Our ranking: No. 14 VIRGINIA TECH
Coach: Justin Fuente (10-4, entering his second season; 36–27 overall)
2016 record: 10-4, 6-2 in Atlantic Coast Conference, first in Coastal Division
Look back: Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente got off to a great start in 2016 replacing legendary coach Frank Beamer, guiding the Hokies back to the ACC title game for the first time in five years.
The Hokies showed toughness in a bruising 37-16 win over Miami on Oct. 20 and later went 3-0 in games decided by three or fewer points during the second half of the season.
Offensive starters returning: 5
Defensive starters returning: 8
Defensive starters lost: 3
Key losses: QB Jerod Evans, WR Isaiah Ford, TE Bucky Hodges, RB Sam Rogers, DT Woody Baron, DE Ken Ekanem, OL Jon McLaughlin, DT Nigel Williams.
Top returnees: RB Travon McMillan, WR Cam Phillips, OG Waytt Teller, C Eric Gallo, LB Tremaine Edmunds, DE Vinny Mihota, DT Tim Settle, CB Greg Stroman S Terrell Edmunds
Strengths: Virginia Tech will likely lean on its defense,, particularly its highly regarded group of linebackers and defensive backs, to offset changing parts on offense this season.
Seniors Greg Stroman, Brandon Facyson and Deon Newsome and juniors Adonis Alexander, Mook Reynolds and Terrell Edmunds lead a defensive backs group that has as many as 10 players with at least one year of playing experience.
At linebacker, seniors Andrew Motuapuaka, Anthony Shegog and Sean Huelskamp and juniors Trent Young and Tremaine Edmunds will be relied on to shore up the heart of Virginia Tech’s defense.
Weaknesses: Fuente has a position battle on his hands for the second consecutive season. Evans has move don after leading Virginia Tech’s offense with 3,552 yards passing, 29 touchdowns and eight interceptions, while also leading the Hokies with 204 carries for 846 yards rushing and 12 rushing touchdowns.
The Hokies will also be without dynamic playmakers in wide receivers Isaiah Ford (79 receptions, 1,094 yards, seven touchdowns) and Bucky Hodges (48 receptions, 691 yards and seven touchdowns).
The battle at quarterback this season will be between redshirt freshman Josh Jackson, junior college transfer A.J. Bush and true freshman Hendon Hooker. At receiver, Cam Phillips (76 receptions, 983 yards, five touchdowns) returns to bolster the passing game, while running backs Travon McMillian, Steven Peoples and Deshawn McClease hope to contribute in the rushing attack.
Outlook: Virginia Tech has enough returning pieces to once again contend for the Coastal title, but the Hokies will need to work to overcome inevitable mistakes by an inexperienced offense this season. Outside of hosting Clemson, the Hokies’ schedule is favorable. Virginia Tech opens in a showdown against West Virginia and the Hokies’ only road games are against East Carolina, Miami, Georgia Tech, Boston College and Virginia. But Fuente’s leadership should make the difference for Virginia Tech in 2017, just as it did during his debut campaign last season.