Welcome back to our 2020 Football Season Preview. To view our preview table of contents and read already-completed pieces, click here or on the Series button above.
Counting down the days until the season kicks off, we’re ready to start breaking down the schedule game-by-game, with summaries of each team we’ll face and our confidence level in the Hoos to get that win. Today, we’ll tackle the first three games of the 10-game slate.
(9/1: This post, originally published Monday 8/31, has been updated to reflect the fact that Virginia Tech transfer RB Raheem Blackshear won his appeal with the NCAA and is immediately eligible.)
Date: Saturday, Sept. 12th
Date: Saturday, Sept. 19th
Location: Lane Stadium, Blacksburg, Va.
2019 Record: 8-5 (5-3)
Last Meeting: Virginia 39, Virginia Tech 30, 11/29/19 at Virginia
The Athletic Preseason ACC Ranking: 7th of 15
The Athletic State of the Program ($): Link
CFN Preseason ACC Predicted Finish: T-4th of 15
CFN National Ranking: 16th of 130
CFN team preview: Link
Athlon Team Preview: Link
Strengths: This team has a lot of experience, so much so that even with the late July opt out of first-team all-ACC cornerback Caleb Farley, and DE TyJuan Garbutt possibly missing the season for family reasons, the defense still returns eight starters. The offense returns eight starters as well, including the entire offensive line.
There’s no doubt QB Hendon Hooker — a junior this year — made the Hokies go once he was inserted into the starting lineup in 2019 for Ryan Willis. With him under center, Tech averaged 36.1 points and went 6-2. Without him starting, the Hokies went 2-3 and averaged 22.6 points. Hooker finished the season with a 61.1 completion percentage, 1,555 yards, 13 TDs, and just two picks (both against UVa). He also ran for 356 yards and five scores. In the eight games he started, Hooker averaged 193.4 passing yards, which would’ve placed him seventh among ACC QBs. For the most part, the line kept his jersey clean, as he was sacked 17 times, with six of those by the Wahoos. Interestingly, coach Justin Fuente recently said snaps in practice were split evenly between Hooker, Quincy Patterson, and Oregon transfer Braxton Burmeister. Patterson hasn’t proven to be an effective passer yet, completing just 35.7 percent of his throws, but he is a solid runner, and he did finish off last year’s six-overtime victory against North Carolina after Hooker got hurt, and he started the near-upset of Notre Dame the following week. Burmeister sat out last season under NCAA transfer rules, but he did start five games for the Ducks in 2017. However, they went just 1-4 in those contests, and he had two TDs compared to six INTs. He played sparingly in 2018. Hooker would seem to have the upper hand in the competition. I think Fuente is just letting each guy have a fair shot, in a sort of simulation of spring football, since it was canceled. Despite the flaws of Patterson and Burmeister, the Hokies sport three QBs who have started games against Power Five opponents, so I think the position is a strength.
#Hokies football coach Justin Fuente said QBs Hendon Hooker, Braxton Burmeister and Quincy Patterson are all splitting reps evenly still as camp ends.
— Mike Barber (@RTD_MikeBarber) August 25, 2020
There appear to be several appealing options at tailback, even with 2019 leading rusher Deshawn McClease (843 yards, seven TDs) forgoing his senior season. Another -shawn, sophomore Keshawn King, is back after 340 yards (4.2 ypc) and a pair of scores as a true freshman. Senior Jalen Holston returns after being injured in Week 1 last season and missing the rest of the campaign. In 2018, he averaged 4.9 ypc on 57 attempts. Junior college transfer Marco Lee can play right away and has two years of eligibility remaining after recording 1,232 yards and nine scores in two seasons at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas. He was rated among the nation’s top JUCO running backs. Another state of Kansas RB, this one from the Jayhawks, is Khalil Herbert, a graduate transfer who rushed for 1,735 yards and 14 TDs in 35 games. Rutgers transfer Raheem Blackshear, who had his waiver for immediate eligibility denied initially by the NCAA — just like Virginia RB Ronnie Walker — won his appeal, so he will see the field for the Hokies in 2020. In three seasons as a Scarlet Knight, Blackshear tallied 912 rushing yards (4.3 ypc), 80 catches, 810 receiving yards and 12 total TDs, split evenly on the ground and through the air. I think Tech will work hard to get Blackshear in space and get him some receptions.
