Justin Fuente had completed his initial examination of Clemson game film early this week when he stepped to the podium to answer questions about Virginia Tech’s anticipated showdown with college football’s reigning national champion.
Asked what his conclusions were, the Hokies coach offered the following:
“It’s like defusing a bomb. Like one small snip of the wire that’s incorrect, and boom, you blow your hands off. That’s how talented and good they are.”
The degree of difficulty and magnitude of the game certainly have not been lost on Fuente’s players, either. They politely declined to discuss the Tigers for the first four weeks of the season to devote full attention to the nonconference schedule, from which 12th-ranked Virginia Tech emerged unbeaten.
But almost immediately following last weekend’s 38-0 win against Old Dominion, players began addressing Saturday night’s game in Blacksburg, Va. A victory over the No. 2 Tigers would put the Hokies in position for a run at one of the four berths in the College Football Playoff.
“We’ll be ready to play them when they come in,” Virginia Tech senior wide receiver Cam Phillips said, his head tilted down as he tried to conceal a broad smile indicating just how eager he is to get another crack at the Tigers.
It’s easily the biggest game at Lane Stadium since Fuente took over at the start of last season. The prime-time setting and televised platform on ESPN recall the height of the Frank Beamer era. And it could be a precursor to another meeting in this year’s ACC title game, Dec. 2 in Charlotte.
“It’s been a while since we’ve had a game on this platform, on this stage,” said Bud Foster, the Hokies’ longtime defensive coordinator and the most prominent holdover from the Beamer era. Clemson “is a dynamic football team, probably one of the better football teams we’ve seen come in here in a long, long time.”
“College GameDay,” ESPN’s long-running pregame show, will be broadcast from Blacksburg for the first time since 2007. Athletic department officials have informed students they may begin lining up at 4 a.m. Saturday to get a prime viewing and sign-displaying spot behind the set for the show, which will air from Alumni Mall beginning Saturday at 9 a.m. Friday night, during Virginia Tech’s women’s soccer game against Boston College, a sign-making station will be available for fans.
Virginia Tech is 4-6 in games in which it has been a featured team on “College GameDay.” The Hokies are 4-1 in those games at home.
Virginia Tech has been promoting the game on social media as well, urging fans to wear maroon.
The Tigers (4-0) have won 32 of 34 games since the start of the 2015 season. Their only losses in that span were to Alabama, 45-40, in the national championship game to conclude the 2015 season and to Pittsburgh last year, 43-42.
They also boasts four consecutive wins over the Hokies since 2007, most recently outlasting them, 42-35, in last season’s ACC championship game in Orlando.
The Hokies nearly completed a rally from a three-touchdown deficit in the third quarter of that game. Phillips’s 26-yard touchdown catch drew the Hokies within the final margin with 5:43 left, but Clemson sealed the win with a late interception.
In addition to pedigree, Clemson has passed more significant tests than Virginia Tech so far this season. The Tigers suffocated then-No. 13 Auburn, 14-6, at home on Sept. 9, piling up 11 sacks and allowing only 117 total yards. The following week, in their ACC opener, they thumped then-No. 14 Louisville, 47-21, in front of the second-largest crowd to witness a game at Cardinal Stadium.
The game was billed as a potential showcase for Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson in his bid to win the Heisman Trophy in consecutive years. Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant, a first-year starter, instead outplayed Jackson through the first three quarters, when the Tigers took at 33-7 lead to remove any doubt. Bryant passed for 316 yards and a touchdown and ran for two more scores; his team rolled up 613 total yards.
The Hokies have played a more modest schedule since opening the season with a 31-24 win over then-No. 22 West Virginia at FedEx Field. But they have dominated, outscoring Delaware, East Carolina and Old Dominion by a total of 129-17 and allowing points in only one of those 12 quarters.
“This is a great football team we’re getting ready to play,” Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said. “We know that very well because we played them in the ACC championship game last year. I know there’s a lot of different people involved, but still, same program. I mean, it’s a great venue to play. It’s ‘GameDay.’ It’s all that stuff, and really looking forward to the challenge early in the season.”