The first question Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer faced at the ACC’s media kickoff event last month wasn’t about new quarterback Logan Thomas or last year’s Orange Bowl loss, or even the offseason of scandals in college football.
It was about his schedule.
And now that we’ve finally reached game week here in Blacksburg, it’s about time we take a look at perhaps the biggest reason why Virginia Tech is drawing buzz nationally as a dark horse to potentially go undefeated: a schedule that very well could be the easiest in the country this year.
It starts with Appalachian State, at East Carolina, Arkansas State and at Marshall to begin the year, followed by an ACC slate that’s devoid of Florida State and allows Virginia Tech to play its toughest conference games within the friendly confines of Lane Stadium.
On paper, the non-conference schedule is three non-BCS teams with under .500 records last year, and another that’s not even in Division 1-A. Only five other BCS conference schools (California, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Texas Tech and Washington State) will face a non-conference slate featuring no BCS-conference teams.
Unlike the Hokies, though, all five of those schools have conference games against ranked opponents. Virginia Tech is the only BCS-conference school in the country with a schedule that doesn’t include at least one game against a foe ranked in the AP’s preseason top 25.
Beamer would never call his opponents anything but “tough,” and the players certainly won’t underestimate anybody after last year’s James Madison debacle.
“I’ll show them that Michigan game from , for one. And then after that we’re gonna talk about our James Madison game last year,” Beamer said last month, defending the team’s non-conference schedule. “Then when you go to East Carolina and to Marshall, I think you’re talking about two places that are gonna be in a frenzy.”
Even if those games prove easier than Beamer thinks, maybe avoiding juggernauts early on is the best possible scenario when you’re breaking in a new quarterback, establishing 11 new starters and haven’t won a season opener since 2007. Just ask Virginia Tech’s redshirt sophomore signal caller, Thomas.
“I’m extremely happy just because I’ve never had a start before,” Thomas said earlier this month when asked about the early-season schedule. “That would just add to the pressure. There was always that thought, ‘Why not start off with a bang and get that first start and play one of the higher caliber teams in the nation. Just have that experience learning, win or loss. But everyone wants to go out there and win it and it’d be a good confidence booster.”
According to athletic director Jim Weaver, though, the makeup of the football team has little impact on scheduling, because it’s done so far in advance. So how did this year’s non-conference schedule come about, especially considering the Hokies’ recent penchant for playing big-time opponents early in the year (LSU in 2007, Alabama in 2009 and Boise State in 2010)?
Weaver said Virginia Tech was originally scheduled to play a home-and-home series with Syracuse in 2010 and 2011. When the Orange backed out of the agreement, Weaver set up last year’s season opener against Boise State, paying the Broncos $1.25 million to come to FedEx Field. But on such short notice, “the only school we were able to find [for 2011] was Arkansas State.”
Virginia Tech’s game at East Carolina is part of a long running series the Hokies have with the Pirates. The road game at Marshall is part of a two-for-one agreement. The Thundering Herd lost to the Hokies at Lane Stadium in 2009 and will return to Blacksburg in 2013.
Virginia Tech has no control over its ACC schedule, as it’s formulated by the conference on a rotational basis.
“You can’t play someone like Alabama or Boise State every year. It’s just not available,” Weaver said. “I have no apologies for our schedule. We replaced Syracuse with Boise State, who was in the top 10 last year and happens to be there this year. The only team we could get to replace them this year was Arkansas State. So in order for us to do the Boise State game last year, we did the Arkansas State game as well.”
This year aside, Weaver shouldn’t need to defend himself. Virginia Tech’s strength of schedule has ranked among the top 15 in the country the past four seasons, according to a formula concocted by Football Outsiders’ Brian Fremeau.
Not to mention, the Hokies already have future non-conference games against Alabama, Pittsburgh, Ohio State and Wisconsin over the next six seasons.
It’s also worth noting that Virginia Tech’s four non-conference foes this year had a combined record of 25-25 a year ago. There are 29 other BCS teams, including three in the ACC, facing a non-conference slate that combined to finish with a below .500 record in 2010.
But until the 2011 college football season plays out, it won’t be clear just how difficult Virginia Tech’s schedule turns out to be. For all we know, East Carolina and Marshall could be top 25 bowl teams by the end of the year.
And if there’s one team that shouldn’t have to worry about overconfidence, it’s the Hokies – even if they may have the easiest schedule in the country heading into the season. Since 2004, eight of Virginia Tech’s 21 total losses have come in the month of September.
“We really haven’t started out strong at the beginning of a season,” senior wide receiver Danny Coale said. “And with Appalachian State to start off, it’s gonna be a challenge. You saw with JMU last year, we haven’t forgotten about that one. We’re gonna learn from losses like that and games like that.”