CHARLOTTE — As representatives from ACC Coastal Division football teams prepared to kick off a new season at the conference’s annual media days, the previous season’s results still appeared to be resonating at Virginia and Virginia Tech.
After leading Virginia to its first bowl win since 2005, Coach Bronco Mendenhall has brought optimism back to a program in disrepair when he arrived four years ago. The Coastal has had a different winner in each of the past six years; Virginia is the only program that hasn’t claimed the title in that span.
“Anytime you’re part of a conference, the goal is to win the conference championship,” Mendenhall said. “Yes, it would be nice for us to clean up this nice little package [and become] the seventh different team to win the Coastal. It doesn’t always work like that. That will happen when we earn it and when we play well enough for that to happen.”
As for the Hokies, they’re coming off their first losing season since 1992.
“It wasn’t good enough. We know that,” Virginia Tech Coach Justin Fuente said of his team’s 6-7 record. “We can blame it on anything we want. Everybody knows what it is. The bottom line is that doesn’t matter.”
Injuries certainly were a factor. By the end of a 52-22 loss at Pittsburgh on Nov. 10 in which they allowed 492 rushing yards, the Hokies had lost five defensive starters and were forced to deploy four freshmen, two of them first-year college players, in the rotation. The Hokies also yielded 462 rushing yards to Georgia Tech and 631 yards of offense to Old Dominion, both losses.
“If you watch a couple of games, you could see it was miscommunication,” senior defensive back Reggie Floyd said. “Someone would be wide open. That’s not supposed to happen. It was just small things people were overthinking on the field. Of course, that comes with time. We had a lot of guys just coming fresh out of high school in there.”
Virginia Tech also went through a quarterback transition after starter Josh Jackson broke his left fibula against Old Dominion on Sept. 22, ending his season. Ryan Willis performed admirably in relief and enters the season as the incumbent starter after Jackson transferred to Maryland.
Despite breakdowns throughout the season, the Hokies still extended their winning streak over their in-state rival to 15, beating Virginia, 34-31 in overtime, on Nov. 23 at Lane Stadium.
That loss notwithstanding, the Cavaliers had much to celebrate last season, including a 28-0 thumping of South Carolina in the Belk Bowl. It was Virginia’s second straight bowl appearance, something the program had not accomplished since 2004 and 2005.
This season, led by senior quarterback Bryce Perkins and senior cornerback Bryce Hall, Virginia is aiming to win at least eight games in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2003 and 2004.
“I think everybody on this team is starting to believe and starting to work like we deserve to be in top [of the ACC] conversation,” Perkins said. “We expect to be great, and we won’t settle for anything less.”
Perkins amassed 3,063 yards of offense, the most in program history and the third most in the country. He was responsible for 34 touchdowns, also a school record, as well as for 206 points, first in the ACC and 13th nationally.
After leading major college football with 22 pass breakups to go with 62 tackles and two interceptions, Hall considered entering the NFL draft. He hopes to elevate his draft stock as a member of a secondary with three returning starters.
“After each year, we’re always looking at how can we [get] better, how can we improve,” Hall said. “Through the process, one of our core values is, ‘Earned not given,’ so when you have that mind-set and perspective, no matter what happened last year, this is a new year, and we have to go out and earn it each and every week.”