USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
It's been three seasons since Virginia's last win – you know, fall, winter, spring and so on.
The Cavaliers' most recent version was the sort of team that could gain 505 yards of total offense, force three turnovers, commit zero turnovers, rack up 29 first downs and control the clock for nearly 38 minutes but still lose, as was the case in a 27-26 setback to rival-no-more Maryland on Oct. 12.
COUNTDOWN: Complete list (so far)
In the wider view, this has become the sort of program that wins as many games in the fall as five-star prospects it signs in February – two. That UVa reeled in difference-making talent speaks to the recruiting pedigree seen on this coaching staff; that UVa hasn't won a game in Atlantic Coast Conference play since 2012 speaks to something else altogether, of course.
This is going to sting: Virginia has one winning season since 2008; Virginia Tech hasn't suffered a losing season since 1992. UVa is nine years removed from the program's last bowl win, seven years removed from its last winning streak of more than four games and just shy of two decades removed from the second of the Cavaliers' two shared ACC titles.
How many ACC teams have failed to reach the postseason in each of the last two seasons? Two: UVa and Wake Forest. How many major-conference programs? Eleven: Wake Forest, Kansas, Indiana, Illinois, California, Utah, Colorado, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas and Virginia. How many of these same programs have failed to reach at least two bowls during the last six years?
Four: Kansas, Indiana, Colorado and Virginia.
When it comes to major-conference college football, you do not want to be part of any club that would have Kansas, Indiana and recent-days Colorado as a member. So if better days in Charlottesville do lie ahead, as some have suggested, that may be only by default.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
When it comes to today, a team with this much inexperience under center, this questionable an offensive front and a recent history of failure in the turnover margin can't be taken seriously as anything more than a fringe bowl team. In addition, there's little doubt that this year's team is stronger than last year's version, not to mention stronger along the sidelines. It'd be foolish to say UVa is destined for another year on the outskirts of the ACC, like a season ago, but I can't say with any confidence that UVa has what it takes to do more than challenge for bowl eligibility.
In a nutshell: Removing VMI from the equation helps to underline Virginia's horridness. The Cavaliers held the Keydets to 79 yards on 56 plays and pitched a shutout in September's laugher; take that away and UVa ranked 98th nationally in yards allowed per game, sandwiched between behemoth-like Kansas and powerful UNLV, and 110th in scoring, just in front of Georgia State. The offense racked up 580 yards and 49 points; erase those totals and Virginia plummets to 108th in yards per game, smack between Akron and Minnesota, and 119th in scoring, decimal points ahead of Southern Mississippi. Misleading? Not really: Virginia was horrible. If your glass remains half full – or wet with moisture, period – each of the Cavaliers' 11 Football Bowl Subdivision opponents did reach the postseason. Two victories means you celebrate the small victories.
High point: Beating Brigham Young in the opener. Those who favor the ACC's decision to not include BYU among its mandated non-league games against Power Five competition cite the following argument: Why would the Cougars count when they can't even beat UVa?
Low point: Put the final nine games of the year into a hat, add a 59-10 loss to Oregon – might as well have been 590-10 – and pick away.
Tidbit: Remember how each of the Cavaliers' 11 FBS foes reached bowl eligibility? That's important to keep in mind, as is this: UVa played only eight seniors last fall, tied with UCF for the second-fewest in the country. Only South Carolina played fewer; the Gamecocks used only five, believe it or not.
Tidbit (recruiting edition): February's recruiting class included a pair of five-star prospects, making Virginia one of eight programs to sign more than one five-star recruit, as rated by Rivals.com. The rest: Alabama with six; Auburn, Florida State and Texas A&M with three; and the Cavaliers, USC, LSU and Tennessee with two.
Tidbit (Commonwealth Cup edition): The latest verse was just like the first. Oh, and the next eight after that. Virginia has now lost 10 in a row to rival Virginia Tech in the end-of-year Commonwealth Cup, making this the most lopsided in-state rivalry in the FBS. The Hokies have won 14 of 15, in fact, losing in 2003, and only three of these victories – 2008, 2012 and 2013 – have come by less than 12 points.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Impressive major-conference coordinators (East Coast)
1. Chad Morris
2. Kirby Smart
3. Rhett Lashlee
4. James Coley
5. Jeremy Pruitt
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: With the one-year experiment with David Watford over – he struggled, to put it lightly – Virginia has tossed the reins to sophomore Greyson Lambert, a ballyhooed recruit who made a potential quarterback controversy into Mike London's easiest decision of the offseason. Let's just say it as simply as possible: Lambert is – and certainly was during the spring – Virginia's best option under center, giving this offense its best chance for success despite the lingering issues up front and at wide receiver. So why the change from last spring, when Lambert was similarly the most impressive quarterback in a three-man competition? Maybe London and his offensive staff saw the light; maybe, and this is more likely, last year's disaster at the position finally swayed the staff to right a wrong and put Lambert in the starting position.
