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The Hokies will play in their 24th consecutive bowl game on Thursday evening when they face the Arkansas Razorbacks in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte. Tech will be looking to get back to 10 wins for the first time since 2011, and doing so in Justin Fuente’s first season would be a major accomplishment.
Fuente has already been named the consensus ACC Coach of the Year. He’s already led the Hokies to the ACC Championship Game, where his team came close to knocking off Clemson. Closing the season with a bowl victory over an SEC team and a 10th victory would be a great way to start the Fuente era, and it would give the Hokies momentum on the recruiting trail.
Their opponent, Arkansas, went 7-5 overall this year, with a 3-5 mark in SEC play. Here’s how the Razorbacks fared against Power 5 conference competition…
41-38 W (2OT) at TCU
45-24 L at Texas A&M
49-30 L vs. Alabama
34-30 W vs. Ole Miss
56-3 L at Auburn
31-10 W vs. Florida
38-10 L vs. LSU
58-42 W at Mississippi State
28-24 L at Missouri
That’s a 4-5 record. The total combined record of the Power 5 conference teams Arkansas defeated is 25-24. The total combined record of the Power 5 teams that beat the Razorbacks is 40-20.
Arkansas lost to quality football teams up until the last weekend of the regular season, when they were defeated 28-24 by a 4-8 Missouri team that is arguably the worst in the SEC. That left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Arkansas players, fans and coaches.
As we all know, bowl games aren’t necessarily about the success each team had during the regular season. It’s about matchups, and it’s about which team is more mentally focused on the game. Like it or not, as the number of bowl games has grown through the years, and with all the attention on the College Football Playoffs, regular bowls are starting to become marginalized by fans, and that’s trickled down to the players somewhat.
Leonard Fournette is skipping LSU’s Citrus Bowl appearance against Louisville. The Citrus Bowl was, and still probably is, the biggest of the non-BCS/Big 6 bowl games. It’s a big matchup between ranked teams each and every year. And Fournette is skipping it. Likewise, Christian McCaffrey is skipping Stanford’s Sun Bowl appearance versus UNC. Heck, the entire Minnesota team tried to boycott their bowl, though their circumstances were a little different.
I’m not here to preach about whether I think that’s right or wrong. I’m just here to tell you that bowl games are becoming less important to players as the years go by. Thursday’s Belk Bowl could be decided simply by which coaching staff does a better job of motivating their team to play a good game.
There’s no way to analyze that part of the matchup. I can’t see inside the locker room and tell you how well this coaching staff is preparing the team, or how the players feel about the game. All we can do is look at the matchups and break things down.
The Arkansas Defense: The Weak Spot of the Team
Arkansas finished #77 in total defense this year, allowing 428.7 yards per game. They allowed 30.8 points per game, which ranked #83 nationally. Those numbers aren’t good, but they get even worse when you compare them to their numbers against better competition.
Total Defense vs. Power 5 programs: 492.8 yards per game, #97 nationally
Total Defense vs. FBS Winning Teams: 469.8 yards per game, #80 nationally
Total Defense vs. Ranked Teams: 484.3 yards per game, #70 nationally
There you have it. When the Razorbacks faced quality competition, in particular schools from a Power 5 conference, they were torched.
Meanwhile, the Virginia Tech offense generally raised its game against similar competition. Here are the Hokies’ numbers…
Total Offense vs. All Opponents: 448.2 yards per game, #39 nationally
Total Offense vs. Power 5 Opponents: 448.8 yards per game, #28 nationally
Total Offense vs. FBS Winning Teams: 434.6 yards per game, #33 nationally
The Hokies actually finished higher in the national rankings in total offense against Power 5 teams and FBS winning teams (though their overall yardage does drop a bit against teams with winning records).
Arkansas was very bad against the run, and very mediocre against the pass.
Rushing Defense: 209.33 yards per game, #94 nationally
Passing Defense: 219.3 yards per game, #53 nationally
Pass Efficiency Defense: 128.89, #62 nationally
Those are traditional stats. Do the advanced stats tell us anything different about the Arkansas defense? Not really.
S&P+ Defense: #76
Explosive Plays: #121
Finishing Drives: #94
Rushing S&P+: #115
Passing S&P+: #83
No matter how you slice up the stats, the Arkansas defense has struggled this season. The Razorbacks don’t have any difference makers on the defensive side of the ball, and no one stands out in terms of their potential at the next level. Here are NFLDraftScout.com’s rankings of each of Arkansas’ defensive starters…
DE JaMichael Winston (6-4, 260, Sr.): #40 DE in the 2017 draft class
DT Taiwan Johnson (6-2, 284, Sr.): #33 DT in the 2017 draft class
DT McTelvin Agin (6-3, 289, Fr.): #9 DT in the 2020 draft class
DE Jeremiah Ledbetter (6-3, 280, Sr.): #17 DT in the 2017 draft class
LB Randy Ramsey (6-4, 228, So.): Unranked in the 2019 draft class
LB Brooks Ellis (6-2, 245, Sr.): #26 ILB in the 2017 draft class
LB Dwayne Eugene (6-1, 235, Jr.): #114 OLB in the 2018 draft class
CB Jared Collins (5-11, 173, Sr.): #52 CB in the 2017 draft class
FS Josh Liddell (6-1, 210, Jr.): #17 FS in the 2017 draft class
SS Santos Ramirez (6-2, 205, So.): #17 SS in the 2019 draft class
CB Ryan Pulley (5-11, 198, So.): #33 CB in the 2019 draft class
Defensive tackle McTelvin Agim is the highest rated defender in terms of his draft class, but he’s only a true freshman. He was a 5-star recruit who stayed in-state to play for the Razorbacks, but that defense needs more overall talent. That said, there’s still enough ability on that side of the ball that their overall performance should have been better this season.
