GREENSBORO, N.C. — Willie Byrn has seen the snide remarks on social media and simmers at Virginia Tech's recent decline. But he absolutely refuses to believe the quest is futile.
"I'm really sick of hearing ACC titles is the ceiling," the Hokies' leading returning receiver said Sunday at the ACC's preseason gabfest. "Everyone came to Virginia Tech wanting to play in national championship games, and no one's lost sight of that."
After the Hokies lost the title contest to Florida State in the January 2000 Sugar Bowl, school officials publicly displayed an empty trophy case earmarked for college football's ultimate team hardware. As the seasons passed, rivals mocked the ploy, and eventually, the case was removed.
"I know that a lot of people, I've seen it on Facebook, make fun of that," Byrn said. "I don't know why. It's just something to fuel the fire, give you something to work towards, and I like it. It kind of brings a sense of pressure. 'Alright, where is it? The trophy case is still empty.'"
And rarely has it been an easier target.
Tech has finished the last two seasons unranked, the first time that's happened since 1991 and '92. The Hokies were a combined 9-7 versus the ACC 2012 and '13; they were 33-7 the previous five regular seasons.
Head coach Frank Beamer overhauled his offensive staff following the 2012 season, a painful decision for a future Hall of Famer who prides himself on loyalty and stability. And with myriad questions surrounding his 2014 squad — quarterback, tailback and placekicker chief among them — vaulting back into national contention seems unlikely.
Byrn said the broad perception is that Tech doesn't win "big games," and he's right. The Hokies are not only 1-4 against the top-25 the last two years, but also 5-14 versus the Associated Press top 10 since 1999. They lost the January 2011 Orange Bowl, the 2011 ACC championship game and the 2013 Sun Bowl by a combined 86 points.
"That's something I really want to change," said Byrn, a fifth-year senior from Virginia Beach's First Colonial High.
Tech's first 2014 opportunity falls early, Sept. 6 at Ohio State, 15-0 at home under coach Urban Meyer. Indeed, given the depleted ACC Coastal Division, the Buckeyes figure to be the only top-15 opponent the Hokies play during the regular season.
"Ohio State will probably set the stage," senior defensive tackle Luther Maddy said. "(Winning) that would probably get us ranked and have a lot of eyes watching us. … That would earn us the respect we need, Ohio State, North Carolina, Miami, all those big games."
But few, if any, outside the program envision Tech winning in Columbus. That would leave national credibility hinging on a potential ACC title game against reigning national champion Florida State and perhaps a marquee postseason opponent.
Entering his 28th year leading the Hokies, Beamer is unlikely to join Byrn's national-aspiration chorus for 2014. It's just not in his DNA with such an unproven roster.
"The coaches, they preach little things, not big-picture things," Byrn said. "It's kind of like, just worry about the next opponent. But what makes us get through the workouts in the offseason, the 6 a.m. tough runs, is thinking about national titles. That's something we've spoken about behind closed doors in team meetings without any coaches."
An offense that ranked 101st nationally in yards per game and 99th in points per game, and special teams that missed 11 field goals were the primary culprits last season. And offense has been a perennial issue of late, witness the 2013 arrival of new coordinator Scot Loeffler.
"Our defense is playing at that (championship) level," Byrn said. "We've got to get our offense to that level, and we've got to get our special teams back to that level."
A former walk-on, Byrn emerged suddenly last season to catch a team-high 51 passes, and he fervently believes a Tech program that won four ACC championships from 2004-10 can re-emerge.
"I would like to break this stereotype of the walk-on success story, the 'Rudy,' oh, it's so adorable and that kind of thing," Byrn said. "I'm ready to make plays on not just a walk-on level, not just on a scholarship level, but on an ACC level.
"I want to make ripples, and our team does, too, and that's what kind of the mood is for the offense. … We want to take back this conference."