After eight straight seasons of at least 10 wins, four ACC titles and five appearances in the ACC championship game, Virginia Tech (4-5, 2-3 ACC) enters Thursday night's ESPN game against No. 10 Florida State (8-1, 5-1) unranked, unimportant in the national picture, and needing to win two of its final three games just to become bowl eligible.
The preseason Coastal Division favorites are playing at home, but they’re still in very unfamiliar territory.
Virginia Tech as underdogs in Lane Stadium? On a Thursday night?! This is not the norm in ACC country.
“For a Virginia Tech team not to be at the top, yeah, it does surprise you because they’ve been there so consistently,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “It shows the injuries, attrition -- things can happen in a season. They’re still the same coaches, still the same players, they’ll still be doing pretty good, but sometimes the reasons for winning and losing are very small and sometimes the breaks don’t go your way.”
Not much has gone right for the Hokies at all this season.
Virginia Tech is in fifth place in the Coastal Division standings and hasn’t been ranked in the Top 25 since losing to Pittsburgh in Week 3. The Hokies have lost five of their past seven games, including the past two during back-to-back road trips to Clemson and Miami. They have struggled in all three phases of the game, but the miscues on defense and special teams have been the most surprising, considering those have been trademark strengths of coach Frank Beamer’s tenure.
Offensively, quarterback Logan Thomas has struggled mightily behind an inexperienced line that lost its only veteran, center Andrew Miller, to a season-ending injury in mid-October. Having to replace eight starters on offense took a greater toll than many had expected. Thomas already has thrown more interceptions this year (12) than he had all of last season (10).
Thomas’ teammates said he took last week’s 30-12 loss to Miami particularly hard.
“It was really tough,” receiver Corey Fuller said. “He just wasn’t there. He didn’t pick his head up, he didn’t say anything. He had a towel over his head the whole bus ride home, whole plane ride back home. I wanted to send him a text the day after, ask him how he was doing, but I just felt like I needed to give him some space, let him be, because he really seemed shaken up about it.
“He came out this week, he’s been throwing great passes all week. I think he’s feeling confident and ready to move on and come out and play.”
He’s going to have to in order to keep pace with Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel, who ranks second nationally in passing efficiency (174.03) and has completed 70 percent of his passes. FSU’s offense is No. 3 in the country at 44.78 points per game.
Virginia Tech’s offense has long been one of the most criticized in the ACC, but this year there is plenty of blame to go around in Blacksburg. Some within the program have struggled to pinpoint just what has been the problem, but Beamer said it’s simple: They just haven’t played well enough consistently.
“I have said so many times that there is a thin line between winning and being OK and not winning,” he said. “Winning every Saturday is hard. You play a lot of people you are better than and sometimes you play a lot of people that are better than you. The way that ball bounces on Saturday is just a thin line. We got used to 10-win seasons and I am proud of those and I am proud of this football team …
“… I think everybody in our operation here could have done something better to help this football team. But the thing I am looking at is we got a tremendous football team coming in here Thursday night and is ranked and should be. They are as good as it gets in college football and that is what we put our attention to.”
The Hokies haven’t quit, nor should they with bowl eligibility still on the line.
“Two things we’re playing for: One is a bowl game, of course, and then we’re playing for pride,” Fuller said. “You don’t ever want to just give up and throw in the towel. We’re playing to say, ‘Ok, we’ve lost some, but we can still have pride. We didn’t roll over and let everybody just run over us.' ”
That would be an even bigger surprise than the Hokies’ current place in the ACC race.