This Saturday will mark an important moment in the upward tick of Virginia Tech. No, not the game, ESPN’s College Gameday.
That’s obviously tongue-in-cheek, but having College Gameday on campus is a sign that things at Virginia Tech are moving in a positive direction. The popular ESPN pregame show hasn’t broadcast from Blacksburg since the 2007 season. Being back in Blacksburg, especially for host Rece Davis, is a special feeling.
“This place has been special in the history of College Gameday, and it’s also been special, I think, in the evolution and growth of college football in general on ESPN,” Davis said. “I think a lot of the Virginia Tech brand was built by the willingness to play on Thursday night. I was the beneficiary of that, doing play-by-play on Thursday night for a number of years and calling several games here. This is a place that I think is unique and special to both our show and to our coverage of the sport as a whole.”
Desmond Howard, who started as an analyst for College Gameday in 2005, remembers the 2007 show well. The crew made the appearance just months after the tragic April 16, 2007 shootings.
“That one you do remember, because of that incident,” Howard said. “Yeah, I remember the atmosphere. I think they rallied back, and they came and supported the show. I think we had a tremendous show, especially considering the circumstances. It was great to come here, and just try to lift some spirits. Any time you can do something like that, you have to take full advantage of it.”
Davis was not the host of the show in 2007, instead serving as one of ESPN’s premiere play-by-play guys. Even before he got into college football, Davis had plenty of insight into Virginia Tech. His great uncle, Coyt Wilson, was a faculty member in the agriculture department at Virginia Tech and Davis made several trips to Blacksburg to visit. His first ever college football game was in 1973, when Virginia Tech — known as VPI then — lost to Alabama 77-6.
“I’ve been here a number of times over the years,” Davis said. “I think the one thing that I’ve always noticed, particularly after they got good, was the unity and pride that people who either went to school here or played here feel. Not only about the team, but about the university. This is a far different experience now, when you see Virginia Tech football.”
Davis has been to Blacksburg recently. In 2015, ESPN held an abbreviated version of College Gameday from inside Lane Stadium before the Hokies hosted Ohio State. Davis and analyst David Pollack have a pretty good memory of that game.
“The way it starts off with Enter Sandman, it’s insane,” Pollack said. “That just gets your juices going. Me and Rece (Davis) a couple of years ago, I remember we were doing something on the field and we all of a sudden just started jumping up and down, and it got your juices going.”
As far as the game, the College Gameday guys won’t reveal who they’re picking to win just yet. However, they did give some keys to the game.
“The key is, to pulling off any upset, is going to be winning the turnover battle, not getting heavily penalized and scoring a non-offensive touchdown,” Howard said. “And stopping the run. You’ve got to stop the run. I don’t care who you are, I don’t care who you’re playing against, you have to stop the run if you’re going to pull off an upset.”
Pollack noted that as good as the competition is that Clemson has played in the early going, Virginia Tech’s offense presents a unique and more difficult challenge.
“This offense is more difficult to stop than Louisville’s,” Pollack said. “Lamar Jackson is one of the best players in college football, he’s a freak show, but this offense presents so many challenges. Now, with Josh Jackson, he’s a big, physical guy than can run, but there’s so much to look at. There’s jet sweeps, there’s RPOs and it’s an awesome offense.
“There’s no secret to Fuente when you start talking about quarterbacks and stuff. It’s not a surprise that Josh Jackson’s playing well. I mean, you look at (Jerod) Evans a year ago, you look at Paxton Lynch, (Fuente) made him a first-round pick. It’s not the QB. I don’t want to be rude to anybody, but it’s a system that he’s got so much success with and it presents so many challenges to you.”
No matter how the game plays out, the show and the atmosphere around campus has the Gameday guys excited. It’s been far too long since Virginia Tech was relevant enough to warrant a Gameday appearance, and the Gameday show is taking advantage of being back. Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente will appear live on the show, and Davis says the show has a rather special opening planned.
“I’m not going to give it away, but I’ll just say that anyone who bleeds Chicago Maroon and Burnt Orange will probably really, really enjoy the top of the show tomorrow,” Davis said.