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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 48: Virginia

Here’s one thing to love about Mike London: he’s not intimidated by expectations. When told that most expected Virginia to finish last in the Coastal division heading into 2010, London replied, “We’ve got ‘em right where we want ‘em.” Throughout last season, as the Cavaliers added narrow upon narrow win to reach bowl play, London never seemed surprised by his team’s success; it was merely part of the “process,” which is one of his favorite words. This process continues in 2012, with a slight change. Instead of sneaking up on the A.C.C., Virginia will be expected to battle Virginia Tech for not only in-state supremacy but also a spot in the conference title game. The Al Groh-era teams, based on history, would have failed to reach these lofty expectations. Even if it’s too early to anoint Virginia as the league’s next in line, we can say one thing with certainty about these Cavaliers: they won’t shy away from the challenge.

Conference
Atlantic Coast, Coastal

Location
Charlottesville, Va.

Nickname
Cavaliers

Returning starters
12 (7 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 78

2011 record
(8-5, 5-3)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 38

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    Richmond
  • Sept. 8
    Penn St.
  • Sept. 15
    at Georgia Tech
  • Sept. 22
    at T.C.U.
  • Sept. 29
    Louisiana Tech
  • Oct. 6
    at Duke
  • Oct. 13
    Maryland
  • Oct. 20
    Wake Forest
  • Nov. 3
    at N.C. St.
  • Nov. 10
    Miami (Fla.)
  • Nov. 15
    U.N.C.
  • Nov. 24
    at Virginia Tech

Last year’s prediction

The arrow is pointed up, though not at a 90-degree angle. Virginia isn’t just going to skyrocket to the top of the A.C.C.: the ascent will be laborious, often painful, but fans can take some solace in the fact that a good slice of the dirty work has already been done. But keep the expectations in perspective. So what’s the overall state of Virginia football in 2011? A bright future awaits, though how far Virginia goes – and I’m unsure if the Cavaliers can ever catch up with Hokies – depends on London and his continued success in recruiting. As for this season, I feel safe projecting the Cavaliers to win five games, with anything above that a pleasant surprise.

2011 recap

In a nutshell Here’s why Virginia’s season wasn’t a fluke: the Cavaliers controlled the line of scrimmage. The offensive line opened up holes in the running game — more than 2,000 yards on the ground, fourth-most in the A.C.C. — and did a great job protecting the quarterback. While the defense was short a breakout pass rusher, the Cavaliers ranked in the top 30 nationally in tackles for loss. No fluke: Virginia controlled the line of scrimmage, which in turn allowed the Cavaliers to hang around in nearly every game during A.C.C. play but one, a 38-0 loss to Virginia Tech in the regular season finale. The program will take the next step when it adds some explosiveness to this strong play in the trenches.

High point A 14-13 win over Florida State in November. It was only Virginia’s third win overall against the Seminoles, against 14 losses, and its first victory in Tallahassee.

Low point Another loss to Virginia Tech, the Cavaliers’ eighth straight and 12th in 13 tries. The Hokies have been particularly unkind to London, beating Virginia by a combined score of 75-7 over the last two years. The Cavaliers lost two straight to end the year, with the Commonwealth Cup defeat joining a 43-24 loss to Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Tidbit On Nov. 20, one day after the win over the Seminoles, Virginia moved into The A.P. Top 25 – at No. 24, to be precise – for the first time since Dec. 2, 2007. If you count each summer’s preseason poll and the end-of-year poll, the Cavaliers had gone 62 weeks – or 62 games, in another view – between national rankings. The Nov. 20 poll was the 29th of London’s tenure with the program; no previous head coach had reached a national ranking quicker.

Tidbit (recruiting edition) In 2010, weeks after London was hired as Groh’s replacement, Virginia signed only one recruit ranked among the top 30 in Virginia by Rivals.com. Virginia Tech signed 10 of the top 30. In 2011, London and U.Va. signed 14 of the top 30; Tech signed seven. U.Va. inked eight of the top 30 this past February, including two of the top four, while Tech landed 15. It’s obvious that this program has reclaimed its appeal inside the state’s borders. What’s even better – even if the rivals don’t like to share – is how U.Va. and Tech have combined to keep most teams, outside of the elite, from raiding the state’s stockpile of talent.

