ACC Countdown: No. 14 Virginia
Does Virginia have the worst talent level in the ACC? Not at all.
However, the reason the Cavaliers are here at the bottom of our 2014 countdown is because they’ve had talent above their on-field results before under head coach Mike London, who came in with a bang in 2011 with a stellar recruiting class. He’s continued that trend, including signing a very good class this year. But in the last two seasons, with said recruiting classes, Virginia has won a total of six games (four against FBS competition).
It’s not like they’ve been all that unlucky, per se — their eight ACC losses last year were by an average of 18 points a game, and just one of those losses was by less than 10 points (a one-point loss to Maryland). Their six losses in 2012 in league play were by an average of 16.8 points.
Almost everyone, actually — 16 of 22 starters, plus the punter and kicker. (Although when you went 2-10 a year ago, that’s not always a great thing.)
Most of Virginia’s backfield returns, too, which is certainly not a bad thing. That’s probably Virginia’s strongest area as senior running back Kevin Parks (who started all 13 games) is back and a good pass-catcher to boot. He’s joined by the team’s second-leading rusher Khalek Shepherd, not to mention sophomore tailback Taquan Mizzell.
Virginia also returns nine of 11 starters on defense, including 12 of its top 14 tacklers from a year ago (and its top four players in sacks). Brent Urban and Jake Snyder will be hard to replace on the defensive line, but Eli Harold showed flashes at defensive end and the Cavaliers have been able to develop some depth there. They have plenty of experience in the secondary with all four starters coming back.
Defenses can always improve, and in Year 2 under coordinator Jon Tenuta, this one is set to make a leap. And it will have to, considering that the offense will probably struggle.
Two of the Cavaliers’ better offensive linemen on a terrible offensive line (center Luke Bowanko and tackle Morgan Moses). Tight end Jake McGee led the Cavaliers in receiving a year ago, then unexpectedly departed the program in the spring. Another wide receiver, E.J. Scott, left the team as well to spend his final year of eligibility as a graduate student at Wake Forest (he caught just three passes last year). Another wideout, Tim Smith, graduated.
Between McGee and Smith alone, that’s over 31 percent of Virginia’s completed pass-catchers gone.
That means sophomore wide receiver (and a returning starter) Keeon Johnson is going to have to step up, along with any of the three seniors listed as the starting "Z" receivers. Johnson has a high ceiling, should the Cavaliers settle on a quarterback that can get him (or anyone) the football.
Will the seemingly never-ending quarterback carousel finally end this year? London did not want to name a starter immediately following spring practice, but he did not long after — sophomore Greyson Lambert, who played in seven games last year and completed just 44 percent of his passes.
Junior David Watford, who is the returning starter, is listed as the backup, but there’s an "OR" between he and Matt Johns, a sophomore. Watford threw eight touchdowns to 15 interceptions a year ago, including completing just 53-of-113 passes in Virginia’s final four games for one touchdown and six interceptions.
The Watford/Lambert episode is just the latest in "As the QB Carousel Turns" — Phillip Sims and Michael Rocco fought it out for a job that neither could really win, a position battle that ended with both transferring in 2012. There will likely be at least one talented freshman who pushes Lambert for time, but the fact remains that any semblance of stability (not to mention steady play from the QB himself) at the position can’t be a bad thing. If Lambert is the starter and remains that throughout the year, it can’t make things any worse, certainly.
They get through the first half of their schedule 3-3 — and beat Virginia Tech to snap a 10-game losing streak to the Hokies.
This schedule is just way too challenging, probably, for there to be more than four wins. The back half of Virginia’s schedule comes against ACC teams, including four road games, two at last year’s two division winners (Florida State, Duke). There just doesn’t seem to be more than one win, maybe, on that back end.
But if Virginia shows signs of progress and manages to knock off their rival while they’re at it, then it will at least appease the fans who have to understand how tough this schedule is.
Pittsburgh, Oct. 4: This is the final game of Virginia’s front half of its schedule, which is not forgiving — UCLA at home, FCS Richmond at home and Louisville at home before going to BYU and then hosting Kent State. Then Pittsburgh travels to Charlottesville before Virginia gets an open date and the brutal back end of the schedule begins — at Duke, UNC at home, at Georgia Tech, at Florida State, Miami at home and at Virginia Tech. Ugh.
That Pittsburgh game is a must-win if you’re Virginia.
And obviously, London can’t afford to take a loss to either Kent State or Richmond, his former school. Virginia hasn’t lost to an FCS opponent since 2009. But a win over Pitt, plus those two wins, and Virginia will have already passed last season’s win total. It’s not much … but it’s something. And Virginia’s 14-3 loss to Pittsburgh was its best defensive performance in ACC play (scoring-wise), not to mention one of its closer ACC losses.
It looks like a repeat of last year for the Cavaliers. Well, except for the one win over an ACC team, which would be one more than they had in 2013. Which team they’ll get that win over is anyone’s guess, but Pitt at home seems reasonable (North Carolina or Miami are other options … because it would be the most Coastal Division thing ever if Miami were set up to finally win the division and then a late loss to a bad Virginia team derailed its hopes.)
Either way, they’ll likely sneak one out somewhere. The rest of the league has gone down somewhat in quality. The only question remaining for the ‘Hoos is whether or not London is still the head coach at the end of the year. Should this be the final record, the answer will be a resounding "No."