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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. 78: Virginia

Four of the top 10 high school seniors in the State of Virginia, according to the list compiled by Rivals.com, signed with the hometown Cavaliers in February; two signed with Virginia Tech. What does this small example say to me? It says that Al Groh has left the building, taking with him the malaise that began on the field and, slowly but surely, crept into every facet of Virginia football under his watch. Mike London has been a breath of fresh air, on the sidelines and otherwise, and Virginia Tech is taking notice. Does this mean the Cavaliers are going to actually win a Commonwealth Cup at some point in the next five years? No, it doesn’t. But it does mean that the playing field is being leveled, which is a start.

Conference
Atlantic Coast, Coastal

Location
Charlottesville, Va.

Nickname
Cavaliers

Returning starters
17 (8 offense, 9 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 95

2010 record
(4-8, 1-7)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 93

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    Williams & Mary
  • Sept. 10
    at Indiana
  • Sept. 17
    at U.N.C.
  • Sept. 24
    Southern Miss.
  • Oct. 1
    Idaho
  • Oct. 15
    Georgia Tech
  • Oct. 22
    N.C. St.
  • Oct. 27
    at Miami (Fla.)
  • Nov. 5
    at Maryland
  • Nov. 12
    Duke
  • Nov. 19
    at F.S.U.
  • Nov. 26
    Virginia Tech

Last year’s prediction

Regardless of how well London takes to his new position, this year is not going to be pretty. Verica might be the best option under center, but he’s not the answer for an offense that, yet again, lacks weapons at the skill position. On the other hand, the defense is in better shape. It starts with Dowling, one of the finer cornerbacks in the F.B.S., and continues with a relatively experienced defensive front — though the group will be tested by the move to the 4-3. When looking at this roster, it will take London at least two full recruiting cycles to replenish a talent level that took a significant dip over Groh’s final few seasons. The massive reconstruction begins now. Don’t forget your hard hat.

2010 recap

In a nutshell I’m pretty sure Mike London could have gone 0-12 and still remained beloved by all the Hoos in Charlottesville, if only because he’s not Al Groh. His first year ended instead at 4-8, though 1-7 in the A.C.C. – a one-win improvement over Groh’s disastrous conclusion but one fewer victory in conference play. But we saw signs of life from the Cavaliers, even if it’s clear that this program is not close to being considered an A.C.C. contender. Virginia is close to making to making things very, very difficult for more talented opposition, however. We saw that against U.S.C. and Boston College, two narrow losses against teams much higher up on the totem pole. Want another silver lining? Take into account the fact that the offense did much of the heavy lifting last fall as the defense made the transition to a 4-3 look. If you know one thing about the future of Virginia football, know this: the defense will not be a weak link for long. If the offense can stay in the top half of the A.C.C., Virginia’s climb back into contention might take as long as initially believed.

High point A 24-19 win over then-No. 22 Miami (Fla.) on Oct. 30. It was a victory over a nationally ranked opponent, which makes it solid in its own right. The win also pushed Virginia to 4-4 entering November, needing only a split over that final month to get into bowl play. Most of all, however, was the way the Cavaliers out-toughed a far more physically gifted team, forcing the Hurricanes into several costly turnovers. That game seemed to me like it might have been a precursor of things yet to come.

Low point A loss to Duke to open November, the first of four straight defeats to end the season. The defense drew criticism in the 55-48 loss, but place some blame on an offense that turned the ball over three times; blame the team at large for committing 11 penalties for 103 yards. The year ended with another loss to Virginia Tech, this one by 30 points.

Tidbit Mike London’s keys to success in Charlottesville, in three easy steps:

Go to class.
Show class.
Treat people with dignity and respect.

That’s it. Pretty simple stuff. Good luck getting 100-plus undergraduates to get in line. I’d say two out of three ain’t bad, seeing that I never went to class, but London won’t have one without the other, and if you step out of line you’ll find yourself on the bench, in the locker room or off the roster altogether.

