BLACKSBURG, Va. - The scaffolding surrounding the front of Virginia Tech's Lane Stadium and the rest of the construction rubble outside the front gates seem to sum up the current state of the school's football program: The Hokies are clearly in a rebuilding mode.
Going into tonight's 2004 season opener against top-ranked Southern California in the Black Coaches Association Classic at FedEx Field, Virginia Tech finds itself starting out in a significantly different place than in recent years. Overlooked, and possibly, overwhelmed.
"I think every year you have to prove yourself, no matter if you're ranked or not ranked," said wide receiver Richard Johnson, a senior from Baltimore (Milford Mill). "You've just got to come out and play football. That's what it all comes down to."
Said senior quarterback Bryan Randall: "I think we've got to win ballgames. The only time you get respect is when you're winning ballgames. When you start to lose ballgames, you start to lose respect and you drop out of the Top 25."
It marks the first time in six years that the Hokies are not in the preseason Top 25. They were picked to finish sixth out of 11 teams in their first season as part of the newly expanded Atlantic Coast Conference. Their run of 11 straight years going to bowl games hangs in the balance.
Not that the Virginia Tech players are daunted by this new-found role.
"It's a lot more fun being the hunter," said offensive guard Jason Murphy, a junior from Baltimore (Edmondson).
Virginia Tech is hoping that a strong performance, if not an upset victory, over the heavily favored Trojans will quiet those who believe that the team's late-season collapses the past three years are indicative of the direction the program is heading.
With only nine returning starters, and 22 players who are either second-year freshmen or true freshmen expected to be used regularly by coach Frank Beamer, this is viewed by some as a transition season for a team that played for the national championship as recently as the January 2000 Sugar Bowl.
"I worry about us being so young, playing a team as good as this," Beamer said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. "But I like this football team. I like the way we've practiced. I like the way we've prepared. We'll find out where we are as a football team against the best team in this country."
While Beamer flatly rejects the notion that the program he has built from a 2-9 season in 1987 to successive 11-1 records in 1999 and 2000 has reached a crossroad, athletic director Jim Weaver understands the rationale, derived also from Virginia Tech's new conference affiliation.
"We recognize the fact that our performances the last three years are not what we want to settle for at Virginia Tech. We're not satisfied with that, and no one is working harder to change that than Frank Beamer," Weaver said earlier this week.
The Hokies have gone a combined 26-13 over the past three years. Each of the seasons began strongly against mostly mediocre competition before things began to sour. Last year, Virginia Tech was 7-1 and ranked No. 5 after beating Miami, but lost four of its final five games.
Compounding the team's struggles on the field last year was the controversy that enveloped sophomore quarterback Marcus Vick after the season. The younger brother of school legend Michael Vick was charged in two separate incidents in a period of 3 1/2 months.
The first, which occurred in late January, involved Vick and teammates Michael Imoh and Brendan Hill. The players were found guilty of providing alcohol to three underage girls (ages 14 and 15) at an off-campus apartment. Vick was acquitted of a charge of having sex with one of the girls.
The players have appealed their convictions, which include varying fines and jail time. All three were to be suspended for the first three games of the upcoming season. That changed for Vick when he was pulled over in May near his home in Newport News, Va., charged with reckless driving and possession of marijuana.
As a result, the player who was expected to challenge Randall for the starting quarterback job was suspended from school. If he adheres to the conditions of his probation, Vick can ask to be re-admitted to school in January. There has been speculation that he might transfer.
The off-field troubles, which, for some, brought back disturbing memories of a rash of problems involving football players a decade ago, has not caused Weaver to waver in his support of his 57-year-old coach.
"I believe the football program is in very good hands with Frank Beamer at the helm," Weaver said.
But Vick's departure has left a team that is trying to fill holes at tailback and wide receiver with Randall as its only experienced quarterback. Though Randall has broken a number of school records and is close to a few others, his touchdown-to-interception ratio (27-22) is suspect.
Beamer has no choice but to have complete confidence in Randall since freshman Sean Glennon is the team's No. 2 quarterback.
"He's everything that's right," Beamer said of Randall. "He's worked very hard to become a good player. He's improved his throwing, he's studied so he can make good decisions on the field. Just seeing how the kids respond to him, he's a very important ingredient to this football team."
Said Randall: "I've always prepared myself. I'm not looking over my shoulder. I really am the only one with experience back there now, so I guess it does change things a little bit. But it's not going to change the way I focus or prepare for the ballgame."
It will be interesting to see how the Hokie Nation will hold up during what could be an up-and-down season. More than half of the 92,000 fans expected to fill FedEx Field tonight will be dressed in Virginia Tech colors, which could lead to some early tailgating if things get ugly fast.
"Fans are impatient everywhere," said Beamer, whose teams have won 28 straight games in August and September. "The reality of it is that if you can play as well as you can, then I can accept whatever the results are. I really think that if we can stay healthy, we'll see improvement throughout this season.
"We are what we are. When it's hard to accept is when you're going out and you're not playing what you're capable of as we did down the stretch last year."
The atmosphere on campus this week was more of anticipation of another school year starting than of another football season beginning. The completion of the expansion and renovation projects at Lane Stadium are still months away. Playing the nation's top-ranked team was only days away.
But you could hardly tell watching the Hokies, young or experienced, practice. They talk of being a closer team than a year ago, evidenced by the orange rubber bands with the word "UNITY" etched into them. They talk of the Trojans the way they have of the Hurricanes or West Virginia in the past.
"It's a big game," said Justin Murphy. "But we've had a lot of big games around here."
How many more could depend on how this transition season unfolds.