Tech’s receiving corps features a pair of good wideouts in junior Tre Turner (34 catches, 553 yards, four touchdowns) and sophomore Tayvion Robinson (31, 404, one), and also a possible rising star at tight end in junior James Mitchell, who caught the same number of passes (21) as NFL third-round draftee Dalton Keene, but had more yards (361 vs. 240). After that, Tech is a little thin, which I’ll get to more below.
The strength of Tech’s defense is at linebacker, where it returns senior Rayshard Ashby, who led the ACC in tackles last season (120) and came in third in tackles for losses (17) while adding five sacks, a breakup, three forced fumbles, and five QB hits. Also, junior Dax Hollifield (67 tackles, 4.5 for losses, two sacks, three INTs, a forced fumble, and nine QB hits) is back, as is sophomore Alan Tisdale (52 stops, 5.5 for losses, three sacks, three breakups). In the secondary, at the corner opposite Farley, Jermaine Waller wasn’t too bad himself. A junior this season, in 2019 Waller compiled 46 stops, 2.5 for losses, 1.5 sacks, three INTs, and 10 breakups. Senior Devine Deablo is a quality safety who tallied 84 tackles, 4.5 for losses, a pick, two breakups, a forced fumble, and one QB hit. Up front, senior tackle Jarrod Hewitt is tough, and he posted 33 tackles, 6.5 for losses, four sacks, a breakup, a forced fumble, and four QB hits.
The Hokies return a quality kicker and punter, both seniors. Brian Johnson made 19 of his 23 field goal attempts, including his last 12 and all 15 inside 40 yards. Oscar Bradburn averaged 46.6 yards per punt (3rd in ACC) and put 22 inside the 20 (tied-5th).
Weaknesses: Tech has started slow each of the past two seasons. In 2018, a bad Old Dominion team toppled the Hokies, and last year, a Duke squad that finished with five victories destroyed them in Blacksburg, while Tech struggled in home wins over Furman, ODU, and Rhode Island. I give Tech credit for turning around its season after the loss to the Blue Devils, especially not quitting and surviving in the UNC marathon win, but I do think the Hokies need to develop some mental fortitude. Granted, Virginia did the same thing in its 2015 contest against Notre Dame, but Tech had a chance to finish off the Irish last season in South Bend and couldn’t. Then the Hokies had opportunities to close out wins over Virginia and Kentucky and couldn’t. Last year’s Miami game is another example, when Tech got up on the Hurricanes 28-0 but blew the entire lead! The Hokies still won, 42-35, but that was a meltdown of just about the highest order. At times, Fuente can look like a deer in the headlights. When the going gets tough, he needs to rally his guys better. You still have to wonder — after all of the rumors swirling before last season about team chemistry and all of the transfers — if Fuente is still a good leader for the program and if the players love to fight for him.
At tailback, can too many options be a weakness? I outlined them above, but can anybody actually take control and be the main ball carrier, or will it be another “meh” rushing attack? Tech’s ground game has been a perpetual question mark for many years. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Mike Barber, the Hokies have had just one 1,000-yard rusher in the past eight seasons, and Athlon says the team has not averaged more than 4.4 yards per carry since 2010.
After the initial three pass-catchers I mentioned, Tech lacks depth. Damon Hazelton and his 31 catches and eight scores transferred to Missouri, and Hezekiah Grimsley left, too, though his 10 receptions were the lowest of his three-year Hokies career. Phil Patterson (six catches) transferred as well. One incoming transfer is another KU player, graduate student Evan Fairs, who caught 28 passes with the Jayhawks, but 24 of those came in 2017. The Hokies will need some unproven guys to make some big catches behind the main three threats.
