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Previewing Virginia Tech football by the numbers

How did the only team to beat Ohio State last season fare the rest of the season and will that same team be looking to score another upset in 2015?

Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

Virginia Tech had one of the worst records in college football last season relative to its advanced statistical rankings. The Hokies slogged through a disappointing 7-6 season despite ranking 33rd on overall F/+. Outside of their upset over the Buckeyes and their bowl win over Cincinnati, the Hokies didn't really have any big wins, but had lowlights like losses to East Carolina, Pitt, and the 6-3 loss to Wake Forest.

So what do we take away from that 7-6 record to project how Virginia Tech will fare against the Buckeyes in 2015?

  1. The Hokies joined SEC underperformers Tennessee, Florida, and Arkansas as teams that had six losses in 2014 but still managed to end the season ranked in the top 35 of the F/+ rankings. It's no surprise then that those three SEC teams are on most of the media's lists of teams primed for a turnaround season in 2015.
  2. However, if you look at Bill's second order wins method for determining lucky and unlucky teams, then the Hokies performed exactly as you would have expected. That's somewhat different than you might have expected given that the Hokies were statistically solid, but ended the season barely above .500. Part of that might be due to the Hokies relatively difficult schedule, which was ranked the 29th most difficult according to the FEI strength of schedule metric and 11th most difficult according to the S&P+ SoS.
  3. So overall, the Hokies had a disappointing record for how statistically strong they were, but with their schedule they won about as many games as you might have expected them to win.

So let's dig a little deeper in to the offense and defense.

The Hokie offense

The Hokies were ranked 93rd in Offensive FEI and 85th in Offensive S&P+, and the offense was clearly the reason for their poor record.

Virginia Tech was bad in almost every offensive area, but the run game (102nd in Rushing S&P+) and passing downs (114th in Passing Downs S&P+) stand out as the two trouble areas. Freshman Shai McKenzie had a strong freshman campaign going before tearing his ACL and J.C. Coleman got it going towards the tail end of the season, but Hokie ground game was an area of concern all season long.

But even more than the skill players, the offensive line was the greatest liability for the Hokies, contributing to the rushing woes and the poor passing downs success rate. The offensive line was 98th in Adjusted Line Yards and 102nd in Adjusted Sack Rate, suggesting that not only could the Hokies not run the ball particularly efficiently, but they couldn't protect first-year starter Michael Brewer in obvious passing situations either. This might be part of the reason Brewer had an 18:15 touchdown to interception ratio.

For what it's worth, the Hokies were one of the "least spread" teams in the country last season too. The Hokies had the 12th-lowest percentage of opponent solo tackles, meaning that their skill players were getting gang tackled by opposing defenses far more often than other teams who "get their athletes in space" as Kirk Herbstreit would say. The folks over at GobblerCountry seem to confirm those stats:

The play calling was inconsistent, and often unintelligible.  Tanking 2 running plays into huge piles of humanity and then running a panicked passing play AT the line of scrimmage was the normal pattern.

However, all signs from spring practice suggest that Brewer himself certainly has the physical tools and rapport with his receivers necessary to be an effective quarterback -- it's really the playcalling and the offensive line that are worrisome. It's then imperative for the Buckeye front seven to get after Brewer early and often, overwhelming the offensive line with speed off the edge from guys like Darron Lee and Joey Bosa.

The Hokie defense

You may remember the Hokie defense as really the only one all season to effectively shut down the Buckeye offense. Sure, J.T. was getting his second-ever start at quarterback and the offensive line had yet to evolve in to the road-grating, cohesive unit that it ended the year (as a side note, the Buckeyes were first in the country in Weighted S&P+ last year, which measures how a team as playing at the end of season by weighting those performances more than the rest of the year). But the Hokies turned to a bear defensive front that completely disrupted the Buckeyes' play calling.

Since Meyer's first regular-season loss at Ohio State, almost every team on Ohio State's schedule has tried to recreate the Hokies' bear defense in hopes of another effort, but the Buckeyes quickly integrated effective constraint plays (counter trap and tackle power runs) as offensive staples, neutralizing that particular defense.

So the bear itself is unlikely to cause the same number of headaches for the next go around. However, what's also clear is that the Hokies defense was extraordinary last season (2nd in Defensive FEI and 11th in Defensive S&P+) and returns seven or eight starters from last season (depending on who you ask). The Hokies were second in overall pass defense and were 6th in defensive back Havoc Rate, so whichever quarterback ultimately wins the job for the Buckeyes will have his work cut out for him.