Virginia Tech opens the year with an FCS opponent, but shortly thereafter things get substantially more difficult. The very next week, new head coach Justin Fuente will lead his troops into one of the season’s most anticipated non-conference matchups, beginning the start of a very challenging slate of games.
The Hokies dodge a bullet in one respect in that they don’t face Clemson, Florida State or Louisville in ACC crossover games. However, they do face two teams ranked in Athlon’s top 10 in non-conference play. Plus, what the Coastal Division may lack in heavyweight contenders it makes up for in balance.
Let’s rank the Hokies’ 2016 opponents from easiest to most difficult matchup.
12. Sept. 3 vs. Liberty
Former Buffalo and Kansas head coach Turner Gill has pumped life into the Flames’ program, guiding them to the FCS playoffs in 2014. They are coming off a 6-5 record last year and despite the progress Liberty has made under Gill, they will start 2016 with a loss.
11. Sept. 24 vs. East Carolina
The Hokies will be looking to avenge last season’s 35-28 loss at ECU. The Pirates will be counting on two transfers to jumpstart their offense. Quarterback Philip Nelson comes to Greenville by way of Minnesota through Rutgers while running back Derrell Scott was at one time a highly coveted Tennessee signee.
10. Nov. 26 vs. Virginia
Yes, rivalry games are always difficult. But the Hokies have beaten the Cavaliers 12 straight times and have won 16 out of the last 17 meetings. Virginia also will be adjusting to a new coaching staff with former BYU leader Bronco Mendenhall taking over in Charlottesville. Virginia Tech has more talent and recent history is on its side.
9. Oct. 15 at Syracuse
Syracuse will have a whole new offensive system with former Bowling Green head coach and Baylor assistant Dino Babers taking over. Quarterback Eric Dungey should put up big numbers under his new coach, but the defense is a big concern for the Cuse.
8. Sept. 17 vs. Boston College
The Eagles should get better quarterback play with Kentucky transfer Patrick Towles taking over under center and that should lead to a little more offensive production. But that isn’t saying much as the Eagles’ 2015 offense was dreadful. The defense loses some top-flight talent, but that unit was outstanding last year and should be very good again. This is a tough spot for the Hokies coming off the Tennessee game.
7. Nov. 5 at Duke
David Cutcliffe has implemented a system that has produced results year after year, something that is unheard of at Duke. The Blue Devils will have to replace star safety Jeremy Cash but their big concerns on defense are up front. Offensively, there is uncertainty at quarterback as Thomas Sirk tries to recover from a torn Achilles. The Hokies have a couple of extra days to prepare for this game because they will be coming off a Thursday night game.
6. Nov. 12 vs. Georgia Tech
The Yellow Jackets present all kinds of challenges because of their triple-option offense. They also will be motivated to prove that last season’s 3-9 record was a fluke. Quarterback Justin Thomas needs to have a bounce-back year for Georgia Tech and he would be greatly aided by an improved offensive line. Virginia Tech cannot look ahead to its trip to South Bend the following week or the Hokies could get stung by Paul Johnson’s team yet again.
5. Oct. 27 at Pittsburgh
Though this is a Thursday night affair, it will be a normal work week for the Hokies as they play the previous Thursday as well. The Panthers welcome back star running back James Conner, who is now cancer free. Head coach Pat Narduzzi is known for building tough, physical defenses and this year’s Pitt squad features star defensive end Ejuan Price and defensive back Jordan Whitehead.
4. Oct. 20 vs. Miami
There is a renewed optimism in Miami and facing Brad Kaaya and Joseph Yearby on a short week will not be fun. However, Miami will be coming in after having played Florida State and North Carolina in the two previous weeks. Lane Stadium on a Thursday night is always special.
3. Oct. 8 at North Carolina
The Tar Heels are once again favored to win the Coastal Division and they should be. They are loaded with offensive talent with running back Elijah Hood hoping to contend for All-American honors and wide receiver Ryan Switzer as one of the many exciting options for new quarterback Mitch Trubisky. But UNC still has to prove it can stop the run and Virginia Tech has a week off before the trip to Chapel Hill.
2. Nov. 19 at Notre Dame
Both teams face similar circumstances entering this game. Notre Dame has to corral the option offenses of Navy and Army in the two weeks before playing the Hokies; Virginia Tech has Georgia Tech the week prior. The Hokies have their annual season-ending game with Virginia the following week while the Irish will head to Los Angeles to battle the hated Trojans. This will be Tech’s first-ever trip to South Bend.
1. Sept. 10 vs. Tennessee (Bristol, Tenn.)
The Bristol Motor Speedway has seating capacity of 160,000 and the odds are that most of those seats will be filled. As for the game itself, the Hokies will be dealing with a Tennessee team that returns 18 starters from a group that drubbed Northwestern 45-6 in the Outback Bowl. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs may be the best at his position in the SEC and the defensive front seven is expected to be very nasty.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.
(Justin Fuente photos by Dave Knachel - Virginia Tech Athletics)