2011 Season Preview: The Virginia Cavaliers And The Number One

Twenty years ago this past fall, Herman Moore and the Virginia Cavaliers reached No. 1 in the country ever so briefly. In this college football environment, what is the ceiling these days for Mike London and the Hoos? And how close will they come to that ceiling in 2011? (Hint: not very.)

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

Twenty years ago this past fall, Virginia whipped N.C. State, 31-0, and moved to No. 1 in the country.  This was one of my first seasons as a truly invested, hardcore football fan, and in seeing teams like Virginia, Georgia Tech and Colorado fight it out with capital-P Powers like Notre Dame, Miami and Florida State for the top spot gave me a very misleading view of potential parity in college football.  Anybody can become a power with some breaks and nice players, right?

Virginia eventually lost to Georgia Tech in one of the craziest, most memorable games of my developmental process as a fan.  They stole all of UVa's momentum, going on to split the national title with Colorado while Virginia crashed and burned (they finished 8-4 after a 7-0 start), and instead of developing into a budding national power, the Hoos settled into becoming the major-conference Southern Miss, putting together an incredible streak of above average play.  The Cavs won between seven and nine games for 15 of 18 seasons between 1990 and 2007, first under George Welsh, then Al Groh; but when second-year coach Mike London came aboard last year, he inherited a squad that was showing cracks.  UVa had gone just 8-16 in Groh's final two seasons.  They were often competitive in 2010, but they didn't advance too far, going 4-8 in London's first season.

So as Virginia settles into the London era, what exactly is the ceiling for a program like UVa?  Despite parity measures like scholarship limitations, the No. 1 ranking is perhaps more elite and hard-to-reach than ever -- in the last eight seasons, five teams (USC, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Florida and Alabama) have held the No. 1 spot (defined here as No. 1 in the AP Poll for the first half of the season, No. 1 in the BCS standings the rest of the way) for 104 of 121 weeks, and only 11 teams have held it for even one week.  The only non-traditional powers on that list: Oregon, for four weeks in 2010, and Missouri, for seven days in 2007.

If No. 1 is not a truly realistic goal for even most BCS programs, what is?

That's not a hypothetical. I'm really asking. What constitutes success for a program like Virginia?  Re-establishing your "eight wins like clockwork" credentials?  Settling into seven- or eight-win seasons, then making a conference title push (and hoping for 1990- or 2007-level chaos) when you have a large group of upperclassmen?  More?  Less?

Regardless, it's probably not likely that Virginia is ready to re-enter the realm of whatever you call success in 2011.  Like a lot of teams we've been discussing as of late, they're still probably a year or two away.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 4-8 | Adj. Record: 4-8 | Final F/+ Rk**: 83
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Richmond 34-13 W 34.0 - 20.3 W
11-Sep at USC 14-17 L 24.1 - 13.7 W
25-Sep VMI 48-7 W 27.3 - 20.2 W
2-Oct Florida State 14-34 L 24.0 - 30.4 L
9-Oct at Georgia Tech 21-33 L 30.4 - 34.5 L
16-Oct North Carolina 10-44 L 24.4 - 36.9 L
23-Oct Eastern Michigan 48-21 W 20.9 - 36.3 L
30-Oct Miami-FL 24-19 W 30.6 - 25.6 W
6-Nov at Duke 48-55 L 33.4 - 37.6 L
13-Nov Maryland 23-42 L 30.4 - 37.1 L
20-Nov at Boston College 13-17 L 32.4 - 38.8 L
27-Nov at Virginia Tech 7-37 L 17.1 - 32.3 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 25.3 75 28.3 70
Adj. Points Per Game 27.4 60 30.3 82

Way back yonder ... okay, last September ... before I came to accept that a) I had the world's least reliable Internet connection, and b) I didn't have enough time to record them anyway, I attempted a regular podcast as part of our 7th Day Adventure preview series at Football Outsiders.  In one of the final 'casts, I spoke to ESPN's Bruce Feldman to discuss the week's games, the role of recruiting in Outsiders projections, and other topics.  I walked through some of the statistically stellar teams to date and, with the disclaimer that schedule-adjusted numbers are virtually worthless after 3-4 games, brought up Virginia as a pleasant surprise (around the 36:45 mark).  Sure, they had only beaten two FCS teams and their most impressive appearance was a loss to USC.  And sure, it was too early to tell anything for sure.  But did he think Virginia might be able to maintain solid early play and surprise some teams in the ACC?

