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Carolina Football Opponent Preview: Nope, I Don’t Believe in Virginia’s Breakthrough

UVA made its first bowl since 2011 last year, and we’re all...very...impressed.

NCAA Football: Virginia at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Virginia... *cracks knuckles*.

The University of Virginia football program... *stretches, leans back in chair, scoots back in*

The Wahoos do not interest me at all, except for the fact that I want Bronco Mendenhall to bury them in irrelevance. The Mormon (not to get religious on y’all) from the West Coast was an interesting hire, and he didn’t really build a staff with any local ties— gone were the days of Mike London poaching top talent from the 757, Mendenhall was building a blue-collar (read: kinda dirty) team of try-hards in Charlottesville, not the most blue-collar place.

Early returns were as expected— the ‘Hoos went 2-10 in 2016, but were competitive in spurts— a near-upset over Louisville...and...umm, a 3-point loss to UConn...and expectations were naturally low going into 2017.

Mendenhall acquitted his philosophy, buoyed by a surprising offense, pretty well.

2017 Season

Virginia started 1-1, losing a winnable game at Indiana by 17— and then something clicked. They avenged their loss to UConn, went to Boise State and won 42-23 in the weirdest result of the ACC’s season, then won one-score games against Duke and UNC to reach 5-1.

After that, what most perceived to be the real ‘Hoos showed up. A 41-10 home loss to BC, then a 17-pointer at Pitt, (a 40-36 win over Georgia Tech), then three losses in a limp to the finish against Louisville, Miami, and Virginia Tech.

That random win against GT got Virginia bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011. In retrospect, bad idea. Another triple option team, Navy, beat them 49-7.

Excepting the Georgia Tech game (S&P+ win expectancy: 36%), every game they won had odds over 95% per the metrics. In losses, their win expectancies were as follows: 6%, 1%, 19%, 1%, 62% at Miami, which...lol, 0%, 0%.

You either got a good Virginia against a bad-to-decent team, or a bad Virginia against a mediocre-to-good team. I choose to believe in the mediocre.

Series History

I grew up during the Charlottesville curse— between 1980 and 2010, the Heels won exactly zero games at UVA. The 44-10 win in 2010, with Dwight Jones going crazy, was cathartic, and it started a streak for the Heels— Carolina won 7 straight from 2010-2016.

Last year, the Heels were in it— Michael Carter broke off a big run to put the Heels up. As Carolina’s defense is wont to do, Olamide Zaccheaus took the first play of the next drive 80 yards for a touchdown...and game over.

One game is an anomaly, more would be a trend. Carolina’s 28-27 win in 2014 was the only one not decided by double digits during the streak. Its time to start a new one. Overall, the Heels lead the South’s Oldest Rivalry 64-55-4.

Carolina O vs. UVA D

Micah Kiser and Quin Blanding are #2 and #3 ALL TIME in tackles, among ACC players. Their 282 tackles, 8 TFL, 6 passes broken up, and 4 interceptions from 2017 are gone. So, too, is Andrew Brown, a 5-star defensive lineman who never really lived up to his billing as a recruit.

Everyone else is back from a defense that improved its passing yards allowed per game by 93 yards from 2016 to 2017. They should be solid defensively again in 2018, but lacking in star power outside of two more linebackers— Jordan Mack and Chris Peace.

Peace, a 3-4 outside linebacker, should be the bellcow. He had 7.5 sacks as a junior. Mack is a solid tackler, as evidenced by his 114 tackles which ranked in the top 30 nationally, but only third on his team.

Nose tackle Eli Hanback is svelte for a 3-4 tackle at 305 pounds. He responded by being active— 58 tackles from that position is stout. He’ll be flanked by new starters Dylan Thompson and Mandy Alonso.

NCAA Football: Virginia at Duke
Eli Hanback
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

The secondary is back in its entirety, and adds senior corner Tim Harris (another Mike London recruiting coup) at corner— the senior missed the 2017 season. He’ll be joined by Bryce Hall, and two good safeties— Brenton Nelson and his four freshman-year interceptions, and 2nd-team All-ACC pick Juan Thornhill.

Mendenhall can coach up a defense to be physical if lacking talent, and they should be effective— but Carolina showed even during last year’s disaster that they could be carved up by big plays. Neutralizing their front with a steady running game and keeping third downs manageable will be key. The Hoos were statistically at their best on 3rd and longs (but still 40th in the nation).

This is more of a 24-28 point game for the Carolina offense.

Carolina D vs. Virginia O

Kurt Benkert, who we all remember fondly from his time at East Carolina (footage not found), was excellent in his one year in Charlottesville— he threw for 3207 yards, 25 TDs, and only 9 picks. He’s gone, and he took two of his top three receivers (and their 1300+ yards and 12 TD) with him.

What’s back? Well...2/5 of the offensive line, including sophomore center Dillon Reinkensmeyer, only mentioned as a member of the all-name team. The aforementioned Olamide Zaccheaus (I mean, come on) was their leading receiver as a junior with 895 yards despite a diminutive 5’8 frame. Running back Jordan Ellis, a complete 180 from the first two names, led Virginia in rushing a year ago, but only picked up 3.9 yards per carry on 215 attempts.

NCAA Football: Virginia at Miami
Joe Reed
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

For the second straight year, its more about what the staff can dig up. P.K. Kier is listed as the starter at running back by Phil Steele despite just six carries as a freshman. Joe Reed was the league’s best kick returner last year, and expects a bigger role in the passing game. Quarterback Bryce Perkins is a junior college transfer by way of Arizona State.

The presence of Zaccheaus and Reed helps, but neither averaged more than 10.6 yards per catch last year. What you’ll have in this offense is a grind it out team— not a threat to be explosive, but if Perkins is decent they can at least be efficient. That’s more than one could say about them in the second half of last year.

Carolina doesn’t have to scheme anything special when compared with the first half of the schedule, but they HAVE to eliminate big plays. The Heels got to Benkert for four sacks last year, but gave up 249 yards through the air. Most of those came on three plays.

Outlook

Straight up, Carolina should win this game. As Mendenhall famously said, there are “only 27 ACC-caliber players on the roster”. Looking at the depth chart, I don’t not believe him. I won’t trust a Carolina defense to not give up a few big plays, but they should force the Cavs to nickel-and-dime their way down the field.

Carolina 27, Virginia 16