Dr. Saturday will be looking at the 25 most interesting teams headed into spring football through March, examining which programs have the biggest questions, the most expectations and the best storylines. This isn't a list of the 25 best teams going into the spring, just the 25 we're keeping the closest eye on. Previously: Oregon.
What happened in 2012
It's fair to say that Virginia Tech was one of the nation's most disappointing teams last year despite finishing with a winning record and going to its 20th consecutive bowl game. But that's just not enough anymore.
No, after eight consecutive seasons of 10 or 11 wins, the bar is too high for a 7-6 season to be acceptable in Blacksburg.
There were signs that the 2012 season might be rough when the Hokies struggled to an overtime win against Georgia Tech. The Hokies fell to Pitt, Cincy and North Carolina before struggling with ACC foes Miami, Clemson and Florida State. Virginia Tech hadn't lost six games since going 2-8 in 1992 and it put coach Frank Beamer squarely on the hot seat.
What makes them interesting in 2013
Beamer and his staff are hoping the 2012 season was an aberration.
The Hokies return 13 starters, including just four on offense, but do have a favorable conference schedule since they don't cross paths with either Clemson or Florida State. Quarterback Logan Thomas, who is not only the team's leading passer but also its top returning rusher, returns for his third season as starter.
His year was as disappointing as the team's and might have been the reason Beamer is changing the offensive scheme under new coordinator Scot Loeffler. The Hokies ranked 115th in total offense, and 112th in both scoring and passing offense.
What needs to happen this spring
Other than learning a new offense, the Hokies need to find some playmakers to help Thomas. The main focus is on the running game. For the first time since 1992, the Hokies leading rusher, Thomas, had fewer than 600 yards. And the running game didn't have to be all on Thomas' shoulders.
Running backs J.C. Coleman, Tony Gregory and Michael Holmes all had chances in the backfield, but they averaged 4.4 yards per carry and had seven rushing touchdowns. Coleman led the group with 492 yards, which accounted for the fewest yards by a Virginia Tech No. 1 tailback since 1971. If the team's three returning running backs continue to produce mediocre results, redshirt freshman Trey Edmunds, who redshirted last season, is waiting in the wings.
The Hokies also lose their top three receivers in Marcus Davis, Corey Fuller and Dyrell Roberts. They do get back D.J. Coles, who redshirted last season after a knee injury. He had 36 catches, 480 yards and three touchdowns in 2011. The rest of the receiver corps is inexperienced.
But none of the Hokies offensive woes are going to get solved unless they tighten up on the offensive line. New line coach Jeff Grimes needs to find a pair of tackles after Vinston Painter and Nick Becton graduated. Redshirt junior Mark Shuman is the frontrunner at left tackle and redshirt junior Laurence Gibson will get the first crack at right tackle.
Defensively, Virginia Tech returns nine starters, but lost cornerback Antone Exum, who tore his ACL while playing a pickup basketball game in January. He'll miss the spring and his fall return is up in the air. In the meantime, a slew of young players will get a chance to impress and earn playing time should Exum miss extensive time. At the very least, players such as Donovan Riley, Donaldven Manning and Davion Tookes and Der'Woun Greene will get looks heading into the season opener against Alabama.
Thomas might have taken a step back last season, but there's no doubt that he's the engine that runs the Virginia Tech offense. But questions remain about whether Loeffler can institute a system that can bring Thomas to his full potential and whether enough players emerge around Thomas to make the Virginia Tech offense a legitimate threat not only in the ACC, but also nationally.
The Hokies need a competent running game and Edmunds might be the guy to give it to them. Even though Edmunds sat out last season, Beamer has high hopes and has already declared him in the mix to start at tailback. Edmunds is even being compared to former Hokies great Kevin Jones. Beamer wants to choose a starting running back before the end of spring practices, so with the competition wide open, Edmunds has a chance to seize a major opportunity.
Key games Aug 31 Alabama (in Atlanta) Sept 26 at Georgia Tech Oct. 12 vs. Pitt Nov. 9 at Miami Nov. 30 at Virginia