Tidbit (first quarter edition) Virginia allowed only 24 first quarter points all season, tying it with U.S.C. for the lowest total in the country. The Cavaliers held nine opponents scoreless through 15 minutes: William & Mary, Indiana, U.N.C., Idaho, N.C. State, Miami (Fla.), Florida State, Duke and Georgia Tech. U.Va. would go 1-0 when it allowed only a field goal, against Maryland, but 0-3 when allowing a touchdown in the opening frame – losing to Southern Mississippi, Virginia Tech and Auburn.

Tidbit (narrow margin edition) The Cavaliers had seven games decided by single digits last fall, a program-high since playing nine such games in 2007. Virginia went 3-7 in games decided by nine points or less from 2008-10: 2-2 in 2008, 0-2 in 2009 and 1-3 in London’s first season. There were very obvious similarities between last year’s team and Virginia’s 2007 squad, from the nail-biting margin of victory – and defeat, at times – to the fact that both teams relied heavily on a strong defense and were only successful offensively when running the ball with consistency.

Tidbit (status quo edition) U.Va. has made no coaching changes since London was hired heading into the 2010 season. Barring any late moves, the program is one of two in the A.C.C. to have the same staff in 2010, 2011 and 2012, joining Florida State – Georgia Tech made no changes between 2010 and 2011, but Paul Johnson hired a new special teams coach in February. London will shuffle some his assistants’ responsibilities, however. Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor will take on wide receiver duties in addition to his work with Virginia’s quarterbacks. Shawn Moore will go from working with the tight ends to tutoring the Cavaliers’ receivers. Virginia will call on its two graduate assistants to help out: Mike Saint German will work with the tight ends and Marques Hagans, a former U.Va. quarterback, with chip in with the wide receivers.

Former players in the N.F.L.

24 LS Danny Aiken (New England), OT Branden Albert (Kansas City), CB Ronde Barber (Tampa Bay), OT Will Barker (Miami), LB Ahmad Brooks (San Francisco), DT Chris Canty (New York Giants), DT Nate Collins (Chicago), DT Matt Conrath (St. Louis), CB Chris Cook (Minnesota), CB Ras-I Dowling (New England), OT D’Brickashaw Ferguson (New York Jets), FB Rashawn Jackson (Oakland), DE Chris Long (St. Louis), S Rodney McLeod (St. Louis), TE Heath Miller (Pittsburgh), OT Eugene Monroe (Jacksonville), WR Kevin Ogletree (Dallas), OG Austin Pasztor (Minnesota), RB Cedric Peerman (Cincinnati), TE John Phillips (Dallas), QB Matt Schaub (Houston), LB Clint Sintim (New York Giants), RB Jason Snelling (Atlanta).

Arbitrary top five list

Players taken in the third round of the draft, 2000-4
1. LB Lance Briggs (Chicago, 2003).
2. TE Jason Witten (Dallas, 2003).
3. WR Steve Smith (Carolina, 2001).
4. QB Matt Schaub (Atlanta, 2004).
5. C Nick Hardwick (San Diego, 2004).

