Virginia Tech has been ranked among the top 10 college football teams in the country and has been mentioned among the teams that could play for a national championship in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 4. But Hokies Coach Frank Beamer, who was uncharacteristically optimistic about his team during the preseason, knows how quickly it could all come crashing down during tonight's opener at North Carolina State.
"I think if there was ever a scary football team, this is the one," Beamer said of the Wolfpack.
Beamer, who led the Hokies to an ACC title in their first season in the league last season, isn't playing possum. He saw how dominating North Carolina State's defense can be when the Wolfpack beat Virginia Tech, 17-16, at Lane Stadium on Sept. 25. The Wolfpack sacked quarterback Bryan Randall 10 times, and the Hokies managed only 192 yards on 69 plays, an average of less than three yards per snap.
"There's no question they took it to us last year," Beamer said. "They just whacked us and sacked us and got after us."
How well No. 8 Virginia Tech's rebuilt offensive line and new quarterback handle that pressure could ultimately determine whether the Hokie Nation is still dreaming about roses after tonight's game. Junior quarterback Marcus Vick, who hasn't played in a game since he was Randall's backup in a 52-49 loss to California in the Insight Bowl in Phoenix on Dec. 26, 2003, will make his first career start after sitting out all of the 2004 season because of a university-imposed suspension.
While Vick received very good reviews from Beamer during spring practice and preseason camp, the younger brother of former Tech all-American and Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick hasn't faced a live defense in more than 20 months.
"Most of those Vicks I've been around, when it came time to play, they were ready to play," Beamer said. "The competitiveness comes out in them, and they liked it. But he hasn't seen this front seven running after him yet. We'll see how he reacts. Bryan was pretty nifty, too, and they were able to run him down."
Vick, who threw two touchdowns and five interceptions in 57 pass attempts in 11 games in 2003, said he won't be nervous when he takes the field tonight in front of a sellout crowd at Carter-Finley Stadium.
"I'm not a little kid," Vick said. "I haven't had butterflies in a long time. It's more like excitement."
Vick, 21, should get a stiff test from the Wolfpack, which returns six starters from a defense that led Division I-A in total defense last season, allowing only 221.4 yards per game. North Carolina State defensive ends Manny Lawson and Mario Williams are among the best pass rushers in the country. Vick has never played against the Wolfpack, and his most extensive experience came in a 31-7 upset of then-No. 2 Miami during the 2003 season. He also attempted 15 passes and threw two interceptions in a 31-28 loss at Pittsburgh the following week.
"That I haven't played in an actual game in awhile, that's not really big because every day in practice is like a game," Vick said. "I really have no concerns."
North Carolina State Coach Chuck Amato, who might be on the hot seat after his team finished 5-6 in 2004, said he doesn't expect Vick to struggle because of his long layoff.
"The rust has worn off," Amato said. "He's a tremendous athlete. I would love to know what they're doing with him, that's the main thing."
Virginia Tech's biggest concern might be on its offensive line, where two players will be making their first career starts. Sophomore Duane Brown, a backup tight end only three weeks ago, will start at right tackle and must block Williams, who had 26 quarterback pressures and 11 sacks over the past two seasons. Junior Brandon Gore will probably make his first start at left guard for an offensive line looking for redemption after last season's debacle.
"I think the offensive line took what happened last year personally, and we want to show people it's not going to happen again," Brown said.
Protecting Vick might be the difference in whether the Hokies are in the national championship race tomorrow.
"I'm hopeful Marcus is going to like it Sunday night," Beamer said. "This is one where you better be ready to play, because you're going to have a defense that's chasing you. So you gotta be ready to go."