
But the bowl is a sour way to end a sour season. What happened?
Virginia Tech suffered a lot of big personnel losses this season, and it’s hard to put the blame on any one person for that. Still, it was a bad year.
From last year to earlier this fall, the Hokies saw a slew of departures on defense that weren’t because eligibility clocks ran out. They lost 12 players and roughly a whole defense’s worth of production and upside, plus co-coordinator Galen Scott in the spring. The losses also included first-round picks Tremaine and Terrell Edmunds and defensive end Trevon Hill, who was dismissed during the season as the team’s leader in tackles for loss.
The results were never there, save for a Week 1 win at Florida State that depreciated as the Seminoles had a bad year. The then-No. 13 Hokies traveled to Old Dominion in September and ended up suffering 2018’s biggest spread upset, losing as 28-point favorites. On top of that, during the game, starting quarterback Josh Jackson fractured his fibula, and his redshirt sophomore season was cut short a quarter of the way in.
After the OSU loss, things didn’t get much better. The Hokies beat Duke 31-14 the week after, but then lost five out of their last eight games. VT managed to beat rival UVA in overtime, devastating the Hoos, but it needed a hastily scheduled makeup game against Marshall to finish 6-6 and preserve its 26-year bowl appearance streak. At least it did that.
The nature of some of those losses hurt, though. Pitt put one of the biggest beatings any Power 5 team has ever put on another on the Hokies, based on per-play yardage. Georgia Tech went to Blacksburg and crushed the Hokies without completing a single pass. The attrition was a big problem, but it was unusual to see Virginia Tech fall in such ugly fashion.
It’s not all bad for the Hokies heading into 2019, at least.
Jackson, who threw for 2,991 yards and 20 touchdowns during his redshirt freshman year in 2017, should be ready to go next year. He’ll lose running back Steven Peoples, but much or all of his receiving corps should be back. The offensive line had three seniors starting, so the Hokies will need answers there.
On defense, the Hokies should return a handful of their leading tacklers, with an NFL decision from junior edge defender Reggie Floyd still on the table. Only five starters from the Military Bowl are out of eligibility. Just one of the defenders atop the bowl game two-deep (DT Ricky Walker) is guaranteed to move on.
So this team could have a lot of key returners, though after the offseason Tech just had, no one can say for sure what the roster will look like.
But it would just be hard to have the same attrition two years in a row. Bad seasons can happen to the best head coaches, and few are denying Fuente’s ability after just this year. If the Hokies aren’t better next year, though, his outlook could shift.