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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. 95: Virginia

Monticello. Constructing a winning football team might take nearly as long to complete.

It was clearly time for Virginia to sever ties with Al Groh, though the argument whether this move came a year too late will continue to rage on. My simple take is this: George Welsh had 14 straight winning seasons in Charlottesville – winning at least eight games seven times over this stretch – leaving me puzzled as to why Virginia would accept such an extended period of mediocrity. If 2008 was a polite nudge – “Hey, do you think it might be time for a change?” – last season was a rude shove – “Wake up!”

Conference
Atlantic Coast, Coastal

Location
Charlottesville, Va.

Nickname
Cavaliers

Returning starters
12 (6 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 81

2009 record
(3-9, 2-6)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 95

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Richmond
  • Sept. 11
    at U.S.C.
  • Sept. 25
    V.M.I.
  • Oct. 2
    Florida St.
  • Oct. 9
    at Georgia Tech
  • Oct. 16
    North Carolina
  • Oct. 23
    Eastern Michigan
  • Oct. 30
    Miami (Fla.)
  • Nov. 6
    at Duke
  • Nov. 13
    Maryland
  • Nov. 20
    at Boston College
  • Nov. 27
    at Virginia Tech

Last year’s prediction

I’m not all doom and gloom for the Hoos: Groh has shown the ability to keep his teams in games with an inept offensive coordinator, so perhaps simply adding Brandon will be good enough to see the team fight for the top spot in the Coastal division. Yes, perhaps. But not likely. I see the Cavaliers repeating the 5-7 record of a season ago; if that is the case, the university may opt to go in a new direction at head coach.

2009 recap

In a nutshell The Cavaliers finished last in the A.C.C. Coastal division, behind Duke, and lost eight games by at least 12 points. The offense was putrid, failing to crack 21 points in any game after Oct. 10. The Virginia defense, long considered the strength of Groh’s teams, allowed its most points since 2002. Virginia allowed an average of 34 points over its last six games, all losses. There is nowhere for Mike London, Groh’s successor, to go but up. It won’t be easy, but London hopes to catch up a program like Virginia Tech, which has rapidly put Virginia in the rear view mirror. On second thought, perhaps London should first focus on catching up with Duke, a long-suffering program that has leapfrogged past the Cavaliers in the A.C.C. standings.

High point No jokes about Groh’s awkwardly poignant recitation of the Dale Wimbrow poem “The Guy in the Glass” at his final post-game press conference. In terms of Virginia’s on-field product, a three-game winning streak from Oct. 3 through Oct. 17 stood as a nice – if, in hindsight, frustrating – glimpse of what this team was capable of accomplishing.

Low point A loss to William & Mary? A narrow loss at Southern Mississippi two weeks later? A home loss to Duke, only its second in Charlottesville since 1981? Another humbling at the hands of Virginia Tech, the program’s 10th loss in 11 years to its in-state rival? Take your pick.

Tidbit The Cavaliers allowed 52 points against Miami on Nov. 7, which tied for the most points Virginia allowed in a single game over Groh’s nine seasons. Virginia also allowed 52 points to U.S.C. on Aug. 30, 2008, and 52 to Virginia Tech on Nov. 19, 2005.

Tidbit (offensive offense edition) Virginia scored more goals in lacrosse this past season than points in football. Yes, the lacrosse team played in six more games. Still, 242 goals in lacrosse; 232 points in football. Each goal only counts as a single point, while a touchdown counts as six points. Did you know that?

Tidbit (season preview edition) As I did a year ago, I’m going to give Ryan a small space to speak of Virginia, his alma mater, and its football team. Take it away, Ryan. Please, no curse words.

Here’s what I like about Virginia going into 2010. There’s a new administration in place as Al Groh’s tenure ended last season after nine years at the helm. I have a soft spot for Al Groh; I had the pleasure of meeting him when I was an undergrad at Virginia and he’s a fellow lacrosse alum, but there’s no denying that the football program had stagnated under his watch. I have a feeling that Mike London will upgrade the in-state and regional recruiting and you can’t put a price on the value of a young, hungry head coach looking to make his mark. He’s a Hampton Roads guy and a Richmond alum, which gives him some important street cred in two of the most fertile recruiting areas in the state. That will go a long way towards upgrading a roster pretty light on difference makers, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Here’s what I don’t like about 2010. Mike London is an Al Groh disciple, having coached under him for six years, so you wonder how much will really change with him in charge. Either way, a new coach brings optimism to a fan base, and I’m pretty sure that people will be excited in Charlottesville going into this season. Until we lose to Richmond on Sept. 4.

