Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente, Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell know AAC teams are more than capable of beating Power Five peers

December 4, 2018

One of the earliest experiences Luke Fickell had with Virginia Tech’s football program came in 2000, when he had just become a full-time assistant coach at Akron. The Zips staff visited Blacksburg during spring practice to study the schemes and coaching methods of Hokies’ defensive coordinator Bud Foster and his staff.

Now, 18 years later, Fickell will coach Cincinnati (10-2) in the Military Bowl against Tech (6-6). And Foster is still running the Hokies’ defense, now in his 23rd season in that job.

“The first place we went when I got hired there was down to Virginia Tech. I remember Coach (Frank) Beamer and just studying the program,” Fickell said Monday, taking a break from a recruiting trip to speak to reporters on a Military Bowl teleconference. “There are still some of those guys who are around defensively. … I just know how important football is to that entire community, that school. What it’s done for them. And I know the kind of players they have.”

Fickell later became the co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State, his alma mater, and matched up twice with Virginia Tech, falling to the Hokies in 2014 in Columbus, then beating them the next year in Blacksburg.

The Columbus native, who went 6-7 as the Buckeyes interim coach in 2011, took over at Cincinnati before last season. He’s 20-17 with the Bearcats, winning six more games this year than he did in his debut season.

Fickell’s opposite in this game, Virginia Tech’s third-year coach Justin Fuente, goes into the contest with a healthy amount of respect for the conference Cincinnati plays in. Fuente coached in the American Athletic Conference during his four seasons at Memphis.

“I know full well the tradition at Cincinnati, the level of talent they have year in and year out,” Fuente said, joining the call from New York City where he was on hand for Beamer’s induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Fuente went 2-1 against Cincinnati while serving as the Memphis coach from 2012-2015.

“The teams in the non-Power 5 (leagues) have proven they can win games against Power 5 teams,” Fuente said. “I’ve been on that sideline. We’ve done it. It happens every single year across the country.”

Fuente went 2-5 in the regular season against Power 5 opponents while with the Tigers, beating Kansas and Mississippi in 2015.

He said that non-Power 5 teams certainly face a challenge when it comes to financial resources when compared to their Power 5 competition. But he said they also have an advantage when it comes to recruiting.

Fuente said he found there to be a slower, more measured pace to recruiting at Memphis, a process he said was clouded with less outside noise, allowing coaches to make more thorough evaluations of the prospects they signed.

“There’s just less B.S. involved, honestly,” Fuente said. “There’s less people writing about it. Less people taking about it. Less people weighing on who people should or shouldn’t take. You get a chance to really go slow and not care about what other people think of your recruiting class.”

For his part, Fickell – a 45-year-old former nose tackle – bristles at the use of the term “Power-5.”

“Power what?” Fickell responded to a question Monday. “I don’t know what that is. See, here we don’t use that term. We look at us all as the same. … We’re no different.”

Fickell said he doesn’t let his staff refer to opponents – for games or in recruiting – as Power 5 schools.

“It’s the ability to play – I don’t care what conference they’re in – Virginia Tech and the history they’ve had,” said Fickell, who is 1-1 against Power 5 opponents in his two seasons with the Bearcats.

NOTE: The Military Bowl set a single day record for ticket sales Sunday after announcing the Virginia Tech-Cincinnati pairing in this year’s game. … Fuente said he does not expect Tech quarterback Josh Jackson, who suffered a broken leg in the team’s third game of the season, the upset loss to Old Dominion, to see action in the bowl.

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