Coaching

Mike London (Richmond ’83), 12-13 two seasons. After making some steady progress off the field in his debut campaign with the program, London led Virginia to some on-field success last fall. London brought to his first F.B.S. head coach position a familiarity with the program, extensive ties to the fertile recruiting grounds of the state, a history – albeit a small sample – of winning on the college level and a strong personality that has most definitely played well at a school like Virginia, one determined to retain its academic principles yet hungering for athletic success on the gridiron. London returned to Virginia after two extremely successful season at Richmond, his alma mater. He compiled a two-year mark of 24-5 with the Spiders, winning the F.C.S. national championship in 2008 and advancing to the F.C.S. quarterfinals in 2009. Yes, he inherited an enviable position at Richmond, a program already rebuilt by current Bowling Green head coach Dave Clawson, but credit London for taking a talented roster and leading it to even greater heights. London previously spent six seasons as an assistant under Al Groh at Virginia (2001-4, 2006-7), with a one-year respite in 2005 as the defensive line coach for the Houston Texans. London served in that same capacity at Virginia from 2001-4, adding the title of recruiting coordinator from 2002-4. London returned to Charlottesville in 2006 as the team’s defensive coordinator, a position he held for two seasons before being hired by Richmond. He’s been a big hit thus far: London has breathed life into a downtrodden, beaten-down program, increasing Virginia’s success not only on the field but also on the recruiting trail. Does London have what it takes to lead Virginia up to and past the rival Hokies? That’s the program’s next quest, one that goes hand-in-hand with taking home an A.C.C. title – because you can’t take home the latter without claiming the Commonwealth Cup.

Players to watch

There’s a widely held and misguided belief that former Alabama transfer Phillip Sims, a sophomore who was recently granted immediate eligibility by the N.C.A.A., is going to step onto the practice field in August and immediately claim the starting role. Not so fast. There are two significant impediments in Sims’ path: the first is overall experience, as Sims has made only 28 career attempts – 22 came against Kent State and North Texas – and the second is experience in Virginia’s system. Few quarterbacks, even those who signed with Alabama out of high school, can step on campus and gain an adequate understanding of an offense over the span of three or four weeks – even if Sims has been chewing on Virginia’s playbook for several months.

Some call Michael Rocco average, just-good-enough, a manager, a caretaker; I call him the program’s best passer in at least a half-decade. His progression over the second half of last season was obvious: Rocco went from error-prone and tentative in September to poised and confident in November, playing pitch-perfect football in the win over F.S.U. and displaying enough potential to be the team’s unquestioned future under center in each of the next two years – until Sims showed up, that is.

It’s a battle of perception, in a way. Rocco is a known commodity: Virginia knows that he’s still growing, that he’s not overly gifted physically, that he needs to be balanced out with a strong running game, that he lacks the mobility to give the offense another dimension. His competition, on the other hand, is all promise: Sims didn’t achieve much at Alabama, but he has the sort of physical ability that stands out when compared to Rocco’s somewhat limited skill set. So what is Virginia to do?

Here’s the plan: U.Va. should plan on Rocco being the starter; say he’s the leader the day prior to the start of fall camp; call Sims the backup – for now. See how Sims responds in August. If he shows the flash that made him the early favorite to replace Greg McElroy heading into last summer, then – and only then – should London and Lazor move him up the depth chart. Don’t hand Sims anything. Make him earn it.

As at Penn State, as touched on earlier this week, Virginia was fortunate to suffer no major injuries along the offensive line in 2011: the same five started all 13 games. After injuries hampered the Cavaliers in 2010, that this line remained injury-free helped it go from a potential liability into an unquestioned strength. As was the case last fall, U.Va. will land outstanding tackle play from senior left tackle Oday Aboushi and junior right tackle Morgan Moses – the A.C.C.’s best bookend pairing. This is now expected: Virginia continues to churn out top-notch offensive tackles.

The issue is interior play. Junior Luke Bowanko, no longer an unknown after breaking into the lineup last fall, returns at right guard. But U.Va. will struggle matching what Austin Pasztor and Anthony Mihota brought to the table at left guard and center, respectively. Pasztor, a first-team all-A.C.C. pick last fall, will be replaced by junior Sean Cascarano, who spent last season behind Moses at right tackle. Cascarano has been pegged as the starter since March; he remains atop the depth chart despite missing spring ball due to injury. Senior Matt Mibalik steps in for Mihota, with redshirt freshman Ross Burbank another option. Tackle play will be outstanding; interior play, on the other hand, is a concern.