On defense, one of the big question marks is at coordinator. Bud Foster was the man in charge since 1995, and now Justin Hamilton takes over. Hamilton, who is just 37, was a Hokies player from 2002-05 who found his niche at safety, and then quickly rose through the ranks once he joined Tech’s coaching staff in 2018. Before that, he was a linebackers coach at VMI, and he coordinated UVa-Wise’s defense from 2011-2013. I think even Hokies fans admit Foster lost a step in the latter stage of his career, but for the most part, you knew what to expect out of his group. Tech has led the country in sacks and picks since Foster became DC. Can Hamilton continue the Hokies’ defensive tradition, even bolster it, or will he stumble a bit, especially as a rookie?
Certainly, his defense isn’t as experienced as it could’ve been, with Farley and his four INTs and 12 breakups exiting, and also Garbutt — who collected 3.5 tackles for losses, a sack, and eight QB hits — likely not playing. Sophomore Armani Chatman, who started for the injured Farley last season at UVa, will likely get the first shot to start in Farley’s spot. In 2019, Chatman had 22 tackles and two breakups.
Summary Thoughts: As I referenced above, Tech has started slow the past two seasons, and that has held it back from having the type of success it wants to have. But the Hokies have rallied hard both times, too. Two years ago, they kept their bowl streak alive (up to 27 straight now) — barely — by edging Virginia in overtime and then beating Marshall to reach six wins. Last season, the situation was perhaps even more dire, because following the 6-7 campaign, Tech was 2-2 and had just gotten crushed, 45-10, by Duke. Fans were calling for Fuente’s head, but then Hooker really sparked the Hokies, who won six of seven before tight losses to Virginia and Kentucky. Though 2019 was a rebound year, Fuente is not out of hot water yet, and there’s no doubt the loss to Virginia stung the fan base. Questions still remain about his leadership, he had a pretty public courtship with Baylor in the offseason, and he also drew some criticism over a comment about not letting players rejoin the program after entering the transfer portal but then changing their mind. It seemed, of course, hypocritical after talking with Baylor. So Fuente has pretty much done it all in four seasons. He got the Hokies back to 10 wins in his first season, and fans hoped he would return the program to a time when it won 10 games with regularity (each year from 2004-11, plus 13 of 17 seasons from 1995-2011) and perhaps take it to the next level. Fuente took a step back to nine victories in 2017, followed by the six- and eight-win campaigns the past two seasons. The only thing he hasn’t done is finish a regular season with a losing record, something that hasn’t happened at Tech since 1992. Snapping the bowl streak could be the last straw, but in 2020, it feels like Tech has the ingredients to compete near the top of the ACC, but I think the uneasy feeling remains.
As for UVa’s matchup with Tech, who knows at this point? My feeling has shifted from optimistic, to pessimistic, to throwing my hands up in the air. At first, with UVa facing VMI and Tech taking on N.C. State before the Commonwealth Cup, I thought that gave the ‘Hoos a good opportunity to polish up some rough matches against an FCS team while not opening the whole playbook, whereas Tech would have to deal with an ACC team instead. But when the VMI game was canceled, I thought the pendulum swung toward the Hokies. Yes, UVa would’ve been able to go into the game fresh, with fewer potential injuries and no film to give Tech, but at that point, I thought Tech shaking off the rust first and getting a real game in — especially during the pandemic, when doing even normal things can feel so odd — was more valuable than UVa getting an extra week of preparation. Also, the Hokies were scheduled to have a bye week after the UVa game, so they could’ve put all of their focus solely on the ‘Hoos and empty the mental and physical tank. But now, the Tech-State matchup has been pushed back to Sept. 26, so the Cup is the first contest for each team, and Tech no longer has a bye afterward. Still, I give Tech the edge. It is playing at home — not as big an advantage as it could be, but the Hokies don’t have to travel. Plus, UVa’s offensive depth is going to be tested with Walker, RB Mike Hollins, and WR Dontayvion Wicks all out, when they were each expected to contribute. An experienced defense such as Tech’s will be a test for an unproven starting QB in Brennan Armstrong, plus a thin backfield, and some new faces in the receiving corps. UVa’s defense is strong, too, but the Hokies have a returning starter under center. That will be valuable in getting on the right track in Week 1. And you know the Hokies want the Cup back badly. They’ll still be putting a lot of energy into the game — the Wolfpack will be an afterthought.
