Team: Virginia Cavaliers
2012 W-L: 4-8 (2-6)
Head Coach: Mike London (16-21; fourth season)
Returning Starters: 13 (6 Offense, 7 Defense)
Virginia’s collected plenty of praise over the last few years for their torrid pace on the recruiting trail. Despite a minimal history of football success, Mike London has been able to attract top-tier talent to Charlottesville since he arrived, and that trend continues this offseason, with another likely top-40 class. But unfortunately, all of these recruiting wins have failed to produce actual wins for the most part. In three years, London has just one winning season (2011 at 8-5) and the current roster is based more on youth than actual proven talent. Should the team post its third losing season in four years, does that mean London’s shown the door, though?
Well, a large part of that can be answered (and prevented) by the offense. Returning four of five starters on the line, the Hoos would appear to be set, though they did lose the unit’s top player from last year in Oday Aboushi. Last season’s group also allowed 25 sacks last season, which isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of their viability going forward. And it gets worse, too. Following up on a 2011 season that saw UVa average 162 yards on the ground, last year’s team had just 128 — and with the same two backs functioning as primary rushers. Starter Perry Jones is gone, but Kevin Parks still remains and the team may actually benefit from having a primary ball-carrier. Of the two, Parks was more effective, though at 5’8″ and 200 pounds, he lacks the physical make-up to be mentioned in the same breath as some of the ACC’s truly elite backs. Still, he’ll be expected to carry the entire load, and given the state of the passing game, it may end up being the entire offense.
Both of last year’s quarterbacks — Phillip Sims and Michael Rocco — are gone from the program, leaving the team in the inexperienced hands of David Watford. The sophomore hasn’t thrown a pass since 2011, so right off the bat, there’s some doubt about how quickly he’ll be able to jump in and be effective. Luckily, the Hoos do bring back a nice stable of pass-catchers, who should all help ease the transition into the starting role. Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell both have the promise of true play-making ability, though we’ve yet to really see it from either. Blame it on the fluctuating quarterback position if you want, but at this point, both need to find a way to produce at a higher level. A combined 86 catches won’t cut it to get through this year, and expect Watford to test both early to see who his most reliable target is. He’ll also have rising talent Jake McGee at his disposal at tight end. Hardly just a safety valve, McGee has some big-play ability and could be the team’s top receiver by year’s end.
On the other side of the ball, Virginia will demand improvement to make up for the offense’s week-by-week development (likely). Last year’s group sacked the quarterback just 17 times (103rd in the country), and that’s simply not acceptable given the high caliber of quarterbacks they’ll face all season. Jake Snyder will lead the line from the end spot, but there’s not much else to help him out, as the depth is mostly rooted in youth and inexperience. If Virginia sees an injury on the line — especially to Snyder — it could make for a rough go of things. Linebacker is also in a state of transition, after the team loses its two top defenders from last season, Steve Greer and LaRoy Reynolds. With experience at a premium throughout the front seven, neither the linebackers or line can rely on the other to make up for inefficiencies, which is in stark contrast to previous years. It’s also a dangerous situation to be in, as (again) neither has much in terms of depth to help out. Of the nine linebackers on the roster, five of them are freshman or sophomores, and none of those five have any starting experience.
If there’s one place this unit might be able to lean on though, it’s the defensive backs. All four of last year’s starters are back from 2012, and the hope is that they’ve learned a bit from the start of last year too. Following a rough first half, they appeared to rebound over the final four to six games, but there’s still plenty more left to learn. As a group, UVa produced just four interceptions last season, and despite a lack of long plays against them, much of that was due to the short field opponents regularly dealt with. The DBs are still fairly young, but the hope is that a rough season bred a greater desire to improve. And they can’t just rely on Demetrious Nicholson either. If the secondary can’t focus as a group, it could very easily spell doom for the entire D.
The preview above looks like all bad news, but that’s hardly the case. The offense is much further along than the defense for Virginia, but given the major question mark at quarterback for the time being, it’s tough to fully buy-in to that either. There’s also the issue with the schedule, which could (and I predict will) paint a much more dire picture for this squad than is actually the case. Two very losable games against BYU and Oregon start the season, and then they run a gauntlet over the final five games, facing five of the conference’s top six programs in consecutive weeks. That doesn’t spell success from where I’m looking, and as a result, the Hoos are set to crash and burn when they can least afford to. To answer my earlier question, I’m not sure if London is shown the door after what could be a rather ugly campaign, but even if he isn’t, he’ll be on very thin ice in 2014, even with the way recruiting has gone.
Prediction: (2-10) (0-8); no postseason