And Virginia’s guards and center are vital cogs in the running game – and the Cavaliers’ production on the ground dictates the ebb and flow of the entire offense. If U.Va. gets similar line play to a year ago, it has the backs to chew up clock and wear down opposing defenses. New year, same cast: senior Perry Jones (915 yards) and sophomores Kevin Parks (709 yards, 9 touchdowns) and Clifton Richardson (366 yards, 5.1 yards per carry). First comes Perry, the veteran and one of the A.C.C.’s very best; he led the Cavaliers in rushing last fall after finishing second in 2010. Then comes Parks, a back with a bright, bright future. Then comes Richardson, the bruiser, and he compliments the top pair wonderfully. Remember when the Cavaliers’ backfield didn’t have a pulse? I do. Now the program has the A.C.C.’s best backfield.

As noted earlier, Virginia won games last fall by controlling the line of scrimmage. On the offensive side of the ball, that the Cavaliers are rebuilding at left guard and center raises some red flags about the sturdiness of the power running game. It’s a similar tale on defense: Virginia lost three starters off of a very underrated front four, albeit one that collapsed a bit over the year’s last three games. When U.Va. is at its best, it is moving linemen on offense and filling gaps – and pushing into the backfield – on defense. Control the point of attack; win games.

We’re really going to see London’s efforts on the recruiting trail pay dividends in 2012. A good portion of the line’s two-deep, especially inside, were recruited to play in the 4-3 system; while a few 3-4 holdover are pegged in starting roles, these linemen are now entering their third seasons in London’s defense. That’s a good thing.

While U.Va. returns only one starter, junior end Jake Snyder (36 tackles), senior Will Hill (36 tackles, 7.0 for loss) played more than enough as the Cavaliers’ third tackle to move seamlessly into a starting role. He’s the new star in the middle, replacing Matt Conrath, and based on his production when on the field last fall, Hill is ready to take on the challenge. When U.Va. wants to go big inside, it can team Hill with Justin Renfrow, a 300-pound junior. But I do think that in most situations, sophomore Chris Brathwaite’s quickness will come in handy. Braithwate was pegged for a role in the rotation prior to an early-season injury last fall, but returned in time to play about 20 snaps in the bowl loss to Auburn.

Snyder is your bigger anchor at end: he’s basically a tackle lining up outside, with the positives and negatives that label entails – he’s going to do well against the run but is a non-factor on passing downs. So the pressure will be on senior Billy Schautz (28 tackles, 6.5 for loss) to bring heat off the edge; essentially, Schautz, a converted linebacker, needs to take his effort against Florida State, when he was a menace before being injured, and extrapolate it over 12 weeks – or 13, rather. Schautz will start, backed up by a few players coming off of redshirt seasons in Vincent Croce, Rob Burns and Diamonte Bailey, and potentially one or two of the Cavaliers’ incoming freshmen.

Another player to watch at end is senior Ausar Walcott (32 tackles), who moves down after making seven starts at strong side linebacker last fall. With Walcott moving down and Aaron Taliaferro gone, U.Va. will turn the strong side over to sophomore Daquan Romero, who got his feet wet in a reserve role last fall. It’s the status quo elsewhere, with senior Steve Greer (team-best 103 tackles, 2.0 sacks) back in the middle and senior LaRoy Reynolds (88 tackles, 8.0 for loss) on the weak side. There’s nothing wrong with this pairing: Greer’s an all-A.C.C. lock and Reynolds can be disruptive in space. U.Va. also added a premier linebacker recruit in Kwontie Moore, a Norfolk product, but with Greer and sophomore Henry Coley entrenched at linebacker, Moore may be looking at a redshirt season.

Is Demetrious Nicholson (60 tackles, 2 interceptions) ready? Is he ready to assume the mantle? Is he next, following in the footsteps of Ras-I Dowling and Chase Minniefield, the program’s most recent stoppers at cornerback? U.Va. hopes so – prays, actually, that Nicholson can play beyond his youth and give this defense the all-A.C.C. cornerback it needs on the outside. My only issue with Nicholson isn’t with his talent, because he most certainly has all-conference ability; I’m just worried that as a true sophomore, he’s not quite ready for taking on every team’s top receiver.