Tidbit (100-word preview edition) It’s that time again. Here’s how it works: I give you a quiz question; you become the first person to answer the question; you win the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of your favorite team when it appears on the Countdown. Get it? Good. Here’s the question:

Virginia has lost seven straight games to in-state rival Virginia Tech. Can you name two in-state rivalries among B.C.S. conference programs with a winning streak of equal or greater length? The two teams do not have to technically be rivals, merely two B.C.S. conference programs that reside within the same state.

Teams already spoken for: Iowa (M Meyer), Northwestern (NUwildcat09), Oregon (Eskynyt), Pittsburgh (htp2012), Texas (Burnt Orange), Washington (Dr. Klahn).

Former players in the N.F.L.

25 OT Branden Albert (Kansas City), CB Ronde Barber (Tampa Bay), OT Will Barker (Tampa Bay), LB Ahmad Brooks (San Francisco), DT Chris Canty (New York Giants), DT Nate Collins (Jacksonville), CB Chris Cook (Minnesota), CB Ras-I Dowling (New England), LB Isaiah Ekejiuba (Detroit), LB James Farrior (Pittsburgh), OT D’Brickashaw Ferguson (New York Jets), FB Rashawn Jackson (Carolina), RB Thomas Jones (Kansas City), DE Chris Long (St. Louis), TE Heath Miller (Pittsburgh), OT Eugene Monroe (Jacksonville), WR Kevin Ogletree (Dallas), RB Cedric Peerman (Cincinnati), TE John Phillips (Dallas), TE Tom Santi (Indianapolis), QB Matt Schaub (Houston), LB Clint Sintim (New York Giants), RB Jason Snelling (Atlanta), OT John St. Clair (Cleveland), TE Jonathan Stupar (Buffalo).

Arbitrary top five list

Current M.L.B. players born in Virginia
1. P Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers.
2. 3B David Wright, New York Mets.
3. P Mat Latos, San Diego.
4. OF Justin Upton, Tampa Bay.
5. OF Michael Cuddyer, Minnesota.

Coaching

Mike London (Richmond ’83), 4-8 after a single season. 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 will most definitely play 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. 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 the current Bowling Green coach Dave Clawson, but credit London for taking a talented roster and leading it to 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 despite the sub-.500 mark, which I don’t think will last all that long. Does the London have what it takes to lead Virginia up to and past the rival Hokies? That remains to be seen. We do know, however, that London will have the Cavaliers in bowl play in short order.

Players to watch

As long as spring injuries remain a thing of the past, this offensive line is a team strength. You couldn’t get a great feel for this group during the spring, as two would-be starters and a few reserves were limited for a good portion of time. But the dings don’t appear to be of the long-term variety, meaning Virginia will enter the 2011 season with an offensive line very close to the one in place at the end of last season: Oday Aboushi and Morgan Moses at left and right tackle, respectively, Austin Pasztor at left guard and Anthony Mihota at center. And there’s depth, believe it or not. At tackle, Virginia can tout a second pairing of Landon Bradley – who’s good enough to start, some believe – and sophomore Sean Cascarano. The only spot that’s really open to competition is right guard, where sophomore Luke Bowanko held a slight edge heading into the summer. Moses could move inside, which would push Bradley into the starting lineup, but I’m guessing that Virginia wants to keep the talented sophomore outside, where he started seven games in 2010.

The Cavaliers will really miss Keith Payne in short-yardage situations, where he was one of the A.C.C.’s best. They’ll miss Payne altogether, in fact, as his bruising, pounding running style set the tone for an offense that was vastly improved in London’s first season. There’s no replacing Payne’s worth on third-and-short, but Perry Jones (646 yards) will help recoup some of the lost production. As will redshirt freshman Kevin Parks, who may even leapfrog Perry to become Virginia’s lead back. But Payne’s departure is a big one, and I wonder whether Perry and Parks can have the same sort of impact between the tackles. Maybe fullback Max Milien can be that sort of back, but he’s not a proven ball-carrier.

