Opinion: Virginia Tech has become the college football team that can’t close the deal

Dan Wolken
USA TODAY

Virginia Tech has made a bowl game for 27 consecutive years, the longest streak in the country and one of those points of pride for the program that has probably become bigger and more important than it should be. 

But here’s a potential conundrum the 4-4 Hokies may have to face in a few weeks: If they fail to secure a winning record, do they accept a bowl bid anyway knowing that they didn’t play well enough to deserve it under regular circumstances? 

That scenario could come to fruition this year, as the NCAA has dropped the requirement for teams to be .500 in order to play in a postseason game due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If Virginia Tech finishes 5-6 — which is within the realm of possibility given its remaining opponents are Pitt, Clemson and Virginia — you have to think one of the ACC-affiliated bowls would be happy to take the Hokies and keep the streak headed toward its third full decade. 

But we — and Virginia Tech fans most of all — know that accepting an invitation under those circumstances would come with a major asterisk and no small amount of shame. 

Virginia Tech has become the team that can’t close the deal, suffering a 25-24 loss to Miami on the heels of its 38-35 loss to Liberty. The Hokies had No. 9 Miami on the ropes with a 24-13 lead midway through the third quarter, but from there the offense went punt, punt, interception, punt and one final two-minute drive that didn’t get to midfield. 

Since beating eventual national champion Ohio State in 2014, Virginia Tech hasn’t beaten a team ranked in the top 10 in seven tries, and the promising start Justin Fuente got off to in Blacksburg has turned into a weekly referendum on how much more of a future he has there. 

Between the fact Virginia Tech hasn’t had a recruiting class under Fuente ranked higher than 24th in the 247Sports average, his dalliance with Baylor last offseason, losses to the likes of Liberty and Old Dominion and the exodus of players into the transfer portal after the 2018 season, patience is running thin. 

But fans also know that the urgency may not be the same at the administrative level, given Fuente’s $12.5 million buyout, which makes Virginia Tech the No. 1 team in this week’s Misery Index, a weekly measurement of knee-jerk reactions based on what each fan base just watched.  

Virginia Tech's Jalen Holston pauses in the end zone after the Hokies' loss against Miami in Blacksburg, Va. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP, Pool) ORG XMIT: VAROA212

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FOUR MORE IN MISERY

Michigan: Just two years ago, on Wisconsin’s last trip to the Big House, the domination by Michigan was so complete that you could finally start to see how Jim Harbaugh might eventually win a national championship. That 38-13 win, in fact, might have been the best Michigan performance in the Harbaugh era, notable for holding Wisconsin to 100 passing yards on 7-of-20 attempts as the Wolverines ascended into the top 10. As it turns out, beating good teams is an outlier for Harbaugh. Losing to Wisconsin 49-11, as Michigan did Saturday, is probably an outlier as well. But which one has more resonance? Unfortunately for Michigan fans, it's the latter because it continued a string of pathetic performances that has left the Wolverines 1-3 with little hope of salvaging something from this season. This game was never close, never competitive. Michigan trailed 28-0 halftime, its largest home halftime deficit since Michigan Stadium opened in 1927. The offense is bad and the situation on defense seems to be getting worse each week. Harbaugh said he’ll evaluate everything. But Michigan fans’ evaluation of the situation and who’s to blame is already complete. 

Stanford: The story of the prodigal son returning to the old alma mater, leading it to glory and then staying forever is a compelling one. But there’s a reason why it’s mostly fiction: It just doesn’t happen that way. David Shaw's first five years at Stanford could hardly have been more successful. With a pair of Rose Bowl wins, four top-10 finishes and a 54-14 record, the world of opportunities available to Shaw was vast in both college football and the NFL. But he chose to stay, and in retrospect, it was a probably a mistake not to recognize that Stanford had already reached its peak. As Shaw hits the 10-year mark, it's reasonable for Stanford fans to be a bit frustrated with a stubborn offensive approach that seems stuck in the past and a slow descent into irrelevance that has no end in sight. Stanford’s 35-32 loss to Colorado was its sixth consecutive extending into last season, and if this turns out to be a second consecutive losing season, it’ll be fair to conclude that Shaw has stayed too long. 