One thing you know: Nicholson is going to get better every week. He’ll be joined at cornerback by either Drequan Hoskey or Brandon Phelps, two sophomores battling for a spot in the starting lineup. U.Va. is also breaking in a pair of new safeties, likely junior Rijo Walker at free and sophomore Anthony Harris at strong. This is one of the youngest defensive backfields in the country: Walker is the only junior, with the rest sophomores and redshirt freshmen. A lot is riding on Nicholson’s ability to play at a first-team all-A.C.C. level.

Special teams coordinators Anthony Poindexter – who was one of the great safeties in A.C.C. history prior to his injury – and Vincent Brown must locate a new kicker and punter. As for the former, Robert Randolph ended his career as one of the most accurate kickers in school history. He’ll be replaced by either redshirt freshman Ian Frye or junior Drew Jarrett – and I’m hoping for Frye, who is 6’6, if only because he’d be the tallest kicker in the country. Sophomore Khalek Shepherd did a nice job on kick returns last fall, but U.Va. needs more explosiveness out of its return game.

Position battle(s) to watch

Wide receiver There’s talent, experience and underclassmen to be found at receiver, but there’s no clear-cut top target. Along with interior line play, finding a new go-to guy will be Virginia’s top priority during fall camp. In a perfect world, U.Va. would fill Kris Burd’s role – he was last year’s leader in receptions and receiving yards by a substantial margin – with either junior Tim Smith (33 receptions for 565) or sophomore Darius Jennings (20 for 238), the two most experienced returning receivers and, unsurprisingly, the two clear starters heading into September. Smith is a deep threat who took advantage of Burd’s consistency to find holes in coverage. But can he do more than that – can he get open on third down, take on the opposition’s best cornerback, produce every Saturday in a Burd-like role?

It’s a big question. If he does, U.Va. could augment its power running game with an opportunistic passing attack. Even if Smith comes through, the Cavaliers do need to find two or three younger and unproven receivers to round out the top rotation. There aren’t a lot of options, though London did sign at least four receivers in February, depending on where a few players start their college careers. One is worth nothing: Canaan Severin was the highest-rated skill player in the class.

Until the freshmen prove themselves, the second tier at receiver is led by sophomores Dominique Terrell, Miles Gooch – a bigger-bodied target who could be a red zone and intermediate threat – and E.J. Scott. While Jones is outstanding coming out of the backfield or in the slot (48 for 506), one thing that was missing from last year’s team was a pass-catching tight end, due to an early ankle injury that hampered senior Colter Phillips’ entire season. While not quite like the program’s vintage tight ends, Phillips is a nice secondary option on third down.

Game(s) to watch

Check out Virginia’s four-game stretch following the season opener against Richmond: Penn State, at Georgia Tech, at T.C.U., Louisiana Tech. A split of that four, which is possible, would leave U.Va. at 3-2 heading into games against Maryland, Duke and Wake Forest – so getting a split would be hugely beneficial to this team’s bottom line. After struggling at Scott Field last fall, U.Va. must reclaim its home-field advantage. Why? For one, the Cavaliers get seven games at home. Among that group are key A.C.C. games against Wake, Miami and North Carolina. In addition, the Cavaliers slate of road games is daunting: the Yellow Jackets, Horned Frogs, Duke – stay with me – N.C. State and Virginia Tech. Forget about beating the Hokies; can the Cavaliers stay within 21 points?

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell The natural progression: rock bottom, five wins, eight wins… what? In a bubble, without considering the outside factors – personnel, coaching, the schedule, how you got to eight wins the year before – the obvious progression is to double-digit wins. That’s not going to happen with Virginia in 2012. While the arrow is pointed skywards, U.Va. still needs to address a few concerns before developing into a legitimate A.C.C. title contender. Consider the most pressing issue heading into fall camp: the changes on both lines. U.Va. is very much not at the point where it can win with finesse; the Cavaliers only hope, in fact, is to win games by controlling the line of scrimmage – not that London would have it any other way. I am very curious as to whether U.Va. can do so while retooling on both lines. In addition, the Cavaliers do need to settle on a quarterback, find a go-to receiver and land steady play from a very young secondary, even if the latter seems absolutely loaded with potential.