Oh, and this is obvious: Lambert is an upgrade – and yeah, it can't get any worse. He won't throw 15 interceptions, fingers crossed; he will complete passes at a higher clip and will push the ball downfield, two major impediments to a viable passing game a season ago. The best news? Lambert is not only a physical upgrade – if not Watford's equal with his legs – but has also embraced a leadership role within this offense, and it's been several years since the Cavaliers' attack took its cue from the starting quarterback. It's going to take time, not to mention patience, but Lambert gives UVa a glimmer of hope at one of the most underachieving positions in recent ACC play. Now he'll need some help from his supporting cast.
He'll get help from the backfield. The most intriguing aspect of UVa's running game centers on how London and coordinator Steve Fairchild use sophomore Taquan Mizzell (184 yards), a former five-star recruit with enough talent to earn a role in some capacity within the framework of this offense – perhaps not as a traditional back in 2014, but certainly as a weapon UVa must promote in space, whether coming out of the backfield or in the slot. Put simply, UVa would do itself a tremendous disservice in not finding some specific packages to take advantage of the sophomore's skill set. An every-down role isn't available, however: UVa returns seniors Kevin Parks (1,031 yards) – even better than his numbers indicate, by the way – and Khalek Shepherd (304 yards), and both should continue to lead the way in the Cavaliers' conventional ground attack. On an offense brimming with question marks, UVa's backfield is a trustworthy and reliable breath of fresh air.
I'm very worried about this offensive front – a disaster a year ago even with Morgan Moses on the blind side. Whether the Cavaliers turn the corner depends on three factors: one, whether junior Jay Whitmire is ready for left tackle even after missing a portion of spring drills; two, whether sophomore Eric Smith can hold down the fort at right tackle, a concern even if he brings solid potential to the table; and three, whether a largely inexperienced line – only two seniors in the two-deep – can survive a rough-and-tumble 12-game stretch. I'm not convinced. Senior left guard Conner Davis must prove he can stay healthy. Sophomore center Eric Tetlow must replace an underrated multiple-year contributor in Luke Bowanko; he won't thrive in the middle as a first-year starter. Junior right guard Ross Burbank quickly fell out of favor last fall after being handed the opportunity to grab a starting job along the interior. Where's the good news? In a positive vein, this group is young enough to develop nicely during the course of the coming season. But as of today, I'd bet on UCLA, Brigham Young and a good portion of the ACC eating their lunch.
Defense: This defense provides cause for optimism. The best news: Virginia now has the depth and experience to run Jon Tenuta's system to the fullest, giving the experienced coordinator the weapons he needs to roll out one of the conference's most aggressive schemes. This depth is clearest along the defensive line even with two starters lost to graduation; that this pair – Brent Urban and Jake Snyder – are the lone starters off the table supplies further reason for celebration. Four-star prospects abound, as do those of the five-star variety; a potential All-American dots the two-deep in the secondary; young players are ready for increased roles; overall comfort has increased in Tenuta's scheme. All is good on defense, at least.
The line's two returning starters are very much in the all-conference conversation. One, junior Eli Harold (51 tackles, 8.5 sacks), is as quick off the line as any end in the ACC; the second, tackle David Dean (49 tackles, 7.5 for loss), could be even more productive if given additional time to breathe, as will be the case in 2014. The Cavaliers are deep along the interior: Dean will start, likely joined by sophomore Donte Wilkins for the opener, but it's merely a matter of time before five-star freshman Andrew Brown asserts his place in the starting lineup – he's already proven himself to the staff, thanks to his early enrollment. In addition, UVa's interior rotation can call on sophomore Andre Miles-Redmond and senior Greg Gallop and Chris Braithwaite. At end, the Cavaliers will augment Harold's production with juniors Mike Moore and Kwontie Moore, larger bodies capable of holding the point of attack against the run.
A secondary headlined by senior strong safety Anthony Harris (80 tackles, 8 interceptions) will reap the benefits. Two storylines to watch: one, Quin Blanding's arrival, and two, the potential for additional competition at cornerback come fall camp. As for the former, Blanding could quickly move past senior Brandon Phelps and grab the starting job at free safety; one can't imagine a better way for a five-star freshman to learn the ropes than alongside Harris, one of the nation's premier returning defensive backs. On the outside, senior Demetrious Nicholson may need to fend off a number of underclassmen challengers to retain his starting job – and there are several sophomores, led by Tim Harris, angling for an increased role in the secondary. For now, the starting quartet flanks Harris and Phelps with Nicholson and junior Maurice Canady. That may very well change in August – outside of Harris, of course.
