College football preview: Nos. 18 and 17

AP Photo / The Roanoke Times, Matt Gentry

18. Virginia Tech

2011 record: 11-3 (7-1 ACC), Coastal Division champions, Sugar Bowl appearance

Key returners: QB Logan Thomas (Junior), CB Antone Exum (Junior), DE James Gayle (Junior)

Virginia Tech’s 2012 schedule

(MORE: See the full Top 25)

Head coach Frank Beamer lost a whole mess of weight and the Hokies have lost some key players from last year’s Sugar Bowl team, but don’t expect Virginia Tech to fall far. They never do.

Returning nearly their entire 2011 starting defense as well as quarterback Logan Thomas, the Hokies seem to have a lot of key pieces still in place from last year. That’s going to be a big deal in a division that can still be considered “down.”

VT also holds all the cards in two of their biggest games of the season, hosting Georgia Tech and Florida State at night, on national television. If you don’t know, it usually takes a superhuman effort by a 2008 New England Patriots-equivalent team to beat the Hokies in Lane Stadium at night. GT is in trouble because the Hokies had all summer to prepare for the season-opener against the Yellow Jackets. FSU is in trouble because their game in Blacksburg is on a Thursday night, and the Seminoles always struggle in Thursday night road games. The Hokies will likely be favored in both games.

So get excited, Hokie fans, because it’s very possible your team will be ranked higher than No. 18 when the season comes to an end, and your team is still a dark horse to win the ACC.

Thomas will have to get his offense clicking with some new targets after the departure of running back David Wilson and receivers Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale. Young playmakers will have to step up in their place or it will be a slow start to the season for the Hokies.

But confidence is key, and a veteran quarterback calling the shots will definitely help Virginia Tech.

>> Next page: No. 17 Nebraska Cornhuskers