Win Confidence (1 to 10): 4
Date: Saturday, Sept. 26th
Date: Saturday, Oct. 3rd
Location: Clemson Memorial Field (AKA Death Valley), Clemson, S.C.
2019 Record: 14-1 (8-0)
Last Meeting: Clemson 62, Virginia 17, 12/7/19 at Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.
The Athletic Preseason ACC Ranking ($): 1st of 15
The Athletic State of the Program ($): Link
CFN Preseason ACC Predicted Finish: T-1st of 15
CFN National Ranking: 2nd of 130
CFN team preview: Link
Athlon Team Preview: Link
Strengths: What’s NOT a strength? Maybe that would be the easier exercise when it comes to discussing the modern Tigers. Clemson-ing used to mean falling short of greatness and the Tigers losing a game they should win. Now it stands for being really damn good and going to the College Football Playoff every year (each of the past five seasons, with four title game appearances and a pair of crowns). The Tigers have five starters back on offense, not an overwhelming number, but especially at QB and RB, they have plenty of skill to light up defenses again. It starts of course with junior third-year starting QB Trevor Lawrence, who is 25-1 in his 26 starts, the only loss coming in 2019’s national championship against LSU. Last year, Lawrence doubled his 2018 interception total: four to eight. But here’s the catch — in his final eight games, he tossed 22 TDs and no INTs! He completed 65.8 percent of his passes for 3,665 yards and 36 scores. Lawrence also showcased a new side of his game, rushing for 563 yards and nine scores, a huge leap from 2018 when those totals were just 177 yards and one TD. Not much more needs to be said. Everyone knows Lawrence is the real deal, and he was being touted as the top overall NFL draft pick after his true freshman season.
Lawrence might get a lot of the attention, but another Tigers offensive player has been named ACC player of the year twice in a row: RB Travis Etienne, and he shocked the college football world when he decided to return for his senior season in January. Not only that, but as the pandemic has set in, he hasn’t opted out of the season. He told The State recently that being back home over the summer and seeing his nieces and little brother playing sports helped him remember why he loved the game so much. He also decided he couldn’t watch his Clemson teammates grinding and not be there working beside them. In 2019, Etienne gained 1,614 yards (7.8 ypc) and scored 19 TDs and caught 37 passes for four more scores. Etienne is already Clemson’s career rushing yards leader and the ACC’s all-time leader in rushing TDs and total TDs. Only one other player — North Carolina RB Mike Voight from 1975-76 — has won the conference’s top award two years in a row, and if Etienne takes home the honor again, he’d be only the second player in major college football to win a conference’s top award three times — with the other being Georgia RB Herschel Walker from 1980-82. Top RB reserve Lyn-J Dixon, a junior, is back as well after 635 yards and six TDs. Dixon owns the No. 2 yards-per-carry figure in Clemson history at 7.12.
At tight end, in addition to returning senior starter J.C. Chalk, Clemson is excited to have junior Braden Galloway for an entire year after he was suspended for 365 days starting in December 2018 for testing positive for a banned substance. He got to play in the CFP last season and recorded two receptions for 60 yards against LSU.
