2012 Virginia Football Preview: Team A Vs. Team B

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - NOVEMBER 26: Perry Jones #33 of the Virginia Cavaliers runs with the ball past Jack Tyler #58 of the Virginia Tech Hokies at Scott Stadium on November 26, 2011 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images)

Virginia experienced an eight-win breakthrough in 2011 in Mike London's second year as head coach. Can it sustain its gains despite some key losses on defense? And in the world of dual-threats, Perry Jones ranks pretty high. Related: Virginia's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends and rankings galore.

For more on the Cavaliers, visit Virginia blog Streaking The Lawn

Program A went 7-6 and had an F/+ ranking of 64th in 2011. Its five-year F/+ ranking: 75th. Its five-year record: 22-40. The team returns most of its defense two-deep and really only faces serious attrition in the receiving corps.

Program B went 8-5 and had an F/+ ranking of 65th in 2011. Its five-year F/+ ranking: 62nd. Its five-year record: 29-33. The team returns most of its skill position talent and really only faces serious attrition in the secondary and, perhaps, the defensive line.

Program A is the Washington Huskies, thought by many to be a Top 25-caliber team in 2012 (No. 25 in the post-spring BlogPoll).

Program B is the Virginia Cavaliers, thought by almost none to be a Top 25-caliber team in 2012 (No. 45 in the post-spring BlogPoll).

Both teams saw their records boosted with close-game performance (Washington was 3-0 in one-possession games, Virginia 5-1), both lost bowl games by double-digits, and both failed to finish strong (Washington lost four of six, while Virginia was outscored, 81-24, in its last two games). So why is Washington a new national darling while the Cavaliers are being forgotten? Name-brand quarterback (Washington's Keith Price is a darkhorse Heisman candidate for many)? Name-brand program (the Huskies won a national title 21 years ago and would have made a four-team title playoff as recently as 2000)? Name-brand recruiter (Tosh Lupoi joined the Washington staff this offseason and has immediately begun to boost UW's talent level)?

Mind you, I'm not going to spend this time attempting to convince you that Virginia is actually better than Washington. I don't know if it is or not, and besides, I'm as seduced by Keith Price as anybody. But perceptions are an interesting thing. Washington is apparently a candidate for a serious breakthrough, and Mike London's Cavaliers should evidently just be happy with last year's Chick-Fil-A Bowl bid.


The ACC Episode by Shutdown Fullback

London really has done a strong job in his two years in Charlottesville, inheriting a thin, reeling team, taking lumps for a year, then coming within a game of the ACC Coastal Division title. And with a load of experience and some peripherals in their favor -- they didn't benefit from turnovers luck last year, they rank 24th in two-year recruiting, and they get Miami and North Carolina at home while avoiding Florida State and Clemson -- the Hoos could conceivably make another division title run. Or, on the flipside, 2012 could become their "regression to the mean" season after they won a couple more games than the 65th-best team in the country should have won. They are as much of an unknown in 2012 as they were in 2011.


Related: Check out Virginia's statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's what I said about the Hoos last year:

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. […]

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.

They didn't actually make the ACC title game, but it's safe to say that UVa was more of a factor in the ACC than I expected them to be in 2011. The Cavaliers withstood some early, iffy performances (34-31 over Indiana, 21-20 over Idaho), took their lumps in a 28-14 home loss to N.C. State, then ripped off a shocking four-game win streak that included road wins over Maryland (31-13), Miami (28-21) and, most surprising of all, Florida State (14-13). Heading into Thanksgiving weekend, the Hoos actually had a chance to steal a title game bid, but they were thumped by in-state rivals Virginia Tech, 38-0, at home. They couldn't keep up with Auburn in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl either, but still, an 8-5 finish was very, very welcome, even after an 8-3 start.

Virginia began to get by on smoke and mirrors a bit as the season progressed.

First Six Games: Virginia 27.1 Adj. Points Per Game, Opponents 23.1 (+4.0)
Last Seven Games: Opponents 27.5 Adj. Points Per Game, Virginia 26.1 (-1.4)

Indiana aside, the defense played quite well early but faded toward average down the stretch, even as they continued to win; they allowed 7.2 yards per play to Miami, 5.4 to Maryland, 6.0 to Florida State, 5.9 to Virginia Tech, and 6.8 to Auburn. They needed a turnover deep in their territory and a missed field goal to beat Florida State, and they needed a five-turnovers-in-seven-possessions stretch to build distance against Maryland.

Still, the Cavs won eight games. And with a reasonably favorable schedule, they could do so again in 2012, at least if they produce a similar amount of late-game magic.

Offense

Virginia's overall improvement, from 81st to 65th in the F/+ rankings, was keyed mostly by a defensive surge and a holding-of-the-fort by the offense. The Virginia offense, really, was neither good nor bad at much of anything, ranking between 60th and 85th in most advanced categories and riding a good line as far as it could go. In 2012, the balance of strength could shift in the opposite direction: the skill positions looked solid and deep, while a banged-up, reasonably inexperienced line struggled.

