When Virginia Tech hired former Memphis head coach Justin Fuente to replace legendary head man Frank Beamer, this was the type of transition its fan base was looking for.
While the Hokies dropped a non-conference battle with Tennessee in a game where they led early but were done in by a bevy of turnovers, they've since gone on a run that culminated in last week's dominant 34-3 win over North Carolina. That beatdown over the defending ACC Coastal champs improved the Hokies' overall mark to 4-1 and a division-best 2-0.
Syracuse, on the other hand, has yet to see the fruits of the hire of former Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green head coach Dino Babers, as the Orange have struggled to a 2-4 start.
Even though Babers has delivered on his promise to bring an up-tempo attack with a conference-high 499 plays in six games, the Orange have not been able to put many points on the board, as their 25.7 points per game rank 10th in the 14-team ACC.
Although the Orange made some progress on defense in their 28-9 loss to Wake Forest last week, Babers and Co. will simply have to show much more than they have to this point to hang with a Virginia Tech team that doesn't look to be flying under the radar for much longer.
Virginia Tech at Syracuse
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 15 at 3:45 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPNU
Spread: Virginia Tech -19.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Ford tough
It was a scary moment for Virginia Tech when Isaiah Ford, the team's best wide receiver, went down with an apparent left foot or ankle injury last week against North Carolina. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound junior leads the team with 24 receptions for 376 yards, an average of 15.7 yards per catch, and four touchdowns. He's the best weapon in quarterback Jerod Evans' arsenal, and any long-term setback would be a big blow to this offense. However, Fuente told reporters this week that Ford "looks fine," so expect him to see the field against Syracuse. His health will be something to keep an eye on, though.
2. “Ken” he be blocked?
Defensive end Ken Ekanem is not only one of the best defensive players for the Hokies, but one of the top edge-rushing NFL prospects in the league. The 6-foot-3, 260-pounder has 17 tackles and leads the team with 4.5 sacks to go along with 5.5 tackles for a loss and an additional five quarterback hurries. Ekanem didn't record any stats against the Tar Heels, but don't expect that to happen against the Orange. Syracuse has major injury concerns along its offensive line, as center Jason Emerich, right guard Omari Palmer and left tackle Cody Conway all are hurt. Orange head coach Dino Babers said two of them will miss the rest of the season, but didn't specify which ones. But a banged-up front doesn't look promising against Ekanem and a Hokies defense that is always aggressive under longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster.
3. Getting “passed” it
Without question, the rainy conditions played a factor in Syracuse's pedestrian passing numbers against Wake Forest. Still, Amba Etta-Tawo was held to just four catches for 34 yards, both season lows. For the year, the senior has 51 receptions for 876 yards and six touchdowns. Just as disconcerting was the lack of production from slot man Ervin Phillips, who was held to no catches after coming into the game with 42 for 357 yards and three scores. Overall, Orange quarterback Eric Dungey has the Orange as the 12th-ranked passing unit in the nation with 336.3 yards per game. Now that Syracuse will be back in the dry confines of the Carrier Dome, look for Babers to air it out again and try and get his playmakers back in a groove.
It's too early to start drawing any grand conclusions about first-year Syracuse head coach Dino Babers and how his rebuilding project will take shape because he has a track record of success and hasn't been able to go through a full recruiting cycle yet. But Virginia Tech’s new head coach, Justin Fuente, seems like the right fit, and the Hokies have as good a shot as anyone to make a run at the ACC Coastal title. Even though the Orange should find a little more offensive success than they did against Wake, the Hokies bring an extra level of athleticism on both sides of the ball that should make things difficult for Syracuse to keep this one close.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 45, Syracuse 20
— Written by Adam Kurkjian, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and is a reporter for the Boston Herald. He has covered the World Series, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup playoffs, Boston Marathon and Little League World Series, among other events from the high school, college and pro ranks. Follow him on Twitter @AdamKurkjian.