His response (paraphrased): "Um, no."  (Only, much more polite than that because Bruce Feldman might be the most polite person I've ever met.)

Actually, we'll go with the whole quote since he pretty much nailed it.

USC was a good scrap for them, but they played two teams that aren't even Division I teams.  So I expect them, maybe at best, to go 5-7, but I think it's even possible 4-8. ... I mean, their schedule is set up about as easy as you could have to get to probably four wins without really doing much of anything. After that, I don't know, maybe they get Maryland, but I don't see them picking off North Carolina or going to Virginia Tech and winning. I just don't think they have the trigger man to do it at quarterback, and uh, I just don't see it.

Granted, he probably didn't see the Cavs taking out Miami, but he also didn't see them losing to Duke, so it evens out; Feldman certainly nailed the "4-8" part.  With star cornerback (and future New England Patriot) Ras-I Dowling battling injuries, the defense just couldn't hold up after an encouraging first few weeks.  The offense was decent, but the Hoos only produced one above average performance (when they injured Jacory Harris) in the final nine and finished right about where Feldman predicted.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 61 43 70
RUSHING 39 26 59 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 80 66 79 25
Standard Downs 54 37 59 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 72 55 83 32
Redzone 55 87 39
Q1 Rk 99 1st Down Rk 58
Q2 Rk 41 2nd Down Rk 59
Q3 Rk 58 3rd Down Rk 90
Q4 Rk 35

Virginia's offensive footprint rather clearly shows us what Mike London wants to accomplish on offense.  Virginia's going to pass to set up the run, they're going to push the tempo, and they're going to maintain that identity no matter what.  The problem, at least in 2010, was that the personnel did not match the philosophy.  UVa had a downright efficient run game at their disposal, but that wasn't necessarily the goal.

The passing personnel, evidently more important for UVa, was only decent.  Dontrelle Inman (815 yards, 16.0 per catch, 55% catch) and Kris Burd (799 yards, 13.8 per catch, 62% catch) racked up solid statistical seasons, but they weren't tremendously effective, at least not when games were within reach.  Quarterback Marc Verica also produced a stat line (2,799 yards, 59% completion rate, 7.1 yards per pass, 14 TD, 14 INT) that gave a somewhat disguised picture of Virginia's passing capabilities. Their Passing S&P+ ratings suggest that on a play-by-play, schedule-adjusted basis, they should have done more.

For better or worse, this all changes in 2011.  Gone are Verica and Inman, and gone is second-team all-conference running back Keith Payne (749 yards, +8.9 Adj. POE, 14 TD) as well.  Four starters return from an extremely underrated offensive line; the Cavaliers ranked in the Top 35 in both Adj. Line Yards and Adj. Sack Rate, but not a single lineman received even honorable mention all-conference honors.

Knowing London's tendencies, it's pretty clear that UVa's offensive success this fall will most likely be determined by Burd and ... whoever wins the starting quarterback job.  Spring ended with no resolution to the QB battle, though one has to figure one of two sophomores -- Michael Rocco (143 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT as a true freshman last fall) or Ross Metheny (171 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT as a redshirt freshman) -- has the upper hand.  Metheny had the higher recruiting profile and, in the smallest of small sample sizes, outperformed Rocco in 2010, but clearly the race is not yet over.  For a quarterback-friendly system, whoever wins the job had better be ready for a heavy load.

Other tidbits:

  • Perry Jones carried the ball almost as much as Keith Payne, but despite similar per-carry figures (both came in at 4.7 per carry), Payne was infinitely more effective.  He registered a +8.9 Adj. POE to Jones' -14.3 Adj. POE.  The offensive line could be a strength, but Jones appears to represent a step down for the Cavaliers' running game.
  • A good portion of offensive coordinator Mike Lazor's resume was filled out in the NFL.  He was QBs coach for the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins in recent years, and as mentioned above, Virginia's offensive footprint screams "quarterback friendly."  Now they just need a quarterback.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 103 86 108
RUSHING 109 95 111 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 81 54 92 99
Standard Downs 76 53 88 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 106 108 104 84
Redzone 95 83 106
Q1 Rk 87 1st Down Rk 93
Q2 Rk 82 2nd Down Rk 89
Q3 Rk 88 3rd Down Rk 82
Q4 Rk 76

Virginia's offense improved quite a bit in 2010, even if their schedule-adjusted numbers were not quite as friendly as their raw totals.  Their defense, on the other hand, left something to be desired.  Defense was never much of a problem under Al Groh, but in London's first year, they traded one problem for another.  The Cavaliers ranked a paltry 99th in Def. F/+; only once in the previous four seasons had they ranked worse than 36th.

