This weekend’s biggest game will kick off Saturday night at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Va., a location that has hosted plenty of decisive matchups in its lifetime. But this one, which pits No. 2 Clemson against No. 12 Virginia Tech, will be the most important game played in Blacksburg in six years. In fact, the last time the stakes were this high for a Hokies home game may have been this very same matchup in 2011, when No. 13 Clemson came to town to face No. 11 Virginia Tech—and won.
A game of this import has been a long time coming for a program that grew accustomed to sustained greatness during Frank Beamer’s tenure. But before 2016, the Hokies hadn’t been ranked in a season-ending AP Poll since 2011, and as coach Justin Fuente gets more entrenched in Blacksburg, the stakes are getting higher and higher. As I wrote about this week, Fuente implemented an almost immediate turnaround of a team that had tended toward mediocre in recent seasons, and Saturday’s game against Dabo Swinney and company will be a great indicator of how far the Hokies really have come. So far this season, they haven’t beaten anyone of note, although their four wins have all been decisive, and freshman quarterback Josh Jackson has been a delight to behold. This is a team on the rise, and beating Clemson would catapult it into playoff contention.
To do that, Virginia Tech will have to play a flawless game, and Jackson can’t falter in his highest-pressure game thus far. The Hokies defense will take some slack off of Fuente’s offense and is certainly good enough to keep this a close game even if Jackson takes time to hit his stride. But in the end, this will come down to Fuente foiling what’s likely the best defense in college football. It’s a tall task, but for Virginia Tech, even a good showing in a loss will be enough to keep the hype alive; in the ACC’s weaker division, it’ll still have a clear path to the conference championship should things not go optimally on Saturday.
The Hokies take the cake in this week’s pressure gauge, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only people under the microscope going into Week Five. Here’s who else should be more than a little nervous going into the weekend:
Mike Riley: Nebraska rebounded from its loss to Northern Illinois on Sept. 16 by beating Rutgers last week, but with athletic director Shawn Eichorst out, Riley will be under pressure every time he loses--and Illinois approximates a real football team this season. It’s hard to say what the final straw will be for Riley, but there’s no arguing that this was the season Nebraska was supposed to get back to being Nebraska, and that certainly hasn’t happened yet.
North Carolina State: The Wolfpack got a big win last week over Florida State, and after an up-and-down start to the season, this is their chance to show the preseason hype was deserved; some considered them a fringe playoff contender. A Week 1 loss to South Carolina doused those hopes, but beating the Seminoles last weekend renewed some hopes. Coach Dave Doeren would benefit big-time from a win over Syracuse, which isn’t exactly a big ask, but a loss would certainly keep his future teetering.
Josh Rosen: This one seems, well, a little unfair. UCLA being mediocre is not Josh Rosen’s fault. He’s still one of the best quarterbacks in the country, but if the Bruins lose Saturday to Colorado, it’ll be their third straight L, and Rosen will almost certainly come under fire. This pressure certainly extends to UCLA as a whole, but at this point Rosen as a prospect has more on the line than his team does.
San Diego State: The Aztecs enter the weekend undefeated, and with a pretty easy Mountain West schedule ahead of them, their matchup with Northern Illinois this weekend will go a long way in determining their fate. Win, and they’ve got a solid shot at going undefeated and earning a New Year’s Six bowl berth. Lose, and this is a good season but ultimately forgettable. The Huskies are coming off a bye week, which was preceded by a win over Nebraska, so they have the chops to pull off an upset on the West Coast.