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Meet the new Hokies, same as the old Hokies (only better)

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Hokies ready to take on the defending champs (0:58)

The stage is set for the Clemson Tigers to visit Blacksburg and take on the determined Virginia Tech Hokies. Tune in to the showdown Saturday at 8:00 p.m. ET on ABC. (0:58)

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Late Tuesday morning, four days before the biggest game on Virginia Tech's campus in years, Frank Beamer stood in front of the football operations building and rolled a tennis ball back and forth to his dog, a five-month-old beagle named Hank Beamer.

The pair walk the campus regularly these days, Frank to keep active, Hank to burn off some puppy energy. Staff, players and students wander by, and some fail to notice him at all. Others stop, say hello, ruffle the pup's ears and ask Beamer about life as a retired legend.

There are few campuses in the country where this scene could play out: the ghost of a program's halcyon days (and his dog) still mingling with the architects of the new era. But at Virginia Tech, it works. The past has always loomed large, set the standard. That's actually why Justin Fuente is here.

"My frame of reference was Virginia Tech being synonymous with winning 10 games and winning conference championships," Fuente said of what lured him to Blacksburg two years ago to replace Beamer after 28 years on the job, the past four of which ended with disappointment. "Through its location, it's support, its leadership, I didn't see any reason it couldn't go back to that."

There are plenty of folks around Blacksburg who think that Saturday's game against No. 2 Clemson (8 p.m. ET, ABC and ESPN App) -- a rematch of last year's ACC title game, under the lights in prime time, with the long-awaited return of ESPN's "College GameDay" to mark the occasion -- could be the line of demarcation, the point when Virginia Tech really is "back."

After all, Virginia Tech is 4-0, ranked 12th nationally despite massive changes from last year's personnel. The 2016 ACC championship game opened some eyes when the Hokies were surprisingly competitive, but it felt far more like a Clemson coronation than a Virginia Tech coming out party. This though, this is different. This is a game the Hokies can win, and even the fans at Clemson realize it.

"I'm excited for the program to get back to relevance again," defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. "Obviously we've got to make it that way, but to be put on this stage again, it's exciting. And it's something that started when Coach Fuente took the reins."

It's been an interesting blueprint for Fuente to get Virginia Tech here. There's a long line of coaches who've tried to follow a departed legend, and most have failed miserably. Even the success stories, like Florida State's Jimbo Fisher, won largely by distancing themselves from the past. Fisher's predecessor, Bobby Bowden, didn't return to campus for a home game for four years after he was pushed out as head coach. But here's Beamer, walking a dog just a few hundred feet from Fuente's office, and Foster, an assistant for the past 30 years, just down the hall.

In so many ways, it's like nothing much has changed except the wins.

"I've been asked that question, and I don't really care," Fuente said of the stamp he's put on the program. "Frank's been awesome to us, and helped us with the transition, gone out of his way to not appear to be looking over our shoulders, and it's just worked."

Fuente arrived last season, convinced Foster to stay on as defensive coordinator, brought in juco quarterback Jerod Evans to helm the offense, and suddenly it was like old times in Blacksburg. Virginia Tech won 10 games for the first time since its streak of eight straight 10-win seasons was snapped in 2012, and the Hokies pushed Clemson to the brink in that ACC title game.

Fuente took a roster consisting almost entirely of Beamer's players, added a dash of offensive insight, and -- voila! -- a winner.

Only it wasn't quite so simple.

"I think it's our job to build on what Coach has done," Fuente said, referring to Beamer, always, as "Coach." "But I was concerned the perception was that we'd come in here, throw a couple more post routes, and everything was going to be fine. I wanted our kids to know that wasn't the road we were going down. The defensive calls weren't going to change, but a whole lot of their lives were going to change -- not because the way they used to do it was bad, but because I had a way I wanted it done."

It may have looked, from the outside, like a simple software update, but Fuente and his staff were building iPhone X -- something like the old product, but new and innovative and exciting. The way the team practiced, the way it handled offseason conditioning, the way coaches recruited -- there was the old way, and there was the Fuente way.

"This is a process," Fuente said, "and we're still in the middle of the process."

That's the other thing people should understand about Virginia Tech. Yes, the Hokies, after four years of mediocrity, are 14-4 in Fuente's tenure. And yes, in Josh Jackson, he appears to have found yet another burgeoning star quarterback after Evans surprised everyone by leaving school early for the NFL draft. And yes, this game against Clemson has brought the spotlight back to Blacksburg. But this is not the end of the journey.

If there's another part of Virginia Tech's past that still looms large -- a part fans and coaches and staff aren't nearly so eager to embrace -- it's the trophy case. For years, it sat empty with the promise that Beamer would one day fill it with a national championship. It never happened.

The case is gone now, part of renovations that have made the facilities more palatable for recruits and staff alike, but the void remains, and that, Fuente said, is the ultimate goal here.

"There's no reason we can't push this thing forward," he said. "It's just too attractive a place for kids to want to be."

That's what has everyone truly excited at Virginia Tech. Fuente has a vision, and the picture has come into focus quicker than anyone might've rightly expected.

Still, that could be a double-edged sword, with fans worrying that perhaps success came so soon and that Virginia Tech could lose its rising star before reaching the mountaintop. In April, the school announced it had agreed to terms on a contract extension to keep Fuente in Blacksburg through 2023. Nevertheless, the rumors figure to stir up again when a big job comes open this offseason.

Ignore the rumors, Fuente said. He is in this for the long haul.

"When [AD] Whit [Babcock] and I talked after last season, it was about making sure we had time to do the job the right way, helping our assistants out, and what we could do for the program in the long run," Fuente said. "There were no short-term conversations."

At Virginia Tech, it's not simply about winning a game -- even a big game like this one. It's about building upon history.

When center Eric Gallo was asked about last year's ACC title game, he said what he remembered most was the slow start. The Hokies hadn't played a game that big since he'd been here, and, he thought, perhaps a few too many guys felt out of place. It took a while to shake off the rust of obscurity.

Saturday, however, Gallo said things will be different. This is the mark of Fuente's tenure, after all. It's not that Virginia Tech is playing on a stage this big. It's that the Hokies expected to.

"I don't want this to be a one-time thing," Fuente said of Saturday's big-game atmosphere. "I want this to be a normal thing. We absolutely can and will achieve that. Our fans deserve it. We can recruit at that level. And ultimately, we'll play at that level."