This summer I sat alone across the table from Justin Fuente at a hotel ballroom in Charlotte, me the Hokie fan and him, the Hokies’ future, eating lunch. We spent a half-hour talking football, family, fishing and food. Somewhere along the way I asked him about Clemson.
I won’t get into everything he told me, but I’ll tell you this much: Justin Fuente wants this one Saturday. He wants it bad.
Last year Fuente took Virginia Tech from the fourth-place Coastal Division team in the preseason ACC poll, to 20 yards shy of tying or beating Clemson for the ACC Championship. Did the Hokies match up with the Tigers? Hell no. But that hasn’t stopped such a close call from eating at Fuente every day since.
That’s one of the hundreds of things that makes Fuente so great. It doesn’t matter if the expectations are low. It doesn’t matter if his team gets little to no respect. It doesn’t matter if his team came *this* close to winning a championship. He carries himself like a champion. Soon enough, that’s exactly what he’ll be.
This is the biggest game of Justin Fuente’s life. It’s also the biggest game in 12 years inside Lane Stadium. For the first time since 2005, the epicenter of college football is in Blacksburg. Not since Miami came to town 12 years ago have the stakes been this high. Virginia Tech has hosted the defending national champions before. Ohio State came in two years ago and found itself in a dogfight for 2 ½ quarters before Michael Brewer’s collarbone broke into pieces. Clemson comes in Saturday night with the same distinction, only less talent. Make no mistake, the Tigers are loaded. I mean LOADED. But they are vulnerable.
Quarterback Kelly Bryant has been good in Deshaun Watson’s absence. That’s it. He’s been good. He hasn’t been great. Against the only other defense comparable to Virginia Tech’s (Auburn), the Tigers scored 14 points – and that was at home. Now the Tigers must come to Lane Stadium and navigate Bud Foster’s attacking defense. I can remember another young, inexperienced quarterback named JT Barrett struggling in a similar spot just a few years ago.
Make no mistake about it, Clemson is the better football team. They’re certainly the more talented team. They have the better running game, a deeper receiving corps, the best defensive line in America, and a coaching staff that’s every bit as good as the Hokies. Earlier this week, I picked the Tigers to win. They should win.
But…what if they don’t?
Virginia Tech would instantly return to national prominence. Not only would they find themselves ranked in the top 5, 6 or 7 in next week’s polls, but a win in this game would put the Hokies on the cusp of becoming an elite program nationally again. It would put them in complete control of their destiny for the College Football Playoff. It would send a message to every recruit across the country that Beamerball may be gone, but Fuenteball might be even better.
This is the only marquee game of the day. There are no other games worth watching on Saturday night. There will be TONS of eyeballs on the Hokies. And here’s the thing – they WANT to see Virginia Tech. There have been a handful of major primetime games in the past few years involving the Hokies, but the headline act was the defending champions (Ohio State, Alabama), or the venue (Bristol Motor Speedway).
This time around, the country wants to know what this Fuente guy is all about.
If the Hokies can somehow do this; if they can somehow stun Clemson in front of millions on Saturday night…they’re back. Not only are they back, they are back years ahead of schedule. It was not supposed to happen this quickly. They weren’t supposed to win the ACC Coastal. They weren’t supposed to erase a 17-point deficit at Notre Dame. They weren’t supposed to score 35 unanswered against Arkansas. They weren’t supposed to lose Jerod Evans, Bucky Hodges and Isaiah Ford and not skip a beat in the season opener against West Virginia. What Justin Fuente has done in just 18 games in Blacksburg is nothing short of remarkable. It’s only a matter of time before the rest of the country takes notice.
I’ve always thought 2019 was the year to circle for Virginia Tech’s return to relevance. It will be Fuente’s fourth year at the helm, and Josh Jackson’s third year under center. The young receiving corps, which has its work cut out for it this weekend, will be upperclassmen. Bud Foster will coach the defense so…yeah. The first year I thought Virginia Tech would have even a chance to enter the Playoff mix was two years from now.
But, well…here we are.
A loss on Saturday night isn’t a setback. Tech can still control its destiny to the Playoff by winning out and beating Clemson in an ACC Championship Game rematch (is that possible? Yes. Plausible? Eh)…but in the long term, a win would completely change the trajectory of Virginia Tech football for years to come.
Three years ago I wrote an obituary for Virginia Tech football the morning after Miami walked into Lane Stadium on a Thursday night and wiped the floor with the Hokies 30-6. The article was titled “Is This the End?”
It sure felt like it. That was the night we knew Beamer’s time had come to pass. He’d coach another year and a half, but Hokie football, as we knew it, died that night.
Justin Fuente brought it back to life. Now, it gets real. That 10-win season is in the past. That Belk Bowl comeback is a distant memory. The West Virginia win felt nice. This is Clemson. This is everything.
If Fuente can somehow pull this off Saturday night, I think he just might take the Hokies places they’ve never been before. Wouldn’t that be cool?
…Let’s go shock the world.