A big issue defensively is Arkansas’ lack of playmaking ability. Check out these numbers…
Tackles for loss: 51, #122 nationally (out of 128)
Sacks: 21, #91 nationally
Interceptions: 9, #79 nationally
Third downs: 44.67%, #107 nationally
The Hogs don’t make plays in the backfield, which leads to short yardage situations, which leads to a terrible third down defense.
We can break this down even further, but there’s no need. This Arkansas defense just isn’t good. They aren’t even average, nor are they approaching average. They are bad, and nothing they’ve done this year indicates that they are going to be able to slow down Virginia Tech’s offense.
In case you aren’t convinced, here are their scoring defense numbers…
Scoring Defense vs. Power 5 Opponents: 37.3 points per game, #82 nationally
Scoring Defense vs. FBS Winning Teams: 36.3 points per game, #75 nationally
I’ve spent over 600 words breaking down the statistics and the numbers for this Arkansas defense. I could go on, but I think you get the point. If the Hokies struggle to move the ball on Thursday, it will be their own fault.
The Arkansas Offense: A Tough Matchup In Some Ways, A Good Matchup In Others
As good a matchup as the Arkansas defense is for the Hokies, some parts of the Arkansas offense are an extremely difficult matchup.
Let’s start with the Razorback offensive line, which is huge.
LT Dan Skipper (6-10, 319, Sr.): #7 OT in the 2017 draft
LG Hjalte Froholdt (6-4, 318, So.): #30 OG in the 2019 draft
C Frank Ragnow (6-5, 319, Jr.): #4 center in the 2018 draft
RG Johnny Gibson (6-4, 344, So.): Unranked in the 2019 draft
RT Brian Wallace (6-6, 335, So.): #20 OG in the 2019 draft
Offensive lines at the college level don’t get any bigger than that. As a comparison, Alabama’s offensive line averages 308 pounds, while Arkansas’ averages 317. The “smallest” member of the Razorback line is left guard Hjalte Froholdt, who checks in at a svelte 6-4, 318. Not only are those guys big, but there are a couple of good NFL prospects in that group as well.
Those five players anchor a traditional running game that likes to pound opponents into submission. The two-headed monster of Rawleigh Williams III (5-10, 226, So.) and Devway Whaley (5-11, 216, Fr.) have put up big numbers this season…
Williams: 233 carries, 1,326 yards, 5.7 ypc, 12 TDs
Whaley: 105 carries, 601 yards, 5.7 ypc, 3 TDs
Those guys are big backs with a low center of gravity, and they are difficult to tackle.
Virginia Tech will have to match the toughness and dedication of Williams. He nearly had his career ended following a neck injury against Auburn in 2015. After his surgery, many thought he would never play football again. However, he rallied to average 110 yards per game on the ground this season and finish second in the SEC in rushing. The Hokie defense is going to have to man up and gang tackle Williams around the line of scrimmage, because you don’t want to get in front of him when he’s running downhill.
Williams and Whaley, plus that enormous offensive line, are great fits for Bret Bielema’s offense. Bielema came from the Big Ten, where he played for Iowa and the coached at Wisconsin for many years. He loves smash-mouth football, and he’s brought that style of play with him to Fayetteville.
Quarterback Austin Allen (6-1, 209, Jr.) is a good player who complete 61.4% of his passes for 3,152 yards this season. He threw 23 touchdowns with 12 interceptions, and he’s particularly dangerous on play-action passes thanks to the Razorbacks’ impressive running attack.
Allen’s top target is Drew Morgan (6-0, 193, Sr.), who hauled in 61 passes for 664 yards and three touchdowns this year. Keon Hatcher (6-2, 207, Sr.) added 38 catches, averaged 16.8 yards per catch, and scored seven touchdowns.
Virginia Tech has seen better quarterbacks and much better receivers this year. However, if Arkansas establishes a good running game, their passing game has the potential to become a major problem. If the Hokies can slow down the Hogs on the ground, it will lead to more long yardage situations, and their chances for success against the Arkansas passing game will go up.
While Arkansas’ power running game makes them a tough matchup for the Hokies, their quarterback is not a threat to run for a lot of yards. Here are Allen’s rushing stats in 2016…
Arkansas has had trouble protecting the quarterback at times, but Allen is certainly no DeShaun Watson when it comes to running the football. That’s a good thing for the Hokies, because here’s how they’ve fared against running quarterbacks in their four losses this season…
Joshua Dobbs: 106 yards
Eric Dungey: 106 yards
Matthew Jordan: 121 yards
DeShaun Watson: 85 yards
Tech also nearly lost to Duke and quarterback Daniel Jones, who finished with 99 yards on the ground.