Penn State: The 2020 bingo card has hit on so many scenarios that would have seemed completely implausible that we are almost numb to them now. But still, the possibility of Penn State going winless this season would have been completely out of bounds even in the most bizarre year of our lives. While still unlikely, it’s certainly in play at this point as Penn State continues to demonstrate that it is a very bad football team with significant coaching deficiencies and little interest in competing hard enough to beat anyone of quality. Luckily for the 0-4 Nittany Lions, they still have Michigan, Rutgers and Michigan State left to put a win on the board. But if they continue to flail in the red zone, maybe not. In a 30-23 loss to Nebraska, Penn State came away with just nine points on five trips inside the Huskers’ 20-yard line, including two stalled drives at the end with a chance to tie the game. The playcalling was disastrous and unimaginative in those moments, but the execution up front wasn’t great either. That combination left quarterback Will Levis little chance to make anything happen, and Penn State players will now have to decide how much emotional investment they’re going to put into avoiding the stain of an 0-8 record. 

Minnesota: There has been a noted uptick in social media trolling from official team accounts this year in college football, which is a lot of fun unless you're on the wrong side of it. That’s where the Gophers were Friday night after a 35-7 loss to Iowa when the Hawkeyes tweeted a picture of the Floyd of Rosedale trophy that goes to the winner of this rivalry under the banner “The Row’d To Six Straight.” That headline, of course, was intended to mock Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck’s “Row the Boat” mantra, but losing six straight years to Iowa seems like the least of the Gophers’ worries right now. Coming off one of the most exciting seasons in the modern history of Minnesota football, the Gophers are getting punished for having one of the youngest defenses in the Big Ten. They’ve allowed an average of 35.8 points in four games, and given the quality of remaining opponents, it now seems likely Minnesota is going to follow a landmark 11-2 season with a 1-7 belly flop. 

TRENDING TOWARD MISERY 

East Carolina: If you’re litigating sportsmanship, you're losing, which is something the Pirates know a lot about. ECU hasn’t had a winning record since 2014, and now they’re reduced to complaining about Cincinnati running a fake punt in the fourth quarter while ahead 32 points in an eventual 55-17 win. ECU coach Mike Houston had a long, animated chat with Luke Fickell afterward, but this is the kind of fake drama that people latch onto when they’re 1-6 and have been blown out in four of those games. Fickell apologized publicly, saying he didn’t call the fake punt from the sidelines, but the only apology necessary should be from ECU for putting its fans through another season of embarrassment. 

TCU: The most disappointing part about TCU settling into the mushy middle of the Big 12 is the lost opportunity. The Big 12 is a league of transition, with half of the programs employing a coach in his first or second year. That should be a big advantage for TCU, which has had the same head coach since 2001 and can no longer use the excuse of being a Big 12 newcomer after nearly a decade in the league. But it seems the Horned Frogs are on a treadmill of mediocrity after a 24-6 loss to West Virginia, with just a 15-17 record to show for their efforts since the beginning of 2018. 

South Florida: It’s hard to believe a program located in the middle of the talent-rich I-4 corridor could slip so badly that it isn't even competitive with its Group of Five conference peers. The good news for USF, 1-7 after a 56-21 loss to Houston, is that there’s some precedent for it. Just a couple years before UCF went on its run of 19 consecutive wins in the American Athletic Conference, it endured an 0-12 season. That’s something for first-year USF coach Jeff Scott to point to for inspiration. Still, the lack of talent left on this roster compared with what Willie Taggart had teed up for Charlie Strong during that transition in 2016-17 is striking. It will take at least a couple more years for USF to get back to a competitive posture. 

TOTALLY REAL AND IRRATIONAL MESSAGE BOARD THREADS

“VT football is helping me to learn how to humbly take the L” — Tech Sideline

“My wife just hid all the sharp utensils in the house” — The Wolverine 

“The bottom has yet to be hit” — The CARDboard (Stanford)

“If we’re gonna suck I’m glad it’s when we can’t attend games” — Lions 247 (Penn State)

 “How many coaches could score more than 6 its vs mediocre WVU team? I think even an amateur could” — Killer Frogs