Expect at least six wins – I’m predicting seven, actually – and continued growth in every area but in the win column. In addition, keep an eye on how London’s recruits, the sophomores, redshirt freshmen and freshmen, fare in their first taste of action. How the youth fares in larger roles is one of the A.C.C.’s most intriguing storylines. But this youth will be served at times, especially early, and again by the more seasoned and veteran teams on the conference schedule: Virginia Tech, for example. Virginia is still going places, even if this coming season finds them treading water in the standings.

Dream season U.Va. starts 3-0, netting a huge A.C.C. win over Georgia Tech, before losing to T.C.U. to drop to 3-1. That’s followed by a streak of five wins in six games, which is in turn followed by a tough loss to U.N.C. – giving the Tar Heels the Coastal division. But you know what happens in Blacksburg? Virginia 17, Virginia Tech 13. The Cavaliers go 9-3, 6-2 in the A.C.C., and the climb continues.

Nightmare season A win over Richmond precedes four straight losses. While U.Va. rights the ship against Maryland and Duke, the Cavaliers win only game the rest of the way – finishing 4-8 for the second time under London.

In case you were wondering

Where do Virginia fans congregate? Begin with The Sabre, the rare independent message board that stands as the best option for a B.C.S. conference program. For recruiting coverage, check out Cavs Corner and Hoo Nation. You should also head over to University Blog, The Sabre’s The Good Ol’ Blog and Streaking the Lawn.

Virginia’s all-name nominee FB LoVante Battle.

Word Count

Through 77 teams 301,774.

Up Next

Who is No. 47? Prior to entering into public service, the politician central to the creation of tomorrow’s university served in the 101st Airborne Division.

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Comments

  1. DMK says:

    USF and Sam Gibbons.

  2. Burnt Orange says:

    Well done DMK. Was just reading about Gibbons and how he led the unit which beat back the German counter attack at Carentan during the early days of the Normandy campaign. That battle is depicted in one of the Band of Brothers episodes. Paratroopers against tanks. I hope they have a statue on campus for that guy.

    Getting more and more curious about how high Paul will rank Tulsa and La. Tech.

  3. Parker says:

    Burnt

    I figure Nevada and Cincy will come before La Tech and Tulsa.

  4. George says:

    I could be wrong, but I believe that London won 4 games his first season and 8 in the second, so the progression should go: rock bottom, 4 wins, 8 wins … 12 wins. Makes sense to me. Now if the Hoos can just figure out a way to make up a 38-point differential against the Hokies. Then we will know that the progress is for real.

  5. Jim Narby says:

    Nebraska is next

  6. Cromulent says:

    Univ Blog there looks like it is going to be delisted.

  7. Daniel A says:

    Here’s another fantastic UVA fball/bball and other sports blog. Mostly fball and bball

    http://fromoldvirginia.blogspot.com/

  8. Ben says:

    Wow, terrific write-up!

  9. rich says:

    very well done, from a uva grad.

    one minor goof, it’s scott stadium not scott field. but it’s clear you did your homework on UVA.

  10. jj says:

    Excellent

  11. Wahoowa says:

    Great work.

  12. Ben says:

    One thing of interest: in UVA’s dream season you have the Cavs losing to UNC, and in UNC’s dream season you have the Heels losing to UVA. Just thought that was a bit odd.

    Regardless, this blog is fantastic and your team previews are incredible! I don’t know how one man can write as prolifically as you do about ever FBS team, but color me impressed.

  13. Ed M. says:

    Fantastic write-up. Interesting to read a couple weeks in now that we’ve seen a bit of what UVA is (and isn’t) in wins over UR and Penn State.

    Very concerned, however, that a 3-game losing streak is looming. Will need to find a way to beat Louisiana Tech at home to keep things on track as I don’t expect much from the roadies to Georgia Tech and TCU.

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