Virginia Tech’s football program has declined this season. That’s beyond dispute. Offense, defense, special teams, coaching.
The overarching question is: How steep and extended will the fall be?
History offers some, but no certain, guidance for fans of nationally prominent teams hoping to rebound.
* Twice in the last 30 years Notre Dame has endured six consecutive seasons in which it finished outside the national polls. The Irish, who won a national title and had nine top-20 seasons from 1987-96 under Lou Holtz, are in the midst of such a drought now.
But third-year coach Brian Kelly appears to have energized the program, and at 9-0, Notre Dame is poised for its first top-10 season since 2005 and perhaps its first national championsip since 1988.
* Nebraska enjoyed an astonishing 33-year run under Bob Devaney and then Tom Osborne from 1969-2001 in which it won at least nine games and finished among the top 20 every season. The Cornhuskers, who earned five national titles during that stretch, dipped to 7-7 in 2002 and had losing years in 2004 and ’07.
But at 7-2 this season and with a manageable late schedule, Nebraska is headed for a fifth straight nine-win record.
* Perhaps the most remarkable dynasty was Florida State’s 14 consecutive top-four Associated Press finishes from 1987-2000, a run that included Bobby Bowden’s two national championships. The streak ended with an 8-4 season but still a No. 15 national ranking.
The Seminoles remained among the top 25 until 2006, when they fell to 7-6, a record they repeated in 2007 and ’09. Their national-best run of consecutive bowl appearances will extend to 31 this season and with an 8-1 record entering Thursday’s game at Virginia Tech, Jimbo Fisher's team could return to the final AP top 10 for the first time in 12 years.
* Long-time Hokies rival Miami won three national championships and finished No. 2 or 3 four times from 1985-92. The Hurricanes’ initial slip, to 9-3 and No. 15, was minimal, and they ranked among the top 20 in 12 of the next 13 years.
Moreover, from 2000-03, Miami went 46-4 and won another national championship. All this the Hurricanes accomplished amid coaching transitions from Howard Schnellenberger to Jimmy Johnson to Dennis Erickson to Buch Davis.
The only serious downer was a 5-6 year in 1997 under Davis, the product of NCAA sanctions. The past six seasons, however, have been trying: a 41-35 record, 22-26 in ACC. And more NCAA penalties are coming.
* Texas entered 2010 with a Bowl Subdivision-leading nine consecutive 10-win seasons, including the 2005 national championship. In 2009, the Longhorns were 13-1, losing only the BCS title game to Alabama.
All of which made their fall to 5-7, 2-6 in the Big 12, stunning. That was as many conference games as Texas had lost in the previous five years combined.
The Longhorns rebounded slightly to 8-5, 4-5 last year. They are 7-2 this season, but a 63-21 loss to Red River rival Oklahoma has fans calling for Mack Brown’s job.
* Florida won its first national championship in 1996, part of a seven-season stretch with at least 10 wins, all under Steve Spurrier. That run ended in 1999 with a 9-4 finish, but the subsequent years have included three 13-win seasons and two more national titles – thank you, Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow.
The Gators bottomed out at 7-6 in 2011, their fourth year outside the final polls since 2002. At 8-1 this season under second-under coach Will Muschamp, they will extend their bowl streak to 23 consecutive appearances.
* Southern California and coach Pete Carroll captured two national titles, played for a third and never won fewer than 10 games from 2002-08. The past three years – 9-4, 8-5 and 10-2 – haven’t been horrible, either.
But it’s still unclear how much scholarship reductions, imposed by the NCAA over the Reggie Bush mess, will damage the Trojans and third-year coach Lane Kiffin.
Like the seven programs mentioned above, Virginia Tech has authored uncommon sustained success, though the Hokies lack one recruiting trump that sustained the others: national championships.
Tech’s streak of eight consecutive seasons with at least 10 victories, the nation’s longest active run, is over. And three other streaks are in serious jeopardy:
* Fourteen straight years with at least eight wins, also a national best. Tech (4-5) needs to stun Florida State on Thursday, defeat Boston College and Virginia, and win its bowl. An unlikely appearance in the ACC title game would give the Hokies some wiggle room.
* Nineteen consecutive bowl bids, third among current streaks behind Florida State and Florida. Tech must win twice more.
* Eight straight years among the final AP top 25, the nation’s longest active streak and well ahead of second-place Oregon’s five. Difficult to fathom that run continuing.
The linchpin of Tech’s success has been coach Frank Beamer, completing his 26th season at his alma mater.
Understandably, Beamer wasn’t much into big-picture navel-gazing Monday when asked about the Hokies’ dip. After all, he’s preparing for the season’s most difficult game Thursday.
“Just haven’t played well enough,” he said. “Played some good teams that played well against us, and we didn’t play well enough. That’s kind of the bottom line. … I think everybody in our operation here could have done something better. …
“Winning every Saturday, it’s hard. You play a lot of people that you’re not better than, or are just barely better than. The way that ball bounces on Saturday, it’s just a thin line. We got used to 10-win seasons, we’re proud of those. I’m proud of this football team. If you look at us play the other night (in the loss at Miami), it wasn’t lack of effort. Our kids played hard throughout the game. We just didn’t play well enough.
“I went over with our football team about eight things that happened during that game that were critical to the outcome. And in every one of them, really, it’s things that we can do better. That’s what it’s all about right now, it’s us doing better.”
Tech’s return to its standards hinges not only on the 66-year-old Beamer but also his successor.
As Florida State learned with Bowden and Texas is with Brown, timing an icon’s retirement is challenging. As Notre Dame learned with Gerry Faust and Charlie Weis, Nebraska with Bill Callahan, Miami with Randy Shannon, and Florida with Ron Zook, poor coaching hires are debilitating.
All of which makes the next few weeks, and years, at Virginia Tech intriguing, indeed.
I can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at email@example.com. Follow me at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP
Here’s a link to my Daily Press print columns.