Now that the season is over, I can confidently say that Justin Fuente is my pick for best head coaching hire after last season. The Virginia Tech Hokies have become (somewhat) relevant this season and that isn’t just a fluke.
The Hokies finished the regular season at 9-3, winning the ACC Coastal Division. Granted, winning the ACC Coastal is about the equivalent of winning the SEC East these days. But I’ll get to my SEC East comparison. Virginia Tech then went on to lose in a pretty close game to Clemson at the ACC Championship in Orlando.
Virginia Tech beat UNC, Miami, Pitt, Duke, Notre Dame and a few other opponents. Who did it lose to? Virginia Tech’s three regular season losses were to Tennessee, Syracuse and Georgia Tech. Syracuse is the least excusable loss of the three. And you can blame the Tennessee and Georgia Tech losses almost entirely on turnovers.
In fact, I was at that Tennessee game. I remember just how sloppy it was. Virginia Tech outgained Tennessee by 70 yards, had the ball for two and a half minutes longer and had five more first downs than Tennessee did. But because of the Hokies’ five turnovers (and the Vols’ one), they fell to Tennessee in what turned out to be a bit of a rout.
Virginia Tech outgained Georgia Tech by almost 100 yards and had ten more first downs than the Yellow Jackets did. But Virginia Tech lost by ten points after giving up four turnovers. Georgia Tech only gave up one.
The Syracuse game is a bit of a different story. The Hokies only had one more turnover than the Orange did. But Syracuse quarterback channeled his inner Lamar Jackson and had 311 yards passing as well as 106 yards on the ground.
Aside from these three hiccups, the Hokies really did have a great season under first-year head coach Justin Fuente. Transfer quarterback Jerod Evans may not have been a Cam Newton, but he did what Fuente needed him to do. He racked up over 3,000 passing yards and also led the team in rushing yards.
Compare this to last season when Virginia Tech finished in a tie with Duke for fourth place in the ACC Coastal and you’ll see why I’m impressed. The Hokies, in one year, went from being 4-4 in conference play and unranked to being 6-2 in conference play and ranked somewhere in the Top 25 depending on which rankings you look at.
Just like it was miraculous for Jim McElwain to take the Florida Gators from 4-4 in the SEC to 7-1 last season, it was nearly miraculous for Fuente to do what he did with the Hokies this season. And just like I was anxious to see what McElwain would do this season, I’m very anxious to see what Fuente could do next season.
Now, I know he won’t be the national coach of the year. Some other coaches had even more success this season on a national level. But Fuente’s ACC Coach of the Year honor is well deserved. And of course I think calling him the best first-year head coach for a program is equally well deserved. Heck, I almost wish Florida had held out another year so we could have gotten Fuente instead.
What Fuente did for the Memphis Tigers football program in his four years there was incredible. And it seems like he’s on track to make equally incredible strides with his Hokies.
So here’s to you, Justin Fuente. You may not have the same name recognition as some of these other coaches, but you are truly a coach to keep our eyes on over the next few years. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see you repeat as division champions, just like McElwain did in the SEC East. In fact, I may even be rooting for you to join that club.
You can email Kristen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @OGKristenB.
Photo: Kristen Botica