After Virginia Tech followed a last-minute meltdown against Boise State with the most incomprehensible loss any team has suffered this season, many fans outside ACC country stopped paying attention to the Hokies.
Anyone who wrote off the Hokies in mid-September has missed out on the nation's biggest in-season turnaround. The most disappointing team through the first two weeks has since won seven consecutive games and now is favored to win its third ACC title in four seasons.
Virginia Tech (7-2 overall, 5-0 in the ACC) can clinch the Coastal Division title by winning two of its remaining three games. The Hokies could wrap things up as early as Saturday if they win at North Carolina (6-3, 3-2) while Miami (6-3, 4-2) falls at Georgia Tech (5-4, 3-3).
Not that the Hokies are taking anything for granted.
"A two-game lead can go south really fast," Virginia Tech defensive tackle John Graves said. "We started the season 0-2, and a lot of people didn't think that would happen, but it happened.
"The one thing you take from that is winning doesn't come easy. It never comes easy in this sport and at this level."
The Hokies learned that lesson the hard way. First came the heartbreak. They opened the season by erasing a 17-0 deficit in a hugely anticipated game with Boise State, only to lose 33-30 after allowing the winning touchdown with 38 seconds left. Then came the heartburn. Five days later, Virginia Tech returned to action when it still hadn't recovered from the Boise State misfortune. The Hokies sleepwalked through a 21-16 loss to James Madison, marking only the second time ever an FCS school had beaten a ranked FBS program.
That result has grown more puzzling which each passing week, as James Madison has lost four consecutive games to drop its overall record to 4-5.
"When you have two losses in a week's time as devastating as those two losses were, if you don't have good people, you're probably done," Hokies coach Frank Beamer said. "Everybody's starting to blame and point fingers. We didn't have that. We had senior leadership."
Graves, one of the Hokies' senior leaders, remembers what was said and done after the embarrassing performance against James Madison. The seniors talked about how much they had invested in the program and how they didn't want to close their careers with such a disappointing season.
They also realized it was far too soon to give up. A national title was out of the picture, but all their other goals remained within reach.
"We stayed calm," Graves said. "The older guys, we just had to keep the team together. We do have a lot of young players, but we never felt as though there was panic or anything. There was still a lot of football left to be played. We hadn't played any ACC games."
Virginia Tech has erased double-digit deficits in three of its wins this season. The Hokies also trailed 17-0 before taking the lead against Boise State, though they ultimately lost 33-30. Here's a look at all the times Virginia Tech has won after trailing by double-digits since joining the ACC in 2004.
at Georgia Tech
at North Carolina
at N.C. State
(NOTES: *--Gator Bowl; %--ACC title game)
That formula has Virginia Tech eyeing the possibility a seventh consecutive 10-win season, which would give the Hokies the longest such streak in the nation. Texas had produced double-digit wins in nine consecutive seasons, but that streak will end.
The Hokies are producing their usual results while using a different formula. Virginia Tech typically has won by relying on an outstanding defense and a ball-control offense, but injuries and inexperience have altered that strategy.
After rushing for an ACC freshman-record 1,655 yards last season, Ryan Williams has gained just 179 yards this season and missed four games with a hamstring injury. Virginia Tech's defense has only two senior starters in the front seven and lacks a proven pass rusher in the mold of a Darryl Tapp or Jason Worilds.
Instead of taking an early lead and coasting on the strength of its defense, the Hokies are coming from behind.
Virginia Tech seemed headed for an 0-3 start after falling behind by 10 points on two occasions against East Carolina, but the Hokies rallied for a 49-27 victory. They pulled off the biggest comeback of the 24-season Beamer era last month, when they erased a 17-0 deficit to win 41-30 at previously unbeaten N.C. State. They fell behind 14-0 before coming back to beat Georgia Tech 28-21 last week.
They have rallied from double-digit deficits three times this season after winning in that fashion just four times during their previous six seasons of ACC membership. The Hokies delivered each of these comebacks by following the same advice that helped them dig their way out of that 0-2 hole.
"When you get down early, you can't panic," Graves said. "You have to stay calm and believe in what you've practiced and in what you've preached. We've done that."
That poise is exemplified by Tyrod Taylor, who is having as strong a season as just about any quarterback in school history. Taylor has thrown for 1,739 yards, with 16 touchdowns and four interceptions, and ranks eighth nationally in passing efficiency. He also has rushed for a team-high 584 yards and three more touchdowns. His statistics compare favorably to the numbers Michael Vick put up in each of his two seasons at Virginia Tech.
"I think it gets back to your quarterback," Beamer said. "We have a quarterback that can make things happen and can keep you in the game, can bring you back. He's got some good people around [him]. But I know for this operation to work, you better have a quarterback that can do it. I think we've got a guy that can do it. It means a lot to our football team."
Defense also has played a major role in the comebacks, even though this isn't a vintage Hokies defense. Virginia Tech is the only FBS program that has ranked among the nation's top 12 teams in total defense in each of the past six season. But the Hokies rank just 46th in that category this season.
Winning in a different way
Virginia Tech could win at least 10 games for a seventh consecutive season, but the Hokies are relying on a different formula for success this season. Rather than relying heavily on defense, the Hokies are benefiting from a more balanced approach. Here are Virginia Tech's averages in total offense, scoring offense, total defense and scoring defense since the streak began in 2004. FBS rankings are in parentheses.
They've given up a number of big plays, but they've also delivered some big plays. Cornerbacks Jayron Hosley and Rashad Carmichael have combined for nine interceptions this season, while linebacker Bruce Taylor has five sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss.
Virginia Tech also has utilized extraordinary depth at tailback to withstand Williams' injury problems. Taylor, Darren Evans (92 carries, 519 yards, nine TDs) and David Wilson (74-462-4) have helped Virginia Tech rank 18th nationally in rushing, though Wilson will sit out Saturday's game with mononucleosis.
The Hokies also have characteristically strong special teams. Chris Hazley is 13-of-14 on field-goal attempts, and Brian Saunders ranks 25th nationally in punting. Wilson scored the go-ahead touchdown against Georgia Tech on a 90-yard kickoff return.
"They're very good in all three phases," North Carolina coach Butch Davis said. "Sometimes when you prepare against certain teams, they're really, really good on offense or defense and they're average or OK on special teams. But when you play against Virginia Tech, you better be very, very prepared in your fundamentals and your execution in all three phases."
Virginia Tech can't afford to celebrate yet. The Hokies must go on the road Saturday to face a North Carolina team that beat them in Blacksburg last season. Virginia Tech follows that up with a trip to Miami before it ends the regular season by playing host to Virginia.
This season could eventually go down as one of Beamer's best coaching jobs, but the seven-game winning streak will be forgotten quickly if the Hokies don't complete the turnaround by capturing another conference title.
"We've worked out the problem and we've solved the problem so far," Beamer said. "We've got another big problem this Saturday that's not going to be easy to solve. But I've been proud of what our football team has been able to accomplish after two … really tough setbacks."