Senior receiver Kris Burd started strong – three 100-yard games in September – but tailed off a bit late, and Virginia needs him to bring his top game every week as it attempts to replace Dontrelle Inman as the team’s top target. Burd (58 catches for 799 yards) and Max Snyder (30 for 393), both seniors, are the leaders of the receiver corps both on the field and off; this pair is joined by several sophomores lacking in game experience. Tim Smith and Bobby Smith will play major roles, as may incoming freshmen Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell, two headliners of Virginia’s sterling recruiting class. Burd was limited during the spring with an injury, giving some of these youngsters opportunities to flash their worth, but he’ll be back in time for September.

Look for continued improvement from this defense as it enters year two under London’s guidance and year two running the 4-3, a new look for a program long accustomed to recruiting for and playing in the 3-4. That change won’t occur overnight for the former reason: London needed to add a few bodies up front to accommodate the change, and the line itself may be a year away from running at peak performance.

Would-be senior Zane Parr’s illogical decision to enter the N.F.L. draft robs Virginia of a starting end; at least he stands as a cautionary tale for underclassmen dreaming of the big leagues before their time. The end who decided to stay – and the one who might have had a reason to leave for the N.F.L. – is senior Cam Johnson, who led Virginia in tackles for loss (14.5) and sacks (6) a year ago. Parr’s departure means sophomore Jake Snyder steps into a starting role perhaps a year ahead of schedule, which in turn takes away some depth at the position.

Seniors Matt Conrath and Nick Jenkins return at tackle, but this pair needs to do a better job standing up against the run: Virginia had the A.C.C.’s worst rush defense last fall, thanks to a front seven that got pushed around with regularity. Junior Will Hill was the only viable reserve option during the spring, though I suppose that sophomore end Brent Urban has the size to play inside if called upon. Like at receiver, this is a position where an incoming freshman could make a difference – London added six linemen in February.

Virginia shook some things up at linebacker, beginning with junior LaRoy Reynolds’ move from the strong to the weak side. That should open some things up for Reynolds, last year’s leading tackler (66, 7 for loss), while also opening up a spot for senior Aaron Taliaferro (36 tackles, 3 for loss) on the strong side. I’m excited to see what junior Steve Greer can do in the middle: he made 59 tackles last fall despite making only one start, so he could really be an impact player against the run with the added snaps.

There’s a star on this defense. His name is Chase Minnifield, and he looks like Virginia’s next great collegiate cornerback, joining his former teammate, Ras-I Dowling, and countless others. Minnifield came on strong a year ago, when Dowling’s battle with injuries cost him seven games; Minnifield became Virginia’s top cornerback, drawing the toughest assignments and faring extremely, extremely well. With some issues up front, particularly in getting to the quarterback, Minnifield’s importance cannot be overstated.

There’s an open spot opposite Minnifield, which might be held by Devin Wallace should he return to London’s good graces after being suspended for an off-field incident. For now, however, Rico Walker and senior Dom Joseph are the favorites – for now, at least. Virginia is very excited for the arrival of true freshman Demetrious Nicholas, an in-state gem from London’s first full class. Perhaps he’s the next Minnifield, though I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Senior safeties Rodney McLeod (54 tackles) and Corey Mosley (52 tackles, 2 picks) anchor the back end of the defense, but both must clear up a few injury concerns after missing a handful of games in 2010.

Position battle(s) to watch

Quarterback Marc Verica took his lumps, on the field and off, but dusted himself off time and time again to finish with a fine senior season, albeit one that continued to be plagued by turnovers. His departure leaves Virginia scrambling to locate a replacement among four options, two of whom took snaps a year ago. That experience gives sophomores Ross Metheny and Michael Rocco a leg up on redshirt freshman Michael Strauss and true freshman David Watford, who was with the team for spring practice. Strauss is behind in terms of game experience but does have the benefit of a year in Virginia’s system; Watford is really running fourth here despite his time taking snaps during the spring. But Strauss is behind the sophomore pair, who are listed as the co-leaders under center as Virginia enters the summer. Just going off what we saw a year ago, Metheny has a slight edge over Rocco: both took snaps in garbage time, but Metheny was impressive – hitting on seven of nine attempts with a score against Florida State – during his limited opportunities. This is a competition that will continue in the fall, and even with the drawbacks of such inexperienced options I can find two clear positives: one, that all four are well-regarded, talented prospects; and two, whomever does take over might end up being a multiple-year starter, and Virginia desperately needs consistency at this position.

