In 2017, when Virginia Tech hosted Clemson inside Lane Stadium in primetime, ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit presented an unfortunate truth in the pregame banter.

“This is a program that’s been waiting for that big, landmark win,” Herbstreit said. “And at home, in front of this fanbase… big opportunity tonight against the defending champs.”

His cohort, announcer Chris Fowler, followed up by informing the audience that Virginia Tech has only once beaten a top-5 opponent.

Since Frank Beamer’s departure at the end of the 2015 season, Virginia Tech fans have longed for a reason to believe that the Hokies are on their way to prominence, a standard that the program reached just a decade ago. Justin Fuente gave many fans reasons to believe in 2016, as the Hokies claimed the ACC Coastal title.

Since that epic opening act, the story of Fuente’s Hokies hasn’t inspired nearly the confidence that the Hokies’ 2016 season conjured. Instead, the last three seasons have led many to wonder, “Why should I believe?”

On social media, the Virginia Tech fanbase is as divided as ever and while social media isn’t representative of the entire fanbase, it’s large enough to be relevant to media, fans, coaches and recruits. The reason for division? A significant portion of the fanbase doesn’t believe in the future of the program.

Let’s be frank — those people have reasons to be skeptical. After winning 19 games over his first two seasons, Fuente has won just 14 games over his last two. Two seasons ago, the Hokies limped to a 6-7 record and needed a rescheduled game vs. Marshall to retain bowl eligibility. Last season, Tech rebounded from the worst home loss in school history, only to fall to Virginia and lose a heart breaker to Kentucky in the Belk Bowl.

As the on-field product has diminished, Fuente has battled historic roster turnover and a tougher recruiting landscape. Fuente hasn’t improved the Hokies’ standing on the recruiting trail and the Class of 2020 is the lowest-rated class in the modern recruiting era for Virginia Tech.

The Class of 2021 was supposed to be different and for a while, it looked that way. But the class took a major hit on Wednesday, as headliner and four-star quarterback Dematrius Davis backed out of his commitment to Virginia Tech.

Sure, there’s still time for Tech to get this class going. But with their biggest catch no longer in the boat and more and more targets picking other programs, the Hokies are running out of options. Tech must improve on their performance on the recruiting trail this cycle, and time will tell if they’re able to.

Another weakened recruiting class would be a missed opportunity to make the fanbase believe again. And right now more than ever, the fans need a reason to believe in the leadership of this program.

There are still some encouraging signs to point to. Tech’s quarterback depth is as good as it has ever been, while the team returns a large majority of their starters from 2019. The Hokies were in the thick of the Coastal race through the end of the season and given the conference’s landscape, Tech has a legitimate chance to win the ACC Coastal in 2020.

For many, it’s hard to believe in that when the program has suffered so many high-profile defeats, whether it be on or off the field. The Hokies have missed out on too many top prospects they had a real chance to sign and Tech has suffered too many frustrating and shocking losses over the last two seasons.

Fuente and the Hokies need to give the fanbase a reason to believe in the future. A strong finish to the Class of 2021 would go a long way in doing so, as would a win over Penn State this season. An ACC Coastal title would surely provide the faith that Hokies are desperately craving.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — the 2020 season is one of the most pivotal in the history of the program. This coming season presents Virginia Tech with an opportunity to erase doubts about their past struggles and restore optimism. Or it could do the opposite, and either scenario is just as likely as the other. No matter what happens, the 2020 season will be consequential.