Clemson has six starters back on defense, also not an overwhelming number, but it probably won’t matter, because thanks to defensive coordinator Brent Venables, the Tigers have finished in the top 10 nationally in defense each of the past six seasons. The strength in 2020 should be up front, starting with sophomore DT Tyler Davis, who was an all-ACC performer as a true freshman when he tallied 51 tackles, nine for losses, 5.5 sacks, two breakups, and six QB pressures. DE Justin Foster, a senior this season, totaled 41 tackles, 10.5 for losses, 4.5 sacks, a breakup, 12 QB pressures, and a forced fumble in ’19.
LB James Skalski, a senior, is back in the middle after finishing second on the team with 105 tackles, 7.5 for losses, 4.5 sacks, four breakups, 10 QB pressures, and a forced fumble. Sophomore CB Derion Kendrick was named all-ACC as a true freshman after posting 51 tackles, three for losses, two INTs, six breakups, and two QB pressures.
Senior punter Will Spiers returns after booming punts an average of 42.3 yards and putting 20 inside the 20.
Weaknesses: On offense, the Tigers return only one starting offensive lineman, and they’ll also have to develop some new weapons at receiver. Junior Amari Rodgers returns after collecting 30 catches for 426 yards and four TDs. But top wideout Tee Higgins left for the NFL, and sophomore Justyn Ross will miss the season with a spinal issue.
On defense, Skalski is the only starting LB back, and Kendrick is the only returning starter in the secondary.
Junior kicker B.T. Potter was not great as a sophomore, making just 13 of 21 field goals, but he did convert all 79 extra points, and coach Dabo Swinney said he made strides in the few spring practices Clemson held before hell broke loose.
Summary Thoughts: Clemson isn’t returning a truckload of experience, but the Tigers have had perhaps the best talent year in and year out nationally now for about half a decade, and I don’t expect that to be much different in 2020. Swinney has a program that is pretty much self-sustaining by now. Top talent in, top talent out. Lack of returning starters? No problem, here comes a bevy of five stars to fill the void. Clemson is among the national title favorites again. The Tigers have a tough trip to Notre Dame, but it won’t feel like a true road game with the nearly empty stands. Clemson also visits Florida State in Mike Norvell’s first season as coach in Tallahassee and Virginia Tech, possibly tricky tests, but probably not if we are being honest. The one good thing I can say for UVa facing Clemson is at least Death Valley won’t be full of screaming fans, but I doubt that will make any difference in the outcome. Hopefully we are celebrating a second straight victory over the Hokies by the time the Wahoos are set to go to Clemson. That will make the probable beatdown a lot easier to swallow, just like in the 2019 ACC championship.
Win Confidence (1 to 10): 1
Location: Scott Stadium, Charlottesville, VA
2019 Record: 4-8 (1-7)
Last Meeting: N.C. State 35, Virginia 21, 9/29/18 at Carter-Finley Stadium, Raleigh, N.C.
The Athletic Preseason ACC Ranking: 12th of 15
The Athletic State of the Program ($): Link
CFN Preseason ACC Ranking (not incl ND): tied-6th
CFN National Ranking: 44th of 130
CFN team preview: Link
Athlon Team Preview: Link
Strengths: The Wolfpack’s offense scored only 22 points per game last year and will try to get on track with a new coordinator this season, Tim Beck, who was pushed out of that role at Texas after the 2019 regular season but remained the Longhorns’ quarterbacks coach for their bowl game. N.C. State returns four starters from 2019 along the offensive line and gets back a pair of seniors at tackle who started in 2018 but missed all of 2019: Justin Witt (shoulder), and Tyrone Riley (foot). The best part of State’s offense was the rushing attack. As a true freshman, Zonovan Knight recorded 745 yards (5.5 ypc) and five touchdowns. Another true freshman, Jordan Houston, scooted for 526 yards (5.2 ypc) and a pair of scores in addition to securing 15 catches. Junior Ricky Person has had some good moments the past two seasons but can’t stay healthy.
At tight end, senior Cary Angeline, who is huge at 6-foot-7, 250 pounds, was all-ACC honorable mention after hauling in 25 catches for 379 yards and a team-leading five TDs.
