Virginia’s hiring of Bronco Mendenhall was fairly unexpected. He had been in the BYU position for 11 years, and the fit made sense. He’s from Utah and had reportedly turned down other big offers previously. Yes, BYU’s not in the power five, but Mendenhall had taken them to five 10-win seasons in his time as head coach. He seemed pretty safe in his job.
Mendenhall’s decision to take the Virginia position makes sense. It gets him into a power five conference. Virginia’s a place with some pretty good talent in the area. If Mendenhall gets it right, Virginia is prime to become a more than solid program again. However, his move is definitely a gamble. After year one, it’s still unclear whether it was a good gamble.
In the last 10 years, the Cavaliers had been to just two bowl games: one in the final Al Groh years, and just one in six seasons under Mike London. Things didn’t change much in 2016. Virginia went 2-10, matching the worst season the Cavaliers had under London. They won a conference game against Duke, but also lost to FCS Richmond.
In a second year under a new coach, you would generally like to see some improvements made from the first year. The players would have another season under the new coach’s systems. The coach has signed two recruiting classes. You would hope for a few less bumps along the way. Virginia could improve in 2017, but it won’t be easy
In terms of returning production for the Cavaliers, it’s a mixed bag.
On the offensive side, quarterback Kurt Benkert is back. UVA’s expected starter threw for over 2,500 yards last season, finishing with 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Benkert had an up and down season in 2016. In his good games, he was pretty good. Against Central Michigan, he went for 421 yards and five touchdowns. On the other hand, in his bad games, he could go 9-26 and 122 yards, like he did against Virginia Tech in a 52-10 loss.
The Cavaliers will have to replace leading rusher, Taquan Mizzell. In 187 carries last year, Mizzell went for over 900 yards. Not only that, but he was one of Virginia’s leading receivers, getting 52 catches and over 400 yards. Second leading rusher Albert Reid is also gone. The running back with the most yards from last season is junior Jordan Ellis, who got just 14 carries for 61 yards. The Cavaliers do bring back a decent amount of the receiving corps, though.
Four of the expected offensive line starters are juniors or seniors, which isn’t bad on the surface. However, Benkert was sacked 31 times last year, and the Cavaliers were one of the worst teams in the country in terms of sacks allowed.
On the defensive side, four of the top seven leading tacklers are back. Micah Kiser, who led UVA in tackles and sacks, opted to return to college for another season. Several freshmen got a decent amount of snaps last season, so some amount of improvement for that side of the ball is definitely a possibility.
Both coordinators return for Virginia in 2017. On the offensive side of the ball, the Cavaliers run a spread offense led by Robert Anae, who has two different stints as offensive coordinator at BYU with Mendenhall.
Defensive coordinator Nick Howell also came over from BYU two years ago. Last year, the defense was solid at stopping the run, but struggled against the passing game.
North Carolina has owned Virginia in recent years. The Cavaliers haven’t won the matchup since 2009, which is two coaching changes ago now. Since Larry Fedora took over in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels have won all but one game by double digit points.
Were this game in week one, it might be a sneaky tough game for the Tar Heels. Yes, both teams are replacing pieces, but a new quarterback playing their first game as starter is never a guarantee.
However, the game is in October. UNC will have gotten six games to work in a new quarterback and all the rest of the pieces. They will have already dealt with (probably) tough teams with the likes of Louisville, Notre Dame, and others. If Virginia does continue to struggle defending the pass next year, you would expect UNC’s quarterback to be in the flow of the offense by the UVA game.
On the other side of the ball, UNC should have an advantage. Virginia will probably rely on the pass this year, and that hasn’t been the way to beat the Tar Heels recently and still probably won’t be this year. If Virginia can’t get a a running game going in that game, it’s hard to see them being able to beat UNC in the air.
In general, the Tar Heels just seem to be more talented. Bronco Mendenhall may end up doing a good job at Virginia, he just probably doesn’t have the horses to beat UNC just yet.
Prediction: UNC 35, UVA 17