Former players in the N.F.L.

30 OT Branden Albert (Kansas City), CB Ronde Barder (Tampa Bay), OT Will Barker (Dallas), LB Ahmad Brooks (San Francisco), DT Chris Canty (New York Giants), DE Nate Collins (New York Giants), CB Chris Cook (Minnesota), LB Angelo Crowell (Tampa Bay), LB Isaiah Ekejiuba (Oakland), LB James Farrior (Pittsburgh), OT D’Brickashaw Ferguson (New York Jets), WR Marques Hagans (Washington), WR Vic Hall (Chicago), K Connor Hughes (Dallas), FB Rashawn Jackson (Carolina), RB Thomas Jones (Kansas City), DE Chris Long (St. Louis), TE Heath Miller (Pittsburgh), TE Fontel Mines (Chicago), OT Eugene Monroe (Jacksonville), WR Kevin Ogletree (Dallas), RB Alvin Pearman (Tennessee), 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

U.S. Presidents from Virginia
1. George Washington.
2. Thomas Jefferson.
3. Woodrow Wilson.
4. James Madison.
5. James Monroe.

Coaching

Mike London (Richmond ’83), entering his first season. London brings 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 play well at a school like Virginia, one determined to retain its academic principles. Yes, he may be termed a Groh disciple, yet he does not seem tarnished in the least by his predecessor’s demise with the program. London returns 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 a season ago. 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. Despite finishing 5-7 in 2006, London piloted a defense that allowed only 17.8 points per game; the offense, which scored only 15.1 points per game, is to blame for the losing record. The following season, London’s defense allowed 19.7 points to held lead Virginia to a 9-4 finish. Prior to landing at Virginia in 2001, London spent four seasons as the defensive line coach at Boston College (1997-2000), helping the Eagles score a pair of bowl appearances.

Players to watch

Marc Verica is the man, for better or for worse. He was a surprise starter in 2008, when suspensions forced the then-third string quarterback into the lineup, but Verica returned to a secondary role when Jameel Sewell was reinstated with the team following his one-year absence. As expected in 2008 — he was not ready for prime time — Verica struggled: 2,037 yards with 16 interceptions against 8 touchdowns. He might not be the best choice, but he’s Virginia’s only option; redshirt freshman Ross Metheny and true freshman Michael Strauss need an additional year of seasoning before earning meaningful snaps.

The Virginia offensive line took a hit when senior Jack Shields, a 23-game starter, decide to forgo his final season of eligibility. His departure opens up a hole at center, where junior Anthony Mihota and sophomore Mike Price will battle for the starting role. Four players with starting experience do return, however, led by senior right guard B.J. Cabbell. The two-year starter will anchor the interior of the Virginia line. Junior left tackle Landon Bradley and junior left guard Austin Pastor after starting all 12 games a year ago, while sophomore Oday Aboushi is the favorite to replace Will Barker at right tackle. The line might have some returning experience, but it will remain a work in progress. Keep an eye on incoming freshman Morgan Moses, who could push Aboushi or Bradley for time at each tackle spot before the end of this season.

Much will be expected from sophomore Tim Smith, whose speed and ability to get deep separate him from the rest of the receiver corps. He made 15 receptions for 204 yards a year ago, giving him a team-best 13.6 yards per catch average. That he and junior Kris Burd left the spring atop atop the depth chart is really no surprise: Burd led the Cavaliers with 31 grabs for 413 yards last fall. Finding contributors off the bench will be more difficult. Dontrelle Inman and Jared Green, two veterans, currently serve as the leading reserves, but have yet to achieve any meaningful with the Cavaliers. As has been the case for years, Virginia will not lack for tight ends: Joe Torchia and Colter Phillips will form a nice one-two tandem, with Torchia the receiver, Phillips the blocker.

The defense has an all-American candidate in senior cornerback Ras-I Dowling, who intimidated opposing quarterbacks far more than his departed cornerback mate, N.F.L. draft pick Chris Cook. Dowling is the real deal: big, strong and physical, Dowling is unafraid to provide run support in addition to his sterling coverage skills. The junior Chase Minnifield, a reserve a season ago, will get first crack at replacing Cook on the opposite side. Minnifield made two interceptions as the team’s third cornerback, but made a larger mark as the team’s kick and punt returner. Also returning in the secondary is junior strong safety Rodney McLeod (62 tackles, 3 for loss), with another junior, Corey Mosley, will replace 2009 starter Brandon Woods. Mosley started the first four games of last fall before giving way to his predecessor.