Relative to the depth up front and the potential along the back end, UVa's weak link is at linebacker. One player stands out: Max Valles has flashed play-wrecking tendencies on the strong side, working beautifully in concert with Harold's speed off the edges, but must develop a more all-around game before being viewed as an every-down linebacker. If not as dangerous as Valles, both Daquan Romero (89 tackles, 7.5 for loss) and Henry Coley (91 tackles, 10.0 for loss) are reliable – steady, in other words, and there's nothing wrong with a taste of consistency in the middle and on the weak side. But unlike the defensive front, the Cavaliers' depth at linebacker is lacking.
Special teams: One small change: Ian Frye is poised to become UVa's full-time kicker, supplanting Alex Vozenilek, who will be freed to work solely on punting. This decision may give the Cavaliers more reliability on attempts outside of 40 yards; Vozenilek was questionable on longer tries last fall, so the hope is that Frye helps bail out this offense should it sputter inside opposing territory. The Cavaliers have been subpar in the return game, but a surplus of young talent at the offensive skill positions could lead to a subtle improvement. Coverage teams, on the other hand, must be addressed.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Wide receiver: Losing tight end Jake McGee will lead this offense into more three-receiver sets, a move that helps offset McGee's departure – expected, but still painful – while supplying playing time for a number of talented underclassmen. At the same time, Virginia may need to continue to rely on seniors to help carry the water while the youthful core develops; the issue here is that, well, the seniors aren't the best receivers on the roster. The best targets at Lambert's disposal are youngsters: Keeon Johnson (20 receptions for 282 yards), for one, and he could develop into a star, along with Kyle Dockins, Canaan Severin, Andre Levrone and incoming freshman Jamil Kamara, to name a few others. What do these underclassmen bring to the table? Size, athleticism, a burst and ample potential, factors important enough to push seniors Darius Jennings (38 for 340) and Dominique Terrell (14 for 107) either into the slot or deeper down the pecking order altogether. What do you get when you hand a sophomore quarterback a receiver corps loaded with largely unproven, inexperienced, raw freshmen and sophomores? Well, either you get boom – a possibility, to be honest – or you get bust. Watching these receivers develop in tandem with Lambert will be exciting; it may also be painful.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Kent State: UVa opens with UCLA, hosts Richmond, hosts ACC newcomer Louisville and then heads to Brigham Young before closing September with the Golden Flashes. Given the nature of this conference slate – Duke, Virginia Tech and Florida State on the road – the Cavaliers' bowl chances hinge on how they fare in this opening five-game stretch. In my mind, it'll take at least three wins to remain in the postseason hunt. UVa hasn't won in Blacksburg since 1998.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: Begin with the positives. Handing the quarterback job to Lambert is a good decision today – he's an immediate upgrade – and a great decision in the long run, since he has the skill set to develop into a top-half starter in the ACC. As a whole, Virginia's defense has enough depth and talent to carry the Cavaliers to several wins during conference play, particularly against teams like Miami (Fla.), Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh. The backfield is a strength; there's enough depth for one option to get squeezed out of touches, though Fairchild must make sure Mizzell remains a focal point of the entire offensive blueprint. In total, London and his staff have accumulated enough talent to turn the page on one of the dreariest seasons in program history.
The issues are equally obvious. One is the offensive line: UVa's young quarterback and promising ground game could scuffle enormously due to the inexperience and lack of adequate depth from tackle to tackle. Another is the receiver corps: Virginia has bodies, true, but you're banking on a number of underclassmen playing beyond their years – possible, of course, but that's a tall order. To be truly successful, this offense must unite a solid front and a productive passing game with relatively error-free football. What are the odds?
And what if this team falls flat early – as could be the case, given the nature of UVa's schedule? Then you're looking at a scenario where a team already short on confidence disintegrates before the calendar turns to the heart of ACC play; if that occurs, then you're looking at a coaching change. I'm simply not optimistic about the Cavaliers' chances at a one-year turnaround. Four wins? That should be doable. Five seems attainable. Six? Again, I don't have a great feeling. London has reversed the tide once before; whether he can do so again will determine the direction of the program in 2015 and beyond.
Dream season: An upset against UCLA sends Virginia skyrocketing to an eight-win finish, buying London more time and leading to yet another sterling recruiting class.
Nightmare season: The Cavaliers notch only September wins against Richmond and Kent State.
Who's No. 94? This university's home city was first incorporated as a village in the same year as when the 25th state joined the Union.
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