BLACKSBURG — When it comes to describing to his players what to expect Saturday from the cacophonous scene when Virginia Tech plays No. 9 Tennessee at Bristol Motor Speedway in front of 155,000-plus fans, Justin Fuente has no clue what to say.
He shouldn’t feel bad. Nobody other than the folks at Bristol have a firm handle on how the track will pull off the largest fan spectacle in football history, but Fuente has bigger concerns.
Despite Tennessee’s struggles Thursday night in its 20-13 overtime win at home against Appalachian State, he still anticipates an enormous challenge against the Volunteers.
“I don’t know if you can control the awe (players will have of the scene) other than focus on the task at hand,” said Fuente, who opened his career at Tech on Saturday with a 36-13 home win against Liberty. “To me, that’s the main thing. It’s the same thing for both teams — us getting focused on understanding that it’s just a different stage. It’s still a game.
“That being said, obviously, it’s going to be pretty cool. There’s going to be a lot of people there. What exactly it’s going to look like, I’m not really sure, but I’m confident that we’ve got a group that wants to play well and will listen to how to play well in order to give ourselves a chance.”
With the speedway entering the final stages of preparation after its mad 2 1/2-week scramble to transform the venue from racetrack to football stadium, track executive vice president and general manager Jerry Caldwell said after some initial trepidation that he’d be willing to go through the whole process again at some point.
“Ask me Sunday morning,” Caldwell said Monday while in attendance at Tech’s football game-week news conference. “Joking. Yeah, we’d do it again. It’s been fun to see it all come together.”
Tech (1-0) will have at least one more critical piece available against Tennessee, which is led by fourth-year coach Butch Jones, that the Hokies didn’t have against Liberty.
Sophomore cornerback Adonis Alexander, who started eight games last season, was listed Monday as a starter at cornerback. He served a one-game, team-mandated suspension against Liberty as a result of a misdemeanor marijuana possession conviction this summer.
Though Alexander was No. 1 at a cornerback spot over Greg Stroman, Fuente said he hasn’t named starters yet for the Tennessee game. Alexander also was listed as Brandon Facyson’s backup at the other cornerback spot.
Stroman had two interceptions against Liberty, which led 13-10 late in the second quarter but didn’t score in the second half. Quarterback Jerod Evans completed 20 of 32 passes for 221 yards and four touchdowns in his first Tech start, while wide receiver Isaiah Ford had 11 catches for 117 yards and a touchdown.
“I think it was nice being able to come out here against Liberty and get our feet wet and just understand what we need to work on — a great starting point,” said running back Sam Rogers, who had 23 of Tech’s 206 rushing yards — split among 10 ball-carriers — against Liberty.
“We can’t make some of the same mistakes that we did this past weekend against Tennessee. They’re going to take advantage of it, so prepare the same way, but know the stakes are a little higher.”
Tennessee (1-0) slipped past Appalachian State by the skin of its teeth on the strength of an overtime fumble recovery in the end zone for a touchdown by running back Jalen Hurd after quarterback Joshua Dobbs lost the ball near the goal line.
While Tennessee could only muster 319 yards, including just 127 rushing, against Appalachian State, the Volunteers’ defense was just as tough as advertised. Appalachian State gained 292 yards and converted just three of 13 third-down opportunities.
“I’m sure it wasn’t the performance that Tennessee wanted to have offensively,” Fuente said. “I’m sure they’ll get those things corrected and be ready to go on Saturday, so it’s up to us to worry about ourselves and make sure we’re ready to play.”
If Tennessee is still ranked Tuesday in the top 10 when the latest Associated Press poll results are released, Tech will face the kind of opponent that traditionally gave it fits under former coach Frank Beamer. Tech was 8-33 against top-10 opponents in Beamer’s 29 seasons as coach.
Fuente only has been a head coach once in a game against a top-10 opponent, losing 24-3 in September 2014 at then-No. 10 Mississippi when he was in the third of his four seasons as Memphis’ coach. He’s 1-4 all-time against top-25 opponents, with his lone victory coming last October when he led Memphis to a 37-24 home win against then-No. 13 Mississippi.
Despite its win against Liberty, Tech wasn’t as impressive as Fuente would’ve hoped in the opener. He wasn’t pleased with four lost fumbles, including two by Evans and two of which led to Liberty touchdowns, and he wanted more efficiency.
“We made a few plays in tight quarters,” Fuente said. “The way they played us forced us to push the ball down the field. I’d like for us to be more efficient on those things, probably could’ve done it more, but there came a point in time there where you’re just trying to get the game over with. So we did some good things in there.
“We got the ball to the perimeter a couple times, not nearly as efficient as I’d like us to. A couple times, we hit the ball up inside, but just in general, I like the kids, I like the way they work and the way they practice.”
Wood can be reached by phone at 757-247-4642.