What could have been a season-saving upset turned into a setback for a program that had been on the rise. Paul Johnson won 20 of his first 26 games at Tech, was ACC Coach of the Year each of his first two seasons and led the Jackets to the Orange Bowl, their first major bowl game since the 1966 season.
But dating back to the Clemson loss before that loss to Virginia Tech, the Yellow Jackets have been mired in mediocrity. Beginning with that Clemson loss, their record is 16-17 overall and only 5-14 against teams that finished the season with winning records.
So the 2013 season, it's fair to say, could be a pivotal one for Johnson, just as 2011 was for Mark Richt at Georgia and 2012 was for Gene Chizik at Auburn. Another mediocre season could prompt a change at Tech, especially given that the athletic director who hired Johnson, Dan Radakovich, is now at Clemson.
The opener Saturday at home against Elon will be nothing more than a dress rehearsal. Game 2 against Duke two weeks later might not be heavy lifting either. So it might not be until late September, when the Jackets are tested by North Carolina and Virginia Tech -- just five days apart -- before we really know what kind of season this will be. That will be followed by a game at Miami, the preseason favorite to edge Georgia Tech in the ACC Coastal Division.
A sweep of those games -- assuming they don't stumble against Duke -- would make the Yellow Jackets 5-0 and propel them into the top 15, maybe even the top 10.
My guess is they will do just that, and here's why:
Improved defense: They surrendered more than 40 points six times last season. That's a staggering figure. Ted Roof, who replaced Al Groh as defensive coordinator, is a competent coach. Yes, his resume is spotty. Roof's defenses at Auburn were never better than average. But his game plan against Oregon in the national championship game was effective.
"Improvement" is all relative. The Jackets don't have to be Alabama on defense. They just need to do enough to put the offense in position to win games. Under Johnson, they are 33-12 when they hold their opponents under 30.
Quarterback Vad Lee: As a freshman, Lee pushed senior Tevin Washington for the starting job. Lee was clearly the better player. In fact, he's arguably the best quarterback Johnson has had at Tech. Nesbitt was a winner and a great leader. He was not a naturally gifted runner. Washington was athletic but wasn't the best decision-maker. Lee is an explosive playmaker.
Veteran offensive line: Assuming center Jay Finch's injury isn't serious, this is a unit that will create openings for the running game. Opposing coaches say they chop block. But the officials don't seem to agree. So until they do, Tech's line will continue to the unit defensive lines hate to face.
At worst, I think the Yellow Jackets will have no more than one loss going into their final conference game of the season at Clemson. If that's the case, even if they lose to Clemson and Georgia, neither of which is a given, that would be a 9-3 regular season and possibly a return to the ACC championship game.
This could be 2009 all over again -- but with a better ending.
-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org