On the other hand, here’s how opposing quarterbacks ran the ball in Tech’s nine victories…
Liberty: 14 yards
Boston College: 21 yards
ECU: 23 yards
UNC: -2 yards
Notre Dame: 69
Average: 22.3 yards per game
Those numbers favor Virginia Tech in this game. Allen likely isn’t capable of approaching anywhere the numbers Dobbs, Dungey, Jordan and Watson put up against the Hokie defense.
James Shibest and Special Teams
Virginia Tech special teams coach James Shibest is an Arkansas graduate, and he spent time on the Arkansas and Ole Miss coaching staffs under Houston Nutt. It was at Ole Miss that he developed the reputation as a top notch special teams coordinator.
He’ll lead his Virginia Tech special teams against his alma mater on Thursday. Here’s the S&P+ special teams comparison…
Virginia Tech: #44
Here’s how they stack up on special teams according to the FEI special teams ratings…
Virginia Tech: #43
Special teams appear to be a pretty even matchup. If either team can make a big play in that important phase of the game, it could go a long way in determining the outcome.
I’ve got a friend who was sitting at an airport bar once, and he happened to be sitting next to a college football coach. They chatted for a little while, and the coach finally introduced himself. It was none other than Bret Bielema, who was then the head coach at Wisconsin.
Bielema was pretty complimentary of Tech’s program (this was around the 2009-11 timeframe), though my buddy doesn’t remember the specifics of the conversation (I suppose airport bars can get after ya if your flight gets delayed). I’ve been wondering if Bielema thought about his airport bar conversation with a random Virginia Tech fan when the bowl matchup was released.
At any rate, this game is a good matchup for the Hokies in some ways, and a bad one in others. It’s good that Arkansas doesn’t have a mobile quarterback, and it’s certainly good that their defense has been terrible against decent competition all season long. On the other hand, that big offensive line and power running game concerns me, especially with the health (or lack thereof) of Virginia Tech’s defensive ends. (In case you missed it, Vinny Mihota will miss the bowl game.)
If the Hokies can grab an early two-score lead, they can get the Razorbacks out of their running game and force them to throw the ball more. That will benefit Tech. On the other hand, if Arkansas gets a lead in the second half, they are perfectly capable of pounding the rock and running clock. We’re talking about two totally different styles of play on offense, and it will be interesting to see which one can assert itself the most consistently.
My best guess is the one that is able to assert itself the most consistently is the one that will be facing the lesser defensive challenge. In this case, that would be the Virginia Tech offense, and they’ll be facing one of the worst defenses in all of the Power 5 conferences. I think this game will be fairly high scoring, and I see the Hokies winning.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 37, Arkansas 27
Will Stewart’s Take: I think the most important thing Chris said came before he analyzed the offense, defense, and special teams:
“Thursday’s Belk Bowl could be decided simply by which coaching staff does a better job of motivating their team to play a good game.”
Chris then goes on to say that he can’t predict that part of the matchup. In other words, the intangibles are unknown and unpredictable.
… for the most part.
Back in our 2013 Sun Bowl preview, Chris and I made a lot of people mad by predicting that UCLA, a team that was on the rise, was going to pound the Hokies 27-10 (Chris) and 30-13 (me). I can’t speak for Chris, but I made that prediction based on gut feel. Things just felt wrong, and like they were trending against the Hokies, and — POW! — the Bruins whacked Tech 42-12.
I feel the opposite about this game. I’m not saying that Tech’s going to beat Arkansas 42-12, but there’s something about the feel of this game that makes me confident. Yes, I see the issues with Arkansas’ ground game matching up with Tech’s defense; that could be trouble. But when I look at Tech’s offense versus Arkansas’ defense, I think to myself, “Hmmm, 42 points definitely isn’t out of reach.”
While I don’t know anything about Arkansas beyond what Chris has written here, I do know that Virginia Tech is a program that is building momentum. While I’m not around the team much — really, no media member is — I can’t help but think they’re focused on putting in a good performance against an SEC team, ending the season on an upswing, and getting back to that ten-win level. This stuff all matters, certainly to the coaches and the fans, and I think to the players as well.
I also think there’s going to be a strong Hokie fan showing in Tech’s first appearance in the Belk Bowl. I spent some time going through TicketMaster’s Belk Bowl ticket site, where they display how many tickets are available in each section, and I counted about 4,000 tickets remaining in the half of the stadium dedicated to the ACC/Virginia Tech. In a stadium with a (Wikipedia-sourced) capacity of about 74,000, having only 4k tickets remaining in your half means that you’re going to make a lot of noise on game day.
I’ve got a good feeling about this.
Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 35, Arkansas 24
By the way, three years later, the comments on our 2013 Sun Bowl preview are interesting. Most of the people who threatened to cancel their subscriptions are still around. We appreciate it.