by David Elfin

Cody Journell is not in Virginia Tech’s football pantheon with such stars as Bruce Smith, Michael Vick and DeAngelo Hall. But if not for Journell’s last-second field goal that beat archrival Virginia in the 2012 regular season finale, the Hokies’ streak of 20 straight bowl games under coach Frank Beamer would have come to an end.

But even though Virginia Tech edged Rutgers – on a Journell field goal in overtime – in something called the Russell Athletic Bowl to finish 7-6, last season was the most frustrating for the Hokies since before many of their players were born.

Having lost their No. 1 running back to the NFL a year early three years running, the Hokies couldn’t run the ball. When they became one-dimensional on offense, quarterback Logan Thomas cracked, throwing more interceptions than touchdown passes. And that lack of production left the defense on the field too long.

Tech was whipped by Pitt and North Carolina (really?) as well as by more traditional ACC powers Clemson and Miami and needed overtime to edge mediocre Boston College.

So how do Beamer and Co. open the 2013 season in which they’re seeking to return to the 10-1/2 victories they averaged from 2004-11? Against two-time defending national champion Alabama on Saturday.

Talk about a tough way to start. At least the game’s at a neutral site, Atlanta, rather than Tuscaloosa. And yes, the Hokies were the last non-conference foe to lead the Crimson Tide in the fourth quarter. But that was back in 2009 when only current fifth-year seniors like Thomas were enrolled in Blacksburg.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity,” said Beamer, who called the top-ranked Crimson Tide the best team he has faced during his 27 seasons at Virginia Tech. “What happens [by opening] with Alabama, I think your football program is better. I think your summer workouts are better. Preseason practices are better. And regardless of how that game turns out, I think your program’s better. … You better make sure you can execute against Alabama. [They] can make you look bad in a hurry if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

The good news is that the rest of the schedule is much friendlier. Tech doesn’t play Clemson or Florida State. If the Hokies can’t beat the likes of Western Carolina, East Carolina, Marshall, Pitt (which stunned them last year) and eight ACC rivals (led by North Carolina, 8-4 in 2012, and Miami, 7-5), then they should turn in their helmets and cleats.

However, Beamer’s renaissance became tougher with the loss of running back Tony Gregory and outside linebacker Ronny Vandyke to season-ending injuries during this month’s drills.

Still, redshirt freshman running back Trey Edmunds – son of former standout Maryland tight end Ferrell Edmunds and one of seven new offensive starters – should rev up the running attack, which should help restore Thomas’ game to the fine level it was on in 2011.

“We’ve got a good quarterback, and we’ve got to be better around him,” Beamer said. “We’ve got to be consistent in taking care of the ball and being efficient on offense. And being efficient means don’t get in so many long-yardage situations.”

Tech’s defense, led by end James Gayle (16 sacks) and linebacker Jack Tyler (Oakton High), returns nine starters. One of the newcomers is Kendall Fuller, a freshman from Good Counsel, who has earned rave reviews while taking the spot of the injured Antone Exum.

“We’re going to have a chance to be good defensively,” Beamer said in a bit of an understatement.

Beamer, the winningest active coach and the sixth-winningest ever of a major conference program, turns 67 in October. The 1969 Tech graduate took over a program in 1987 that had been to just six bowls. Once he first guided the Hokies to postseason in 1993, they haven’t stopped. Only Nebraska, Michigan, Florida State, Alabama and Florida can top those 20 straight bowls.

This year’s team doesn’t seem likely to become Beamer’s sixth to finish the season ranked in the top 10, but topping last year’s 7-6 record is a near-certainty.

“I think y’all going to see a different team than you are used to seeing here at Virginia Tech,” said Thomas, who has vowed to carry the Hokies on his shoulders. “I think y’all are going to be writing about a chance of us having a superior season.”

Tech should be better than Carolina, Duke, Georgia Tech (in a record 27th Thursday night affair), Maryland, Pitt and Virginia. So if the Hokies can beat Coastal Division favorite Miami on the road, they should, pardon the pun, coast to the ACC Championship Game, probably against the Florida State-Clemson survivor. And that would certainly extend that bowl streak to 21.

Oh, by the way, Journell is back for his third year as the kicker after connecting on 20 of 25 field goal tries in 2012. That alone should allow Beamer and the rest of Hokie Nation to sleep better once the Alabama nightmare ends Saturday night and September begins on Sunday.


David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.


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