London will shift Virginia from its long-standing 3-4 defense to the more traditional 4-3, which will test this group in two ways: one, it will have to find depth on a defense line accustomed to a three-man rotation; and two, Virginia does not have a healthy amount of 4-3 linebackers. We’ve already seen a bit of a shakeup at linebacker, as junior Austin Taliaferro has pushed returning starter Steve Greer out of the top spot in the middle. Greer, a senior, is coming off a 92-tackle season, which led the team. Not that this competition is anywhere near being over; Greer is too experienced — and too productive — to keep off the field, and I would be surprised if he’s not in the starting lineup in some capacity come September. There’s also a heated competition ongoing on the weak side, where senior Jared Detrick and sophomore Ausar Walcott left the spring tied atop the depth chart. Sophomore LaRoy Reynolds is the current starter on the strong side, though fellow second-year player Tucker Windle remains in the mix.

This defensive line will really miss the play of Nate Collins, who would have fit in very well as an interior lineman in this new 4-3 scheme. Onwards and upwards, however, and the Cavaliers will move forward with juniors Matt Conrath (45 tackles, 2 sacks) and Nick Jenkins (41, 1 sack) anchoring the middle of the line. Both are solid options. Juniors will also start at end: Cam Johnson will move down from outside linebacker for the first time, while big Zane Parr will man the opposite side. There’s always a level of concern in the debut season for a player like Johnson — in putting his hand down every down — but there’s no doubting his athleticism. Finding depth along the defensive front will be a concern: this roster was not just built for the 3-4 in terms of the skill set of its personnel, but also in the number of bodies available to the coaching staff. London, a terrific line coach, will have this group rebuilt within one season.

Position battles to watch

Running back So anemic a year ago, the Virginia running game will attempt to rebuild without its top four leading rushers. Given Verica’s struggles, it will be imperative that the Cavaliers form a meaningful ground game — obviously. Sophomore Torrey Mack leads all returning rushers with 73 yards a season ago, and he’ll figure into the mix for the starting role. However, it was another sophomore, Perry Jones, who sat atop the depth chart as the Cavaliers concluded spring practice. The converted defensive back rushed for nine yards a season ago. While Jones is undersized for an every-down back, his current backup, junior Keith Payne, is not: at 6’3, 255, Payne resembles departed starting fullback Rashawn Jackson, who led Virginia in rushing a year ago. Payne’s second spot on the depth chart is a bit surprising, given that he quit the team last fall and nearly transferred to Liberty earlier this year. One player to watch, should he return to health, is Dominique Wallace. He was lost for the season three weeks into the year; at the time of his injury, Wallace ranked among the team leaders with 49 yards rushing. Wallace also missed the spring in recovery, but he should be ready to go when practice resumes in the fall.

Game(s) to watch

The season opener stands out. While you know London will want to have an auspicious debut – especially with U.S.C. looming – you also know Richmond will be gunning for its former coach. The season finale against Virginia Tech will give London his first taste of the rivalry as a head coach.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Those expecting an easy turnaround will be sorely disappointed. This rebuilding job will take years, not months, and be prepared for the growing pains associated with such a process. Virginia fans can only hope that in London the program has found the right man for the job; and for those who decry his Groh-tinged credentials, the pair share a common history, but little else. 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.

Dream season London is a breath of fresh air. Virginia goes 9-3, good for second in the Coastal division, and score a meaningful upset of the Hokies to end the regular season.

Nightmare season Few are expecting miracles, but London and his new staff disappoint in a 2-10 debut season.

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.

Up Next

Who is No. 94? Our next program has the same number of wins in five seasons under its current coach as the order in which its home state was given official statehood. For example, that’s as if Oklahoma, the 46th state admitted to the Union, had 46 wins in five years under Bob Stoops. (The team is obviously not Oklahoma.)

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Comments

  1. Dr. Klahn says:

    Ron Zook and the fightin’ Illini. 21-39 record and Illinois is the 21st state in the union.

  2. UVA says:

    UVA is a joke. It seems all they care about is second tier sports like lacrosse and soccer. They need to lower the academic standards to compete in major sports like football and basketball, until that happens, it doesn’t matter how many coaching changes they will have, they will always be in the bottom of the ACC.

  3. [...] you a recap of teams Nos. 100-94. Included in this group were a pair of B.C.S. conference programs, Virginia and [...]

  4. Fun Irony says:

    I’m guessing commenter UVA was talking about himself when he said UVA is a joke. That’s some deep humour there, well played. Moron.

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