Game(s) to watch

The home schedule. Virginia needs to reassert itself in Charlottesville, as the road slate is not conducive to success. There are a few winnable home games, none more so than Duke, and the Cavaliers must go 5-2 at home to pave the way to a bowl berth.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell 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. I don’t Mike London-led Virginia will be quite as bad as it was in 2010 again, and that progression begins in earnest in 2011. I’m really a fan of what he’s already achieved: London’s got after it on the recruiting trail, bringing one of the conference’s best classes during his first full cycle; he’s already had an impact on offense; and the defense, though still a work in progress, will undoubtedly improve in its second season in the 4-3. The arrow is clearly pointed up. But keep the expectations in perspective. The Cavaliers have young, talented options at quarterback but no experience, which is a worry. The receiver corps is unproven and Payne will be sorely missed in the running game, where he carried the load a year ago. As for the defense, I can’t shake the feeling that this group is one year away: the pieces really aren’t there outside of Minnifield, though help is on the way. 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.

Dream season Mike London gets things going in year two, leading Virginia to a 9-3 mark overall, 6-2 in the A.C.C.

Nightmare season The Cavaliers take a step back, thanks to a youthful offense and a defense that remains a work in progress: 2-10, 1-7 in conference play.

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 can also head over to The Great Blog of Virginia for a blog’s take, as well The Sabre’s The Good Ol’ Blog.

Word Count

Through 43 teams 120,527.

Up Next

Who is No. 77? The gentleman responsible for the initial construction of the grounds housing tomorrow’s institution has a pair of bridges bearing his name in New York and a third in Connecticut.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. katster says:

    One is *sigh* California – USC, in which the Bears haven’t managed to win a game since knocking off the Trojans in a 3 OT game in 2003.

    The other…

    Hmm, how about Baylor – Texas Tech?

    Paul: You’ve got Cal.

  2. bfahey says:

    In the Big XII,the Bedlam series has been won by the Sooners for the past eight seasons and I believe Texas Tech hasn’t lost to Baylor in this century.

  3. katster says:

    Yeah, it was 2002 when Okie State last won.

    Baylor – Tech goes back to 1995 (ouch.)

    But the last win by Virginia in their series with VaTech was more recent than the Cal win over USC (although in the same season.)

    Wonder if there’s more?

  4. James says:

    The ACC is home to a few more of those streaks, thanks Duke.

    Duke hasn’t beat UNC since 2003.
    Duke hasn’t beat Wake Forest since 1999.

  5. katster says:

    Duke – North Carolina goes back to 2003 as well.

    Wake Forest and Duke goes back to 2000.

    Boise State has owned Idaho, but that’s not BCS.

    So that’s five sets of BCS conference foes, not counting Virginia and VATech.

  6. Clayton says:

    I’m going to guess that the next school is Army.

  7. David says:

    Clayton’s right: Kościuszko

  8. Charlie says:

    I guess it’s Duke – Wake and Baylor – TT, then?

    Paul: There are a bunch. Just said list two to make it a little easier. Probably should have done three. Ohio State-Cincinnati is another.

  9. Steve says:

    I’m throwing out there Notre Dame over Indiana.

    Paul: Irish have won six straight, though the streak dates back to 1951.

  10. Steve K says:

    Ohio State over Cinci … tOSU has not lost an in-state game since 1921 I believe. Thus, his “both in the same state, not necessarily rivals” point.

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