Properly disguised and timed, a reverse ranks among football's coolest plays. Stout defenses appear clueless, while their sage coordinators spike headsets in frustration.
Reversals of team fortunes can be equally unexpected and, depending on your allegiance, entertaining. Nothing showcases sports wondrous improbability like a squad going from worst-to-first, or thereabouts.
Such rebounds are hardly rare — college football 2013 is Exhibit A — making Vegas flush and its patrons bust. So as our annual preseason section examines the prerequisites, subtle and otherwise, for building a championship program, good luck forecasting who's on the brink of a breakthrough.
Oh, we can give it a shot with our local teams, attempting to apply logic to the frequently illogical. But odds are, we'll miss as many as we hit.
With 20 public high schools in our coverage wheelhouse, it's best to defer detailed analysis to comrades Johnson and O'Brien, but for reasons rooted in zoning and tradition, prep competition usually produces more perennials than college. So a November or December that finds the likes of Phoebus, Hampton, Poquoson and Lafayette still in pads is hardly surprising, though the Virginia High School League's constant meddling in conference alignment threatens to create commonwealth-wide chaos.
For cautionary college tales, travel back to 2012, when Auburn, Missouri and Duke were a combined 5-19 in league play. Last year they went 20-4, each winning its division, and Auburn reaching the national championship game before coughing up a fourth-quarter lead against Florida State.
Granted, those were extremes, especially Auburn, which went from 3-9 to 12-2. And extremes have been scarce among our area teams, thanks in large measure to quality, long-tenured coaches such as Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer, William and Mary's Jimmye Laycock, Christopher Newport's Matt Kelchner, Virginia's George Welsh and Hampton's Joe Taylor — the latter two are out of coaching, and the programs they built have never been the same.
Beamer's biggest leap came from 1992 to '93, when his Hokies improved from 2-8-1 to 9-3. That started Tech's current streak of 21 consecutive bowl seasons, during which its steepest decline was from 11-3 and 7-1 in the ACC in 2011 to 7-6 and 4-4 the following year.
Working at an institution with more exacting academic standards and fewer resources than most, if not all, its conference rivals, Laycock has been prone to wilder swings. His Tribe's 2004 run to the Football Championship Subdivision national semifinals and an 11-3 record was sandwiched by seasons of 5-5 and 5-6. Just last year, William and Mary finished 7-5 after 2-9 the season prior.
The only coach in CNU football's 13 seasons, Kelchner has been admirably consistent, the Captains' records ranging from 5-5 to 9-3. Similarly, Welsh guided Virginia to 13 straight seasons with at least seven victories from 1987-99, but neither of the Cavaliers' subsequent coaches, Al Groh and Mike London, have approached that standard — London's four teams have gone 4-8, 8-5, 4-8, 2-10.
Hampton enjoyed 15 winning seasons in 16 years from 1992-2007 under Taylor, earning a pair of Division II playoff bids and five in the FCS. The Pirates haven't made the playoffs since and were a combined 7-15 the last two years.
Old Dominion's sample size is much smaller — football was reincarnated on Hampton Boulevard in 2009 — but the Monarchs' victories totals have ranged from 8-11 in Bobby Wilder's five seasons.
So who's best positioned to seize a conference trophy in 2014?
With nine USA South titles in 13 years and beaucoup veterans back from an 8-2 squad that finished third last year, CNU heads the list. Moreover, the Captains' league has far less depth than the Colonial Athletic Association, where William and Mary, most recently the kingpin in 2010, figures to be competitive again, but where 2013 playoff finalist Towson and semifinalist New Hampshire loom, not to mention past national champions James Madison, Delaware, Villanova and Richmond.
Indeed, if you want to see Laycock break out in hives, just mention last year's 15-9 loss to Towson, where had one of several plays gone the other way, the Tribe wins and makes the playoffs.
ODU cannon-balled into the CAA, tying for second place in its 2011 conference debut. Rendered ineligible for the title a year later — league officials were steamed over the school's move to Conference USA — the Monarchs fashioned the CAA's best record, declared themselves unofficial champs and earned an at-large playoff bid.
A similar splash in C-USA and the Bowl Subdivision this season, or anytime soon, would surprise. Unexpected offseason attrition depleted the receiving corps so critical to ODU's spread offense, while the program's perennial defensive issues were painfully reinforced in last year's finale, an 80-20 demolition at North Carolina.
Virginia's two ACC championships came under Welsh in 1989 and '95, but the Cavaliers played for the league's Coastal Division title in 2007 and '11, losing to Virginia Tech on both occasions. London appears to have significantly upgraded the program's talent, especially on defense, but without noticeable progress in 2014, against a thorny schedule, his future is tenuous.
Meanwhile, absent Florida State, Clemson and Louisville, Virginia Tech's ACC schedule this season is manageable, which could help the Hokies return to the league title game for the first time since 2011. Entering his 28th season coaching his alma mater, the 67-year-old Beamer has begun to assemble the horses needed to return Tech to the top 10, but will they produce before he retires?
Since Hampton's most recent MEAC championship, in 2006, five schools have won or shared the conference title, including Norfolk State in 2011. Such parity and volatility offer encouragement to new Pirates coach Connell Maynor, who, fresh off a 45-6 run at Winston-Salem State, scoffed at a poll that picked Hampton to finish seventh this season.
"There aren't six teams better than we are," he told Comrade Fairbank.
Gotta love preseason optimism. But now it's game week.
Time to play.