Preseason countdown: No. 29 Virginia

The Cavaliers are clearly trending north under head coach Mike London, but can they avoid a noticeable dip in 2012?

Virginia is coming off its best effort in four seasons, and has recruited the fertile Commonwealth extremely well over the last two years. However, the program must replace a slew of key starters from last season’s 8-5 squad, including two all-star offensive linemen, three veteran defensive linemen and three quality defensive backs. If the Cavaliers’ unmistakable ascent is going to continue showing up in the standings, a handful of underclassmen, even freshmen, will have to play above their experience level.

The Cavs are particularly hopeful that the quarterbacks are ready to take the next step forward this fall. A sore spot last year, the program now has substantially more potential at the position. Michael Rocco and David Watford have a full season of experience behind them.

Greyson Lambert graduated early from high school to participate in spring drills. And former Alabama mega-recruit Phillip Sims is awaiting word on whether he’ll be eligible in 2012 or 2013.

The offense ought to be more potent, especially with the return of leading rushers Perry Jones and Kevin Parks, and next-level tackles Oday Aboushi and Morgan Moses, but the defense is a genuine concern.

Virginia has not only lost more than half of last year’s defensive starters to graduation, but the pass D is going to be particularly vulnerable. Three new starters must be broken in up front and in the secondary as many of those heralded recruits from the past three years begin to get their first really good opportunities to make a statement. The unit is going to be very talented, but also very young, especially in the early stages of the 2012 campaign.

London and his cohorts have proven that they’re capable of attracting talent to Charlottesville. Now, they’ll need to show that they can develop those young players and transform them into every-down ACC contributors. The staff, which has done such a nice job of rebuilding so far, must prove that it can reload with equal competency and velocity.

What to look for on offense: An expanded playbook for Rocco. The staff brought the then-sophomore along slowly in 2011, but now feels that he’s ready to expand his horizons as the leader of the Cavaliers offense. His retention of the attack and his overall development have been noticed by a set of coaches that feels Rocco’s poised for a breakthrough junior campaign. Rocco will also need to assume more of a leadership role in the huddle.

What to look for on defense: A Hill of a finale. While DT Will Hill has yet to fulfill expectations through his first three seasons, all signs point to him delivering before his time runs out. One of the Cavaliers’ four team captains has always possessed the raw skills to be a factor on the inside, but just hasn’t been able to put it all together for one reason or another. However, Hill’s coming off a solid offseason — on and off the field — and has been asked to become one of the catalysts for a front wall replacing three starters. Hill is positioned to go from anonymous to all-star in his final year of eligibility.

This team will be much better if: It finds the end zone with greater regularity. The Cavaliers had few problems moving the ball in 2011, ranking fourth in the ACC with 5,000-plus yards. However, Virginia ranked ninth in the league — and 86th nationally — in scoring, hanging up more than 24 points just three times in the final 10 games. The 2012 Cavs need to do more than just move the chains; if they want to reach higher this fall, more of those drives need to produce six instead of just three points.

The schedule: The Cavaliers get a killer group of road games with dates at Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, but Miami and North Carolina have to come to Charlottesville and the road game against Duke isn’t bad. The biggest break comes in interdivisional play, missing Clemson and Florida State and getting Maryland and Wake Forest at home in nice back-to-back games before getting a week off to prepare for NC State. The non-conference slate isn’t a breeze with a tough FCS team to start with in Richmond before hosting Penn State. Going to TCU to face the defending Mountain West champ and new Big 12 member is brutal, and dealing with defending Western Athletic champion Louisiana Tech won’t be a breeze.

Best offensive player: Senior RB Jones. Jones is Virginia’s top running back, and some might argue its best pass-catcher as well. The do-it-all 5-foot-8, 195-pounder not only rushed for 915 yards and five scores on 184 carries, but also finished second on the team with 48 catches for 506 yards and three TDs. For good measure, he even threw touchdown pass. Jones is rugged and versatile, the physical and emotional heart of the Cavaliers offense.

Best defensive player: Senior LB Steve Greer. The man in the middle for the Cavs has been a fixture on defense in Charlottesville over the last three seasons. He’s a prototypical run stopper, quickly reading the flow of a play, and sifting through the traffic to find the man with the ball. He found the man with the ball an awful lot in 2011, making a team-best 103 stops, six tackles for loss and two sacks. Greer could teach a course to the rest of the Cavs on how to wrap up in space and prevent additional yards.

Key player to a successful season: Junior QB Rocco. Virginia doesn’t necessarily need Rocco to be the second-coming of Matt Schaub just yet, but it does need him to be more productive in his encore as the starter. Rocco was predictably erratic a year ago, throwing just one more touchdown (13) than interceptions (12). However, with a full season of experience behind him, the program expects to see an increase in his number of money plays and a sharp decrease in his mental errors.

The season will be a success if: The Cavaliers win seven regular-season games. The actual win total really isn’t as essential as it is for Virginia returning to the postseason. Considering all of the personnel losses, especially on defense, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for this young program to veer south in 2012. If, however, the Cavs buck conventional wisdom, it’ll be another sign that they’re here to stay.

Key game: Nov. 24 at Virginia Tech. Eight. That’s the number of games the Cavaliers have lost in a row to their in-state rival. One of London’s chief goals at Virginia is to narrow the vast divide with the Hokies, one of the ACC’s premier programs. An upset in Blacksburg is always a tall order. However, it’s important for the evolution of the Cavs that they hang with the home team for all four quarters, even bloodying its lip from time to time. More than a game will be at stake when these two meet. Many of the state’s blue-chip recruits will be paying very close attention as well.