Five Burning Questions: Virginia

Virginia head coach Mike London needs to get the Cavaliers back to a bowl game at the very least this year -- but can he?

The college football season is getting closer and closer, and with summer officially here and spring camps drawing nearer, we have a good enough idea of what every team will look like. It’s time to start looking ahead to the 2015 season in the ACC — this week, it’s Virginia. The Cavaliers went 5-7 a year ago and narrowly missed out on a bowl berth. Will 2015 be any different with a tough schedule yet again?

FIVE BURNING QUESTIONS

1. Will the quarterback carousel finally stop spinning this year? And will it matter?

With the announcement that Greyson Lambert, starter of nine of 12 games last year for Virginia, will transfer, that made it official that the Cavaliers would have their fourth different opening day starter at quarterback in four seasons. Lambert was passed on the depth chart in the spring by Matt Johns, who became the starter in Lambert’s absence (due to injury) last year and alternated time with Lambert even when both were healthy.

The wheel of quarterbacks has kept on spinning in Charlottesville for years now under head coach Mike London. There have been seven scholarship quarterbacks to leave Virginia since 2011, and often it has been because of playing time or a lack of stability. The saying is when you have two quarterbacks, you really have none.

Johns was named the starter in the spring — part of what led to Lambert’s transfer — and that left Virginia with not a lot of options at quarterback. But then former Texas and Arizona quarterback Connor Brewer announced he will transfer to Virginia and be eligible immediately. Will he unseat Johns, or will the rotation continue?

No quarterback has had security, seemingly, and is just a bad series or two away from getting pulled at any moment, which is never a great recipe. London and company are probably going to have to try to pick a quarterback and stick with him, but at least Virginia has some depth at that position now.

2. Can Virginia’s offense improve enough?

It hasn’t been all the quarterback’s fault that Virginia’s offense has floundered the past few seasons. Virginia had a lot of youth along the offensive line and limited weapons at the skill spots. But this year, it would seem that everything is coming together on that side of the ball for the Cavaliers. Virginia’s offensive line returns a lot of experience, and tailback Taquan Mizzell is an intriguing option in the backfield.

Virginia is going to have to be more diverse on offense, though, as it finished 100th in rushing in the country. It all starts up front, and that group should be good enough to generate a running game that can take pressure off whoever the quarterback will be. With the addition of North Carolina transfer T.J. Thorpe to go along with big-play threat Canaan Severin, there will be receivers that can help stretch the field. Offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild is going to have to come up with a plan that makes this offense more potent and better able to sustain drives.

3. Did the defense lose too much talent to replicate last year’s success?

Virginia’s defense sort of fell apart towards the end of last season due to a combination of an ineffective offense and some key injuries, but make no mistake about it — the Cavaliers had one of the better defenses in the nation last year, at least talent-wise. They return everyone except defensive end Eli Harold on the line, but they also lost lost three starting linebackers — playmakers, all — to the NFL draft or graduation. The group behind them played some last year, but there’s going to be a natural dropoff at that spot because it’s inevitable.

Virginia does return a lot of its talent in the secondary, but the loss of safety Anthony Harris to graduation will hurt at least a little bit. Still, its younger players often carried the team last year and they should only get better. As long as Virginia figures something out in the middle of that defense, the returning talent up front plus the returning secondary players with high upside should be enough. It will have to be if Virginia wants to contend against this schedule.

4. Can the Cavaliers win close games?

Virginia finished 5-7 last season, just short of a bowl bid, and its final loss was against a Virginia Tech team that was also playing for a bowl. Fittingly, that loss came in the final moments by a final of 24-20.

Five of Virginia’s seven losses came by eight points or fewer (as did two of its five wins, for what it’s worth). In theory, Virginia could have gone something like 9-3 or 8-4, looking somewhat reasonably at the numbers and how close these games were.

But losing close games has been a bit of a hallmark of the London era, unfortunately. There’s some bad luck involved, of course. But some of it was a result of bad or questionable decision-making late, or poor execution (or both).

Sometimes, winning games like that can become a psychological hurdle. It’s one that Virginia is likely going to have to clear next year, because the schedule is not going to be easy.

5. Is this schedule too much for the Cavaliers — and head coach Mike London’s hot seat — to overcome?

There’s a very real chance Virginia begins this season 1-3 with losses at UCLA and to Notre Dame and Boise State at home. Sure, the Cavaliers could win one of those home games, but that still puts them at 2-2. That means in order to make a bowl — an important and necessary sign of progress in Year 6 for London — the Hoos will have to go at least 4-4 in ACC play (or even 5-3, depending).

It’s not an insurmountable task. Unlike last year, every game in ACC play is both winnable and losable for Virginia. Florida State isn’t on the schedule, and the Atlantic Division crossover opponents are Syracuse (a likely win) and at Louisville (a team that Virginia actually beat at home last year when Louisville was much better).

But going back to Burning Question No. 4, a lot will depend on what Virginia can do in toss-up games. A lot of games the last few seasons have come down to the last few possessions, and Virginia hasn’t been able to finish. Wins against teams like Miami and Louisville last year just serve to further confound Virginia fans as they couldn’t get over the hump against teams like Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Duke when the games were in their grasp.

Still, there’s not exactly a friendly start to the season. At UCLA is brutal. If Virginia goes into ACC play at 1-3 and morale is low, that’s not a good recipe for winning close games. London is going to be under fire no matter what he does this season (unless he goes like 10-2 or something absurd), and it’s time for the Cavaliers to win enough games to get to a bowl. London’s job likely depends on it.