One of my favorite reads on Virginia Tech is The Key Play, and they were good enough to trade questions and answers with us this week. You can find our answers to their questions here - Joey Coogan answered the following for us:
1) The change from Frank Beamer to Justin Fuente seems from the outside to have shown up most in Virginia Tech's tempo on Saturday. Is that the biggest difference you've noticed thus far, and what are some others that stand out?
Tempo is the obvious difference. Former offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler toyed with the no-huddle offense occasionally throughout his brief tenure in Blacksburg, but Fuente's spread system is a different animal. The Hokies ran 89 plays Saturday against Liberty, the most snaps in a single game for Tech since a 2012 victory over Virginia. Expect to see more of the same in Bristol.
I think the other difference that stands out is the simple reality that someone other than Beamer is leading the Virginia Tech football program. For many Hokies, including myself, Frank Beamer was the only Tech football coach we've ever known. To Fuente's credit, the transition has gone as seamlessly as one could possibly hope. Fuente has repeatedly gone to great lengths to respect and honor what Beamer built in Blacksburg, and the former Memphis coach seems sharply focused on building upon that very foundation.
2) Tennessee's offensive line play was the biggest concern coming out of a near-miss by Appalachian State. Tell us about Virginia Tech's defensive front and what we can expect from them and against Tennessee's once-and-hopefully-still-mighty running game.
The Hokies' defensive line is actually going through somewhat of a transition this fall as well. For years, longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster utilized an undersized but athletic defensive front that relied on their quickness to disrupt opposing offenses. That philosophy had mixed results: for every five-sack beating the defensive line doled out, there always seemed to be a more traditional power-running system waiting in the wings ready to overpower the Hokies. The defensive line is noticeably bigger in 2016. Standout senior defensive end Ken Ekanem tacked on nearly 20 pounds this offseason, and fellow end Vinny Mihota (6'5", 264 lb.) spent time at defensive tackle early in his career before moving outside for good this spring. The Hokies start two seniors at tackle (#60 Woody Baron, #8 Nigel Williams) and have solid depth inside with former five-star recruit Tim Settle and former four-star recruit Ricky Walker filling out the two-deep.
I'd expect Foster to load the box early and often against the dynamic Tennessee running game, forcing Josh Dobbs to throw the football. The Hokies have had their fair share of struggles with dual-threat quarterbacks - and really, who hasn't? - so you can be sure that Foster will attempt to contain Dobbs in the pocket.
3) There's a lot of early talk about the Isaiah Ford/Cam Sutton WR/DB match-up on Saturday. Ford is clearly a proven threat; how do you expect Virginia Tech's passing game to look with him and the arrival of Jerod Evans?
That's a good question, one that I don't really have a definitive answer for. As has become the norm at many schools across the country, media availability has grown frustratingly limited in Blacksburg, leaving us all in the dark on what Fuente's offense may look like. Ford registered 11 catches against Liberty, nine of which came in the first half before the second unit entered the game late in the third quarter. Ford is far and away the Hokies' best receiver, and Evans found him on several sideline back shoulder throws against the Flames to extend drives early in the game. Offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen will do his best to get Ford touches, so expect to see plenty of wide receiver screens head his direction as well.
6-foot-seven tight end Bucky Hodges remains Tech's biggest red zone threat. Technically listed as a wide receiver on the Hokies' depth chart, Hodges will typically flex out wide to take advantage of smaller corners and safeties in opposing secondaries. Hodges found the end zone twice against Liberty, so expect Evans to look his way on fade routes whenever the Hokies approach the goal-line.
4) The Hokies are no stranger to the September spotlight having played Alabama and a home-and-home with Ohio State in the last three years. But what does it mean to Virginia Tech to be part of this massive spectacle against Tennessee?
Honestly, I think it means a lot. I attended all three of the games you mentioned, but I expect the Battle at Bristol to be the biggest of them all. It should give both programs a valuable recruiting boost - I mean, what recruit doesn't like hearing, "We played in the biggest college football game ever." But going beyond that, it represents a matchup that just makes sense. Much like Texas A&M and Texas, I see Tennessee and Virginia Tech as a natural rivalry that could only benefit college football. Here's to hoping the Battle at Bristol isn't the last time we see the Hokies and Vols battle it out on the field.
5) Virginia Tech will win if...?
Tyrod Taylor comes back to play quarterback. Kidding aside, I think the Hokies have a decent chance to pull off the upset here. I expect Bud Foster's defense to hold the Vols in the mid-20's, so I see the game coming down to Jerod Evans. If Evans plays solid, turnover-free football behind an offensive line that improves upon an up-and-down Week 1 performance, I'll go with the Hokies in an upset.
Tennessee will win if...?
Anything goes wrong for Virginia Tech. Tennessee is still the favorite here, and for good reason. The Vols' talent level is probably still a touch or two higher than the Hokies, and I expect the Tennessee defensive line to give Tech fits up front. And while there'll be plenty of Chicago maroon in the Bristol bleachers Saturday evening, Tennessee will still enjoy a distinct home-field advantage. If I'm a betting man, I take the Vols to win, but the Hokies to cover.