Virginia Tech has a head coach in his first year with the program and a defensive coordinator who’s been with the Hokies for nearly three decades. Clemson’s coaching staff is very familiar with both.
Head coach Justin Fuente, who has Virginia Tech 9-3 entering Saturday’s ACC Championship game, was previously the coach at Memphis from 2012-15. Before that, he was the offensive coordinator at TCU, which is when he first crossed paths with Tigers coach Dabo Swinney.
Fuente and TCU topped the Tigers 14-10 in Death Valley in 2009. Two years later, when Swinney was looking for an offensive coordinator, he interviewed Fuente as one of two finalists for the position.
“I really had kind of done my homework and research. … I just had a lot of respect for the job he had done and watched him closely,” Swinney said this week. “I thought he had done a great job with the development of their quarterback. I believe it was Andy Dalton.”
Swinney and Clemson opted to hire Chad Morris instead, but there was no ill-will between Swinney and Fuente.
Instead, the interview process was the start of a friendship.
“My wife and I came down. … We spent the night down there, and really enjoyed Coach Swinney and his wife’s company,” Fuente said of the interview process. “I was very impressed with him and just his personality. Obviously I didn’t really know him, but really enjoyed the conversation. Through the years, we’ve continued to stay in touch, whether via text message or the occasional phone call, and I’ve enjoyed our relationship ever since.”
Then there’s Foster, who has been with the Hokies since 1987.
Virginia Tech has experienced mixed success against Clemson under Foster. He was promoted to defensive coordinator in 1995 and helped the Hokies win five in a row in the series from 1998-2007.
But Clemson has won the past three games in the series, winning during the regular season and ACC championship in 2011 and earning another victory in 2012.
Swinney is 3-0 all-time as a coach against Virginia Tech, with each win coming by at least 20 points. Still, he expects the Tigers to have their hands full against Foster’s defensive unit.
“He’s forgotten more football than I’ll probably ever know,” Swinney said. “I don’t ever look forward to going against Bud Foster. … They’re going to play hard, with great effort. They’re going to play physical and tough. They’re going to tackle well, and they’re going to play with a relentless mindset, and that’s their DNA. You think about Bud Foster’s defense, that’s who they are.”
Tigers co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said he has a tremendous amount of respect for Foster as well. Virginia Tech’s defense is ranked in the top 20 in scoring defense and total defense, allowing 21.1 points and 332.2 yards per game.
“Bud Foster’s been one of the best defensive coordinators in college football for a long time,” he said. “They’re very athletic up front, very multiple in what they do. A lot of movement, a lot of different coverages trying to give a lot of different pictures to your quarterback. The other thing that you notice is this the fewest big plays of any team we’ve played all year.”
With Swinney’s familiarity with Fuente and Foster, he isn’t surprised to see the Hokies in the ACC title game in Fuente’s first year.
“For them to be back in the championship game, I think, is just an incredible accomplishment, and I knew when they hired him that it wouldn’t take long for him to get them back to this point,” Swinney said.
Who: No. 3 Clemson (11-1; No. 3 CFP) vs. No. 19 Virginia Tech (9-3; No. 23 CFP)
When: Saturday, 8 p.m.
Where: Camping World Stadium, Orlando
Radio: 93.1 FM
Line: Clemson by 10 1/2
Series Record: Clemson leads 20-12-1
The Buzz: Clemson is looking to win back-to-back ACC titles for the first time in 28 years (1987-88). A win should clinch a spot in the College Football Playoff semifinals for the Tigers. Virginia Tech is making its first appearance in the conference title game since 2011.