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The Countdown

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

A Retrospective

The Year in Review: Virginia (8-4, 5-3)

Virginia brought Jimbo Fisher to his knees. Crumpling to his knees, to be exact: Fisher fell, head in hands, devastated, defeated. The Cavaliers had this effect on people — and teams — in 2011, Mike London’s second year with the program. Slippery eels, these Cavaliers, and unpredictable. Georgia Tech saw a team that barely escaped Idaho in overtime and licked its lips; Virginia derailed the then-undefeated Yellow Jackets, perhaps convincing this team that it could hang with the A.C.C.’s elite. Two weeks later, the Cavaliers broke Miami’s will. Three weeks after that, Fisher fell to his knees. Heading into the final weekend of the season, the Cavaliers controlled their Coastal division fate.

Utterly unpredictable, these Cavaliers. And not just on a week-to-week basis, but in the big picture: Virginia was going to be improved, but few — no one, perhaps — saw the Cavaliers battling Virginia Tech for anything more than Commonwealth Cup bragging rights.

In more ways than one, the team resembled the 2007 Cavaliers, which posted the program’s last winning season prior to last fall. Underrated in September, those Cavaliers somehow clawed their way through several close-fought A.C.C. victories before closing the year with two consecutive defeats. One, a 33-21 loss to Virginia Tech, cost Virginia the Coastal crown.

So if Virginia has been here before, only four years ago, why will last year go down as one of the most satisfying seasons in school history? On paper, there’s not much separating the two teams: both were coming off losing seasons, both used guts and guile to notch close conference wins and both were in the A.C.C. championship hunt heading into the final game of the regular season.

To understand the answer, you need to understand where Virginia stood in 2008 and 2009, when the program reached rock-bottom during its last days under Al Groh. Virginia wasn’t merely an A.C.C. pretender; the Cavaliers were a complete afterthought. The program was going through the motions, stuck in a dark place between competing and rebuilding, and the results were the worst in Charlottesville since the early 1980s.

The Cavaliers weren’t dead, merely on life support. Or tucked away in a retirement home: out of sight, out of mind. If they were a meal, Groh’s last two teams would have been dry, unbuttered toast. Unpalatable. Boring. Flavorless. Virginia football had no meaning. The Cavaliers had no identity.

So when the Cavaliers showed a spark in 2010, London’s debut campaign, the sign of life was greeted with something strangely unfamiliar: hope. And when London’s team burst through last fall — at least one year ahead of schedule, if not more — the Cavaliers were taken in with open arms, 38-0 loss to Virginia Tech be damned.

The color is back in Virginia’s cheeks. The offense may still be a little boring, yes. And the defense, which plays out of a 4-3 base set after years of the 3-4, won’t be running to London’s liking until this season, when most of his recruits will be ready to take on the A.C.C.’s level of play. But the Cavaliers have adopted London’s no-quit, team-first mentality, which along with a dose of toughness was just what the program needed.

The only problem with Virginia’s fast climb is that it ramps up expectations heading into September. If the Cavaliers had won six games last fall, for example, most of the fan base would be expecting eight wins in 2012. After winning eight games last fall, should Virginia be eyeballing a Coastal division championship?

Here’s one thing to love about 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, 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 again be expected to battle the Hokies for a spot in the conference title game. The Groh-era teams, based on history, would have failed to reach these lofty expectations. Based on last season, we can say one thing with certainty about London’s Cavaliers: they won’t shy away from the challenge.

Season grade: A 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 is still waiting for 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. 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. 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.

Offensive M.V.P. The entire offensive line gets the nod, led by the left side of the line: left tackle Oday Aboushi and left guard Austin Pasztor, a senior, were all-A.C.C. picks. One reason why the line was so successful was because it stayed healthy; Virginia started the same five linemen in each of its 13 games. While not recognized with all-conference honors in 2011, the right side of line — guard Luke Bowanko and tackle Morgan Moses — has tremendous promise. With Aboushi opting to return for his senior season, Virginia’s offensive line might be among the best in the country in 2012. It’s a superb bunch.

Defensive M.V.P. The story was the front seven, which might have struggled getting to the quarterback but stood tall at the point of attack in the running game. The star of the defense, however, was cornerback Chase Minnifield — and this was nothing new. Minnifield, a first-team all-A.C.C. pick in each of his last two seasons, added three interceptions as a senior to give him 13 for his career. It’s probably not a coincidence that Virginia’s weakest defensive performance on the season came against Auburn, when Minnifield, dinged and bruised from the regular season, was a game-time decision.

Stock watch Surprisingly, the biggest question marks heading into this season lie on the defensive side of the ball, not on offense. The Cavaliers must replace Minnifield, for starters, as well as linemen Matt Conrath — another first-team all-A.C.C. pick — and Cam Johnson. Despite those losses, however, the Cavaliers should improve defensively: the hope is that the defense as a whole is ready to take a step forward in its third season in London’s system. The offense will again be defined by a strong and experienced offensive line, though it’s unlikely that this front again remains completely injury-free. Junior quarterback Michael Rocco will be improved. The backfield remains intact. The receiver corps has promise. For Virginia, the arrow is pointing up.

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  1. GTWrek says:

    Congrats to UVA in both football and basketball. It’s always nice to see one of the few schools that have real student athletes do well in sports.

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