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West Virginia Mountaineers vs. Virginia Tech Hokies Preview and Prediction

Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech Hokies Football

Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech Hokies Football

West Virginia and Virginia Tech renew an old, bitter Big East rivalry on Sunday night in Landover, Md., at FedEx Field. This is the first meeting between the Hokies and Mountaineers since 2005, and there’s some hardware at stake – the Black Diamond Trophy.

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West Virginia is coming off its best season since joining the Big 12 in 2012. The Mountaineers finished 10-3 overall and 7-2 in conference play last year, which helped coach Dana Holgorsen secure a long-term extension with the program. Holgorsen has won 46 games in his tenure and has West Virginia poised to be a top 25 team once again in 2017. Florida transfer Will Grier steps in at quarterback, and there’s a strong supporting cast in place at the skill positions on offense. Additionally, the line brings back two starters, along with tackle Yodny Cajuste from injury. Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson is among the best in the nation but has his work cut out in 2017. The Mountaineers’ defense suffered key losses at each level and bring back just three full-time starters.

Replacing a coaching legend like Frank Beamer wasn’t going to be easy, but Virginia Tech is in good hands with Justin Fuente. In his first year at the helm, the Hokies finished 10-4 overall, won the Coastal Division title and claimed the Belk Bowl over Arkansas. Just like Holgorsen and Gibson, Fuente and his staff have some key holes to fill this offseason. Virginia Tech loses quarterback Jerod Evans, receiver Isaiah Ford and tight end Bucky Hodges and must retool up front on defense. But despite the new faces stepping into starting roles, the Hokies should push Miami for the Coastal Division title.

West Virginia leads the all-time series against Virginia Tech 28-22-1. As mentioned above, these two teams have not played since 2005, but the Hokies claimed six out of the last eight meetings against the Mountaineers.

West Virginia vs. Virginia Tech (Landover, Maryland)

Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 3 at 7:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ABC

Spread: Virginia Tech - 4

Three Things to Watch

1. Virginia Tech QB Joshua Jackson

Second-year coach Justin Fuente has an outstanding track record of developing quarterbacks. At TCU, Fuente was instrumental in Andy Dalton’s progression, and he also developed Paxton Lynch into a first-round pick at Memphis. And the Virginia Tech fanbase got a glimpse of Fuente’s coaching and quarterback development last year, as Jerod Evans went from junior college prospect to one of the ACC’s top signal-callers.

Can Fuente do it again in 2017? It may take a few games for new starter Josh Jackson to get comfortable, but it’s safe to assume Virginia Tech will have good quarterback play by the end of the season. Jackson was a three-star recruit in the 2016 signing class and used a redshirt last year behind Evans. The Michigan native was named the team’s starter during fall camp over junior college recruit A.J. Bush and true freshman Hendon Hooker.

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Jackson (6-foot-1) isn’t as big as Evans (6-foot-4), but he brings a similar skill set to the offense. How quickly will Jackson acclimate to the starting role and settle into the game? The redshirt freshman also needs help from his supporting cast, which is undergoing offseason renovation after the departure of standout receiver Isaiah Ford and tight end Bucky Hodges to the NFL. Additionally, can the Hokies get more production out of their running backs this season to limit the wear and tear on Jackson?

Related: Predictions for Every College Football Game in Week 1

2. West Virginia’s Rebuilt Defense

For the second season in a row, West Virginia coordinator Tony Gibson has to do significant offseason retooling to the defense. The Mountaineers returned only two starters going into 2016, yet finished second in the Big 12 in scoring defense. Can Gibson work his magic once again?

West Virginia returns three starters, but starting linebacker David Long is sidelined for the first few games due to an offseason knee injury. On the positive side for Gibson, safety Dravon Askew-Henry is back after missing 2016 due to a knee injury. The trenches and secondary are the biggest areas of focus for Gibson on Sunday night. The line has three new starters, but there is experience at the nose tackle spot with senior Xavier Pegues listed as the starter. Junior college recruit Hakeem Bailey and senior Mike Daniels are expected to start at cornerback, with Elijah Battle and Syracuse transfer Corey Winfield filling out the top four options.

Considering Gibson likes to bring pressure and isn’t afraid to be aggressive, how will the new faces up front and in the secondary change his play-calling? Or will that matter at all? Adding to the intrigue of a rebuilt defense is a Virginia Tech offense also in rebuild mode with a new quarterback and two of the top three receivers from 2016 no longer on the roster.

Will West Virginia quickly reload on defense once again? Or will Gibson’s defense need a couple of games to find the right pieces?

3. West Virginia QB Will Grier vs. Virginia Tech’s Defense

This is the must-see matchup for Sunday night’s game. Grier started five games at Florida in 2015 but was suspended for the remainder of the year and decided to transfer to West Virginia. In six games with the Gators, Grier threw for 1,204 yards and 10 scores and was also 5-0 as the team’s starter. After sitting out 2016 due to transfer rules, Grier is primed to challenge for All-Big 12 honors in his first year as the Mountaineers’ starter. The junior has a big arm and can stretch the field vertically more than the offense did last season.

Helping Grier’s transition to starter is a solid supporting cast. The receiving corps took a hit with the transfer of Jovon Durante, and Marcus Simms is suspended, but David Sills, Ka’Raun White and Gary Jennings is a capable trio on the outside. Additionally, West Virginia returns the deepest backfield in the Big 12. Senior Justin Crawford is back after rushing for 1,184 yards last fall, and he’s joined by talented sophomores Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway.

While Grier and the West Virginia skill players should form an explosive offense, moving the ball could be a challenge on Sunday night. Virginia Tech’s defense allowed only 22.8 points per game last season, and coordinator Bud Foster will have another standout group with seven returning starters. The strength of this group is the back seven. Cornerbacks Brandon Facyson, Adonis Alexander and Greg Stroman are a lockdown trio, and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds is among the best in the nation. The Hokies don’t have a ton of proven depth up front, but the starting group will be a standout unit.

Final Analysis

With both teams breaking in new starters at key positions, it’s hard to get a read on this game. Factors such as third-down defense, turnovers or special teams could be critical in a game that’s expected to be decided by less than a touchdown. West Virginia has more proven firepower with Grier at quarterback, along with Crawford and McKoy at running back. Even though Josh Jackson is unproven, Fuente’s track record at quarterback suggests this won’t be an extended transition or concern. But with any new quarterback, there will be ups and downs in his first start. How will West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson look to attack Jackson? Expect to see pressure and different looks to confuse the redshirt freshman. Even though the offensive firepower is on the Mountaineer sideline, the team with the better defense (Virginia Tech) will find a way to win.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Virginia Tech

Prediction: Virginia Tech 27, West Virginia 24