Virginia Tech hasn’t played in this magnitude of a game in a long time.
The Hokies are ranked No. 12 in both the AP Top 25 and the Coaches’ Poll this week, their highest ranking since the 2011 season. Clemson, the defending national champions, are ranked second in the nation and will be traveling to Lane Stadium for Saturday night’s showdown, the first time a top-5 team has entered Lane Stadium since 2015. Before that, you have to go all the way back to Oct. 25, 2007 when the Hokies hosted No. 2 Boston College.
Despite all of this, Virginia Tech is operating business as usual.
“We shouldn’t change our schedule or our focus because of those things,” said head coach Justin Fuente. “I’m a firm believer in the process and our team, regardless of the opponent or the stage. That’s just been my message. We’re playing a great football team, don’t get me wrong, but the game is the same, it’s the stage that’s different and the stage is not our responsibility.”
Virginia Tech’s responsibility is to take on a Clemson team that’s fighting for another berth in the College Football Playoff. The Tigers won the national championship last season, and have beaten two ranked teams already this season in Auburn and Louisville.
Fuente knows that whatever the Hokies might have gotten away with vs. teams like Delaware, East Carolina and Old Dominion, they won’t be getting away with them vs. Clemson.
“Well, you’re not going to get away with much of anything,” Fuente said. “You make a mistake, they’re going to make you pay. There have been some things here and there on defense, some things on special teams and some things offensively that if we make those mistakes, or really, you don’t have to even make a mistake. You can take one step in the wrong direction, or hesitate for half a step, when you’re playing the type of talent that we’re going to go up against.
“It’s like defusing a bomb. Like one small snip of the wire that’s incorrect and boom, you blow your hands off,” Fuente said. “That’s just how talented and how good they are. So, making sure that we’re on point with everything that were doing, crystal clear in our directives and our assignment — because everything will be difficult. A first down will be difficult, a defensive stop will be difficult, punting the ball and covering the punt will be difficult. It’s just all amplified.”
Tech will also do their best to ignore last season’s ACC Championship, when Virginia Tech fell to Clemson 42-35. The Hokies drove down the field on their last possession, but were stopped by the Tigers.
“We haven’t talked about it. We won’t talk about it,” Fuente said. “I mean, everybody handles those things differently on an individual basis. That was last year, and my message to our team was that was last year’s team. Last year’s Virginia Tech team vs. last year’s Clemson team. This is a completely different situation.”
While the Hokies do their best to focus on Clemson, Fuente is still excited about Virginia Tech playing on a big stage. Tech’s game will air in prime time at 8 p.m. on ABC, and ESPN College Gameday is returning to Blacksburg for the first time since 2007.
“I think it’s great that they are coming to our school,” Fuente said of College Gameday. “I think it’s fantastic exposure for our community and for Virginia Tech. I think it’s neat that they are back. It’s been a little while since they have been here. But what effect does it have on our team? None. I mean, we’ll be in the hotel in Roanoke. We’ve got to get prepared for the game, and it’s a late kickoff, and we’ve got to handle all day Saturday without playing until late at night.”
Thinking in the big picture, this game could mean more than just the result on the scoreboard. Fuente has a chance to pick up a win over a conference foe, who happens to be the defending national champions and ranked second in the nation. The win would boost Virginia Tech’s brand with fans, media and recruits, and could place the Hokies on the fast track back to where the program was in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
However, Fuente doesn’t see it that way.
“No, I see it as our first conference game,” Fuente said. “I mean I know it is highly-ranked and a big stage, and all those sorts of things, but I see it as our first conference game against the defending national champions at our place. We’re in our second year here, we’ve had one recruiting class. Coach Swinney is in his eighth or ninth year, maybe something like that, and obviously they’ve been very accomplished not just the last couple years, but the last several years. It’ll be a great opportunity for us to play a fantastic football team.”
Still, when Fuente and his Hokies roll into Blacksburg on Saturday, they’ll know that this game means a little extra.
“I think the thing that hits you is — you go all week practicing and preparing and there’s nobody at practice, there’s nobody around,” Fuente said. “You hear about all of the excitement, but when you pull into town, it’s your first chance to actually get some perspective on it when you pull in. It’s the same on the road. When you’re playing on the road in a big game, and you see the tents and the RVs and people everywhere, and it’s like the first realization that there is — all of this talk was about something. There really are people behind the chatter in the excitement of the game. That’s a neat, neat thing.”
Deablo out for season, Alexander’s situation still uncertain
“He’ll be out for the year,” Fuente said. “We’ll have him back, and he’ll get rehabbed and be ready to go for the spring and into next season.”
Deablo had become a reliable contributor for Virginia Tech in 2017, often coming in off the bench to play significant snaps at free safety. Deablo has played in all four games this season, but could still qualify for a medical redshirt.
Fuente said that for now, redshirt-freshman Khalil Ladler is the backup free safety behind Terrell Edmunds.
“In his time, he’s done a good job and he continues to improve, so we’ll continue to move forward with that,” Fuente said.
Fuente also said that no decision has been made on Adonis Alexander, and whether or not he will be available for Virginia Tech’s game vs. Clemson on Saturday. Alexander has been unofficially suspended for the last two games, because he had “not lived up to our expectations at Virginia Tech.”
“We’ll continue to evaluate Adonis’ situation for this week. If there’s any change, I’ll be sure to make that announcement,” Fuente said.