Virginia Tech and Florida State close out Week 1 of the 2018 college football season with a Saturday night clash in Tallahassee. The ACC has been involved in its share of intriguing matchups on Labor Day, including last year’s thriller between Georgia Tech and Tennessee in Atlanta, Florida State’s comeback victory over Ole Miss in 2016 and the Virginia Tech-Ohio State game in ’15.
Florida State experienced its share of bad luck last season. The Seminoles were expected to contend for a CFB Playoff bid but lost quarterback Deondre Francois to a season-ending injury in the fourth quarter in the opener against Alabama. True freshman James Blackman was pressed into the starting job with Francois sidelined and played well in his first year on campus. However, the air out of Florida State’s national title hopes quickly evaporated after Francois’ injury, and this team never recovered. In addition to the setback on offense, rumors about Jimbo Fisher’s future and interest in the Texas A&M job circulated late in the season. Fisher eventually took the job in College Station, but Florida State landed the right replacement in Willie Taggart. The Florida native is bringing a different style of play (spread up-tempo attack) to the offense, but a fresh start should help this program get back to contending for double-digit victories once again.
Justin Fuente has guided Virginia Tech to 19 wins over the last two years and another season of at least nine victories is certainly within reach once again. Following a standout freshman season, quarterback Josh Jackson returns to anchor the offense. Jackson is surrounded by a young supporting cast, but under the tutelage of Fuente, the sophomore is poised to rank among the top quarterbacks in the ACC. Virginia Tech’s defense is in rebuild mode with just four returning starters, but there’s not a ton of concern about this unit. That’s due to defensive coordinator Bud Foster, who continually reloads this group and keeps it among the best in college football. Despite the turnover on defense and uncertainty at the skill spots, a favorable schedule should keep this team near the top of the Coastal Division.
Florida State holds a 23-12-1 series edge over Virginia Tech. The last meeting between these two teams took place in 2012. Additionally, the Hokies and Seminoles have met five times as members of the ACC, with two of those matchups taking place in the conference title game.
Virginia Tech at Florida State
Kickoff: Monday, Sept. 3 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Florida State -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Florida State QB Deondre Francois
Prior to the 2017 season, all signs pointed to Francois emerging as one of the top quarterbacks in the ACC. As a redshirt freshman the previous year, Francois threw for 3,350 yards and 20 touchdowns to just seven interceptions. He also added 196 yards and five scores on the ground. However, Francois suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener against Alabama and was forced to miss the rest of the 2017 season.
New coach Willie Taggart pushed Francois this offseason, and the junior responded by earning the top spot on the depth chart over James Blackman and Bailey Hockman. Francois is the best all-around fit for Taggart’s offense, but his knee and mobility will be tested right away in this offense on Monday night.
As with any coaching transition and scheme shift, there will be some ups and downs and learning curves. Will Florida State encounter any of those moments on Monday night? And how fast can Francois knock off the rust after not playing in a regular season game since Sept. 2, 2017?
In addition to Francois, the Seminoles need more out of their receiving corps. Senior Nyqwan Murray and junior Keith Gavin are the most-experienced options, but keep an eye on sophomore D.J. Matthews and freshmen Keyshawn Helton, Ontaria Wilson, Tre’Shaun Harrison and Warren Thompson.
2. Virginia Tech’s Rebuilt Defense
As mentioned above, Virginia Tech’s defense is a unit in transition for 2018. Coordinator Bud Foster returns only four starters and has new faces stepping into more playing time at every level.
As if the overall turnover from last season wasn’t enough, starting linemen Vinny Mihota and Trevon Hill are dealing with injuries and uncertainty surrounds their status for Monday night. Tackle Ricky Walker is the unit’s top player and is likely to create havoc against Florida State’s offensive line. However, his job will be a little tougher if Hill and Mihota are limited or unable to go, allowing the Seminoles to focus more on the middle of the line. Virginia Tech’s back seven features a handful of promising players, including cornerbacks Bryce Watts and Caleb Farley, rover Reggie Floyd, safety Divine Deablo and whip Khalil Ladler.
While talent and coaching isn’t an issue, the Hokies’ rebuilt unit will have their hands full against Florida State’s offense on Monday night. In addition to the new up-tempo attack, Taggart has one of the nation’s top running backs (Cam Akers) at his disposal. Akers rushed for over 1,000 yards as a true freshman in 2017 and is poised to see more touches in ’18. He’s joined by Jacques Patrick in the backfield, forming one of the top tandems at running back in college football.
With Florida State expected to run more plays than it has in previous years, Virginia Tech will likely have to rotate in more defenders to keep its defense fresh in the fourth quarter. The Hokies aren’t short on talent, but for a unit already breaking in seven new starters, the depth will be tested. How quickly will Foster get this defense performing at a high level?
3. Virginia Tech’s Offense
Quarterback Josh Jackson is the catalyst for Fuente’s offense. As a redshirt freshman last fall, Jackson averaged 255 total yards a game and connected on 59.6 percent of his passes. The sophomore earned second-team All-ACC honors by Athlon Sports for 2018 and is among the top 25 quarterbacks in college football.
With another full offseason to work as the starter, the Hokies need Jackson to take the next step in his development. But improvement on offense isn’t riding solely on Jackson’s right arm and mobility. The sophomore’s supporting cast has potential but is unsettled going into 2018. Receiver Cam Phillips expired his eligibility, leaving Sean Savoy (39 catches) and Eric Kumah (28) as the team’s top returning options in the passing game. Savoy isn’t listed as a starter for Monday night’s game, with sophomore Hezekiah Grimsley edging him for a starting job, and Ball State transfer Damon Hazelton rounding out the starting trio with Kumah. Hazelton is a potential impact addition for Jackson after catching 51 passes for 505 yards at Ball State in 2016.
Virginia Tech’s offensive line should be strong but more is needed out of the ground game. The Hokies ranked seventh in the ACC in rush offense last season and returns leading rusher Deshawn McClease (530). Fuente will likely utilize a committee of backs, with McClease penciled in as the starter, and Steven Peoples and Jalen Holston rounding out the top options.
The mission for Florida State’s defense on Monday night is pretty simple: Contain Jackson and make the Virginia Tech skill players win the game. New coordinator Harlon Barnett has plenty of talent to work with, including standout cornerback Levonta Taylor and linemen Brian Burns and Demarcus Christmas.
Can Jackson carry the Virginia Tech offense all night? Or will the sophomore get enough help from his supporting cast?
Both defenses have talent, but there’s enough turnover to think both offenses are going to land their share of punches. In order for Virginia Tech to win, Fuente will have to lean on Jackson but also get more help from the supporting cast. The Hokies also need to create a couple of takeaways on defense and contain running back Cam Akers. While Florida State is dealing with a scheme change on both sides of the ball, it’s a new era for the program. Last year was certainly disappointing, but there’s too much talent to expect a repeat of the 7-6 mark. Taggart’s Gulf Coast Offense may not fire on all cylinders in the opener, but Francois, Akers and the homefield advantage gives this one to the Seminoles.