Virginia Tech’s 2020 Season Preview, Part I: An Early Commonwealth Clash

UPDATE: Virginia Tech’s season opener vs. Virginia has been postponed due to an increase in COVID-19 positive tests in the Virginia Tech program. The Hokies are now slated to start their season vs. NC State on Sep. 26.

Virginia Tech’s 2020 schedule has changed dramatically in just a few weeks. The ACC unveiled the Hokies’ new schedule on Aug. 6 and just twenty days later, an amendment was made to delay Tech’s contest vs. NC State.

All of this maneuvering placed Virginia — the Hokies’ usual finale — as this season’s premiere episode. It’s going to be a weird year.
Over the next several days, I’ll be rolling through the Hokies’ new schedule and preview each of their opponents. Time to start with the ‘Hoos.

Week 1 — Sept. 19 vs. Virginia

Twenty-nineteen was finally the year. Virginia finally ended their losing streak to Virginia Tech and finally won back the Commonwealth Cup. Unfortunately for the ‘Hoos, they might not even keep it for a calendar year.

Virginia rode the Bryce Perkins horse all the way to a Coastal title in 2019, but that horse has since left the stable. The Cavaliers are also stuck replacing offensive and special teams weapon Joe Reed, star receiver Hasise Dubois, linebacker Jordan Mack, defensive lineman Eli Hanback and cornerback Bryce Hall.

The Cavaliers’ offensive success rides on who takes the reins at quarterback. Mississippi State transfer Keayton Thompson figured to assume the starting job, but redshirt sophomore Brennan Armstrong beat him out. Armstrong has thrown just 25 career passes in two seasons.

Armstrong will not have as many weapons to work with as Perkins did in 2019. Terrell Jana, who played in 14 games in 2019, returns as receiver No. 1. Billy Kemp and Tavares Kelly also return and the ‘Hoos added graduate transfer tight end Tony Poljan, a former quarterback who caught four touchdown passes last season.

Virginia’s defense should be their strongest unit. Charles Snowden and Zane Zandier both return and replacing Hall shouldn’t be as tall of a task as it otherwise would be, since Hall missed a large chunk of 2019 due to injury. The Cavaliers are losing 13 combined sacks from last season between Mack and Hanback.

Virginia Tech will have their hands full right out the gate. Even though the Cavaliers aren’t as talented as they were last season, any semblance of quarterback production will make them a tough out.

Week 2 — Sept. 26 vs. NC State

The Wolfpack were supposed to open this seasons festivities inside Lane Stadium, but a pause in football activities wrecked that plan.

NC State fell off last season, finishing 4-8 and drawing renewed criticism of Dave Doeren. The Wolfpack hired five new assistant coaches this offseason, including former Tech assistants Charley Wiles and Brian Mitchell.

The Wolfpack’s issues started at quarterback, thanks to inconsistent play from Devin Leary, Matt McKay and Bailey Hockman. Leary is the favorite to win the job this season, but he will be challenged.

NC State is littered with players whom Virginia Tech recruited, including running backs Zonovan Knight and Jordan Houston, linebackers Payton Wilson and Louis Acceus, defensive back De’Von Graves and defensive lineman Alim McNeil. Wilson led NC State in tackles last season and McNeil racked up 7.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. Both return in 2020.

How NC State handles this pause in preseason practices will go a long way in how they handle the season. Every team is dealing with COVID-19 in some capacity, but a late adjustment like this could throw a wrench into an already inefficient machine. The Wolfpack need Leary to improve on his 2019 performance, or else they’ll struggle to improve upon that 4-8 record.

Week 3 – Oct. 3 at Duke

Virginia Tech’s first road game comes against the team nearly responsible for flushing the Hokies’ 2019 season down the toilet.

Duke’s biggest addition comes in the form of a Clemson transfer, quarterback Chase Brice. Brice played in 23 games at Clemson, usually in garbage time, and completed just over 60 percent of his passes and threw nine touchdowns to four interceptions. Brice will get many more opportunities at Duke, but his track record doesn’t show that he’s a stellar prospect. Fortunately for Brice, Jalon Calhoun and Noah Gray combined for 812 receiving yards and seven touchdowns last season.

On the offensive line, Duke returns four starters and added Stanford transfer Devery Hamilton. They’ll pave the way for Deon Jackson and Mateo Durant, who rushed for over 1,000 combined yards in 2019.

Victor Dimukeje, another former Virginia Tech target, finished 2019 with 8.5 sacks and leads the Blue Devils’ defensive line. Duke has a problem at linebacker, where their 2019 tackles leader Koby Quansah has aged out and Xander Gagnon entered the transfer portal in January. Duke also loses starting safety Dylan Singleton.

David Cutcliffe is widely respected for the program he’s constructed at Duke, a historically hard location to build a competitive football team. However, Cutcliffe’s crew has missed a bowl game in two of the last four seasons and his 10-win season in 2013 seems further and further away. Even with his resume, Cutcliffe needs to turn things around in 2020.

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