The strength of State’s defense is at linebacker, where sophomore Payton Wilson led the unit in tackles as a redshirt freshman despite starting only one game. He tallied 69 tackles, five for losses, three breakups, and an INT (but no sacks, and only one QB pressure). Junior Isaiah Moore racked up 53 tackles, five for losses, two sacks, four QB pressures, and a forced fumble. Senior Louis Acceus posted 50 tackles, seven for losses, and 4.5 sacks. Another promising sophomore, Drake Thomas, recorded 34 tackles, four for losses, 2.5 sacks, two breakups, and a pick.
The Wolfpack have a pair of solid returners in the secondary in junior safety Tanner Ingle, who collected 68 tackles, five for losses, half a sack, two QB pressures, a forced fumble, and four breakups, and senior CB Chris Ingram, who finished with 33 tackles, two picks, and four breakups in six games before hurting his knee.
N.C. State brings back a pair of really good junior specialists, something that can help it keep games close. Christopher Dunn went 21 for 24 on field goals, and Trenton Gill set the single season school record for punting average at 47.6 yards.
Weaknesses: At quarterback in 2019, coach Dave Doeren went with Matthew McKay first, before trying Bailey Hockman and finally Devin Leary as the offense sputtered. Doeren named Leary the starter after the pandemic shortened the spring season. Leary is a redshirt sophomore and former four-star recruit out of New Jersey who was the Gatorade Player of the Year in the state twice, but he does need to improve his accuracy, as he completed just 48.1 percent of his passes for 1,219 yards, but he did have more TDs (eight) than INTs (five). McKay has transferred to Montana State, but Leary could be challenged by Hockman, redshirt freshman Ty Evans, or true freshman Ben Finley, the brother of Ryan Finley, who is one of the better QBs in school history and trying to make it in the NFL now.
The wideouts had a bit of a rough go of it last season, I’m sure in part because of the offense taking a big step back in general. Senior Emeka Emezie led the way with 56 catches, but just 576 yards and two TDs; he caught just three more balls than in 2018, and saw his yardage and scores decrease. He also led the team in drops, according to Athlon. Sophomore Devin Carter showed some promise as a redshirt freshman, recording 32 receptions for 456 yards, but he didn’t score. Junior Thayer Thomas finished right behind him with 31 catches for 334 yards, and he did have three TDs. State will be looking for each of these guys to improve, and it also hopes to get production from senior C.J. Riley, who tore his ACL before the 2019 season. He collected 28 receptions and a pair of scores in 2018.
The defensive front features junior tackle Alim McNeill, who racked up 28 tackles, 7.5 tackles for losses, 5.5 sacks, and two breakups in 2019. He was named a third-team preseason All-American by Pro Football Focus, but the team needs someone else to step up in this position group.
Summary Thoughts: It wasn’t just a mini-step back last season for Doeren’s crew, it was a major one. After five consecutive winning years and back-to-back nine-victory campaigns, seven of State’s eight losses came by at least 14 points, several by much more, and the team finished with six straight defeats. Injuries probably played a large role, but some coaches are able to do more with less, and Doeren couldn’t get it done. I think there is a segment of the fan base that believes Doeren is not the guy that can get the program to a level where it could expect to compete consistently near the top tier of the ACC, and maybe even give Clemson trouble from time to time. I don’t know how short Doeren’s leash is, but he will probably get a pass this season because of the pandemic. The team could be better this year, but it’s not a given.
I think UVa gets State at a good time. It will be the Cavaliers’ first home game, and it’s likely the Wolfpack will be a step down in competition from Virginia Tech and Clemson. Meanwhile, State gets Virginia on the back end of a three-game trip with the first two weeks at Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh. Also, UVa’s strength, at least initially, lies on defense, so obviously that could give the Wahoos an edge given how much State stunk on offense in ’19.
Win Confidence (1 to 10): 6.5