So what was the problem?  Quite a bit, actually.  But we'll start with what worked. Despite star cornerback Ras-I Dowling battling injuries all season (he played in parts of only five games), the UVa secondary was relatively efficient, primarily because of the outstanding efforts of corner Chase Minnifield (41.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 6 INT, 4 PBU), who elected to stay in Charlottesville another season instead going pro.  (Because who wouldn't want to stay in Charlottesville another year?)

However, while coordinator Jim Reid was rather aggressive overall and had quite a few players posting strong tackles-for-loss totals, the aggression often backfired.  If the Cavs weren't making the big play, they were giving it up; they had the fifth-worst major conference Passing Downs S&P+, behind just Kansas State, Indiana, Minnesota, Kansas and Michigan.  Aggression is admirable, but most of the time it didn't pay off.  As with the offense, the philosophy didn't necessarily match the talent at hand.

Because of some combination of injuries and deckchair shuffling, Virginia ended up with 17 players registering at least 20 tackles last year.  Twelve of them return, including the relative stars: Minnifield and end Cam Johnson (41.5 tackles, 14.5 TFL/sacks, 2 FR, 4 PBU).  Strongside linebacker LaRoy Reynolds (45.0 tackles, 7.0 TFL/sacks) has some solid potential as well.  End Zane Parr (33.0 tackles, 8.0 TFL/sacks) surprised many by declaring for the draft (not surprisingly, he was not selected, as he wasn't particularly impressive at UVa), which dings the Cavs' depth, but they still have a pair of interesting tackles (Nick Jenkins and Matt Conrath), and end Jake Snyder had a couple of stellar moments as a redshirt freshman.

Other tidbits:

  • When I see a team with decent success rates and atrocious PPP+, I immediately zero in on the safeties as a source of concern. Rodney McLeod, Corey Mosley and Dom Joseph all return; they combined for 6.0 TFL/sacks and four interceptions, though it would probably be a good thing if some new blood pushed them for playing time.
  • The "Go After The Ball" measure in the Defensive Footprint was designed by culling forced fumble, interception and pass break-up numbers. Virginia's Go After The Ball score (32.8%) was the fifth-lowest in the country last year behind just Penn State, Indiana, Memphis, Michigan and Utah State.  For a defense that seemingly likes to attack, this is very odd. You might want to attempt some strips on those long gainers, guys.

Virginia's 2010 Season Set to Music

I fell in love with Charlottesville a decade or so ago, but it was primarily because of Trax, and not the football team.  So we'll give a nod to some of the bands I saw perform in C'ville at one point or another. Not because this has anything to do with Virginia Football in 2010, but because this is all about me, me, me.

"A Century Ends," David Gray
"Dalai Lama," Virginia Coalition
"Hello Again," Dave Matthews Band
"Hero," Pat McGee Band
"John Brown," Agents of Good Roots
"Minarets," Dave Matthews Band
"Morning After," Howie Day
"Mulling It Over," Blues Traveler
"Runaway," Pat McGee Band
"Sultans of Swing," Agents of Good Roots

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 59
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 43
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -7 / -9
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 15 (8, 7)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +2

Generally speaking, the base of talent at Virginia isn't too bad.  Former four-star recruits like receiver Tim Smith and offensive tackles Oday Aboushi and Morgan Moses are reaching maturity, and the Cavs bring in a stellar class this fall.  Combined with a host of returning starters and a potentially healthy YPP margin, and it isn't impossible to talk yourself into UVa.

Of course, I was attempting to talk myself into them last September too, but the defense got in the way.  Unless some of the freshmen and sophomores are ready out of the gates, the Cavs are still probably a year away from becoming a truly interesting factor in the ACC.

Writing these profiles in worst-to-first fashion has resulted in some interesting themes, hasn't it?  First, we had the bad teams who needed some breaks and a fast start to reach bowl eligibility.  Now, we've moved on to either "temporary step backwards" teams like Washington and Louisville, and "a year or two away with severe question marks on one side of the ball" squads like Kansas State and Virginia.  Soon enough, we'll move on to "in limbo between good and terrible" teams (Rutgers, Maryland, Arizona State) as well.  Good times had by all, right?

 

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter.  For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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