The question was met with a mixed bag of answers when posed to the Hokies’ coaches and players this week as they prepared for Monday night’s nationally televised season opener against the Yellow Jackets at Lane Stadium.
After all, linebacker Bruce Taylor noted, the winner of this annual matchup has won the ACC’s Coastal Division and gone on to the league’s championship game ever since the conference went to a division format for the 2005 season. “From that standpoint, it is a rivalry,” he said.
Entering his 26th season at Virginia Tech, Coach Frank Beamer wouldn’t go that far. But three years after complaining publicly about some of the tactics utilized by Georgia Tech Coach Paul Johnson’s one-of-a-kind flexbone triple option offense, he has certainly grown to appreciate the magnitude of playing the Yellow Jackets.
“The game’s meant a lot for the last few years,” Beamer said this week. “I’m not sure it’s a rivalry game. But I know it’s a big game, that’s for sure.”
The stakes may have been raised this year. Though the Hokies have made a habit of scheduling high-profile season openers in recent seasons — Southern California in 2004, Alabama in 2009 and Boise State in 2010 — a loss has never had any impact on Virginia Tech’s ability to win the ACC.
And Beamer doesn’t need to be reminded that before beating Appalachian State, 66-13, in the 2011 season opener, Virginia Tech had dropped its first game three years in a row.
The Hokies’ players have embraced another moment in the spotlight, especially coming off the sting of closing last season with losses in the ACC championship game and Sugar Bowl.
They see Monday night’s contest — the only college football game in the country that day — as a chance at redemption.
“Somebody asked me earlier . . . does coming off the last two games make it harder to get ready for the first game? I said, ‘Absolutely not,’ ” quarterback Logan Thomas said this week. “It makes it that much easier. It makes us want to come out and work in the summer. It makes us want to get better in the spring. I think we’ve done so, and having Georgia Tech as the first game is awesome because we get to play a really meaningful game the first game of the season.”
The preseason also has afforded extra preparation time, essential for a Virginia Tech defense that must contend with the unorthodox schemes and cut-blocking that have turned Johnson into one of the most discussed offensive minds in college football.
Many of the Hokies still frequently call the staple of Georgia Tech’s offense “chop blocking,” which is technically illegal.
But ever since controversy arose over blocking technique after the Yellow Jackets beat Virginia Tech in 2009, defensive coordinator Bud Foster went to work on solving Johnson’s offense.
Five years into facing Johnson on a yearly basis, Foster has amassed a “library” of game tape on the flexbone, dating from Johnson’s successful five-year run at Navy.
Foster believes he has seen film of “just about” every Yellow Jackets game during the Johnson era.
He hasn’t completely solved the puzzle yet. Even when Virginia Tech bested Georgia Tech the past two seasons, Foster’s defense still allowed the Yellow Jackets to rush for nearly 600 yards.
“The toughest part is really focusing on beating the block first and then getting in on the play after,” linebacker Jeron Gouveia-Winslow said. “A lot of times, guys want to keep their eye on the ball, see where it’s going and they get cut because they’re not defending properly.”
Beamer has long advocated that college football teams be allowed to hold preseason games like the NFL, and it would have come in handy this year, as the Hokies are breaking in eight new starters on offense and freshman punter A.J. Hughes.
But in place of that, Beamer has spent training camp emphasizing how important Monday could be in the grand scheme of this year, while also warning his players about the pitfalls that are to be expected during the first game of any season.
Rivalry or not, this is no dress rehearsal.
“The reason a lot of these guys chose Virginia Tech is because they want to play in big ballgames,” Beamer said. “I don’t hide the fact that this is a big ballgame. There’s no question it’s important for us and them.”