ACC Football Preview: Virginia

Michael Rocco warms up prior to facing the Auburn Tigers during the 2011 Chick Fil-A Bowl at Georgia Dome on December 31, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia.

I bought an orange and blue shirt today, so naturally my thoughts turn to the University of Virginia. Also, that my weekends need to be more exciting, but for the purposes of this blog post we'll stick to the Wahoos and their football team. Last season, under first-year coach Mike London UVa finished the regular season at 8-4, winning four of their last five. And although the season ended poorly, with blowout losses to Virginia Tech and Auburn, you could be forgiven for thinking this was the starting point to a run at the ACC title this season.

It really isn't.

First of all, Virginia lost a significant portion of their starting defense. London, of course, comes from a defensive background, both as a player and in his early coaching career. But he's only had two classes of recruits, and there's not much depth. Demetrious Nicholson was a freshman All-American last season, but beyond him there's not much to speak of in the secondary. There are almost no returning starters on the line, and the linebackers are good but not great. In another year, this could be manageable, but the Coastal is full of a lot of teams with strong offenses (even Duke). Expect the Cavaliers to give up a lot of points.

Then there's the quarterback situation. Virginia spent the first half of the season waffling between David Watford and Mike Rocco, before settling on Rocco. He improved greatly when given the starting role full time, and was a big reason behind their late-season surge. So naturally, he might not be the starter this year.

His competition is Phillip Sims, a transfer from Alabama. Sims left the Crimson Tide for personal reasons compelling enough to the NCAA that he didn't have to sit out the requisite year. At Alabama, he was the backup to BCS offensive MVP A.J. McCarron, and a lot of people seem skeptical he'll take the same role behind Rocco. Among those people, in fact, are the Cavalier coaches; a starter should be announced Monday.

Who the eventual quarterback will target is also up for debate. Virginia lost last season's leading receiver, leaving Tim Smith as the go-to guy. Beyond him, everybody else is pretty young. You can take the optimistic view if you like, and Rocco and Sims might be able to make some young guys look good, but receiving could be a problem this season.

The ground game should be strong, however. Perry Jones is one of the best returning backs in the conference, behind only Giovani Bernard, Andre Ellington, and Tevin Washington. And Jones didn't even have full duties in the backfield, as he split time with Kevin Parks. Most of the offensive line returns, so a rushing offense that was fourth in the conference should only improve.

So what's the damage? Richmond (London's previous job) should be an easy opener, as will Louisiana Tech later in the season. Penn State in disarray could be a good win, but TCU on the road isn't going to happen. The conference schedule works in their favor, with home games against Atlantic teams Maryland and Wake, and a road game against State after a week off. But the Coastal race? They could easily go 1-4 if the chips fall in the wrong way; making it to 4-4 in the ACC is the best-case scenario here. 6-6 is the best I'm seeing for the Wahoos. The next few years will tell if London can keep Virginia a contender in the conference, but this season is going to be a long slog.
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