Really, any conversation about the Virginia offense has to start with Perry Jones. A multiple threat not unlike Northwestern's Kain Colter or Illinois' Miles Osei, Jones rushed 184 times (915 yards), was targeted with 67 passes (48 catches, 506 yards), returned eight punts and threw a touchdown pass. He was occasionally spectacular (versus Miami: 12 carries for 67 yards, 1-for-1 passing for 37 yards, one catch for 78 yards), and occasionally hemmed in (eight carries for 14 yards, nine catches for just 62 yards versus Florida State), but he was always Virginia's scariest threat. And he will probably be so again in 2012.

Jones, once a recruiting afterthought who has become a multi-year captain, will spearhead a receiving corps deep with former four-star recruits. Junior Tim Smith (565 receiving yards, 9.1 per target, 53 percent catch rate) was a nice all-or-nothing weapon last year -- you're allowed to be all-or-nothing as a No. 3 or No. 4 threat, but he'll need to be a little more consistent this year following the departure of No. 1 receiver Kris Burd -- while sophomore Darius Jennings (238 yards, 5.2 per target, 44 percent catch rate) struggled and Dominique Terrell (59 yards) didn't see much action. Throw in incoming freshman Canaan Severin, and you've got a load of potential (according to recruiting services), with little actual production to date. The tight ends are similarly interesting if unproven: Paul Freedman and Jeremiah Mathis combined a 71 percent catch rate in limited opportunities last fall.

It is up to junior quarterback Michael Rocco to wring the potential out of this receiving corps. At least, if he can hold onto the job. Rocco was decent in 2011, but there were just enough holes in his game that a surge from sophomore David Watford or incoming Alabama transfer Phillip Sims (who is eligible immediately) could make for an interesting race. Rocco completed 61 percent of his passes (69 percent to Jones and Burd, under 60 percent to everybody else), threw 13 touchdown passes and got sacked just 3.7 percent of the time; but his 12 interceptions were costly, and even with Jones and Burd, Virginia ranked just 70th in Passing S&P+. Expect him to start, but if he struggles early, change could come.

Rocco will probably get assistance from an improved run game. Jones was good for about 14 carries per game, while then-freshmen Kevin Parks and Clifton Richardson combined to throw in about 17 more. Throw in sophomore Khalek Shepherd, who had a lovely spring, and you've got a four-deep set of running backs. That could allow Jones to take over as a No. 1, nearly full-time receiver if need be. The backs will be running behind a line that both loses a lot and returns a lot. Three linemen who had combined for 88 career starts (including all-conference guard, and four-year starter, Austin Pasztor) are gone, but three more (including second-team all-conference tackle Oday Aboushi) return, having amassed 58 career starts.

Defense

The offense had its moments, but Virginia rode to eight wins because of a dramatically improved defense. It apparently took defensive coordinator Jim Reid a year to figure out what he had, and he pushed quite a few of the right buttons in 2011. Virginia improved from 96th to 57th in Def. F/+, 109th to 40th in Rushing S&P+, 81st to 52nd in Passing S&P+, 76th to 21st on standard downs and 106th to 65th on passing downs. That is staggering.

It is likely, however, that there will be at least a little bit of regression in 2012, both in terms of "to the mean" and "because of quite a bit of turnover." Gone are tackles Matt Conrath and Nick Jenkins, who were active and nicely immovable against the run, and gone are four of the five defensive backs who logged more than 10.0 tackles in 2011, including incredible cornerback Chase Minnifield (three interceptions, eight passes broken up, 7.0 tackles for loss).

The losses are potentially significant, but let's talk about what the Hoos actually return. The linebacking corps should be stout. Middle linebacker Steve Greer (6.0 tackles for loss, four passes broken up) is solid, LaRoy Reynolds (8.0 tackles for loss) is a missile from the weakside, Ausar Walcott and Henry Coley showed potential in backup duty, and four-star freshman Kwontie Moore joins the mix this fall. The linebackers were aided considerably by a stout line last year, but they should improve enough to offset the losses up front.

If there's reason for optimism up front, it comes in the simple fact that new starting tackles Will Hill and Justin Renfrow looked great this spring. Granted, it was against a banged-up Virginia offensive line (everything in the spring is zero-sum, of course), but there is at least some hope there. Hill was a strong piece of last year's rotation and posted better disruptive stats than Jenkins (7.0 tackles for loss, two passes broken up). Ends Jake Snyder, Bill Schautz and Brent Urban, who average a healthy 268 pounds, showed some level of potential last year, combining for 11.0 tackles for loss; 9.0 of those came among just 31.0 tackles from Schautz and Urban. Departed end Cam Johnson was all-or-nothing last year (just 22.5 tackles, 11.0 of which were behind the line), and it appears that his replacement might be the same.

So that leaves the secondary. Without Minnifield and both starting safeties, regression is almost inevitable. But the Cavaliers do still boast sophomore corner Demetrious Nicholson, who lived up to his four-star hype as a freshman. He picked off two passes, broke up another eight, and logged two tackles behind the line of scrimmage. He also made 51.5 tackles, which shows that teams feared him quite a bit less than Minnifield and attempted to pick on him. As a sophomore, he should respond pretty well to covering teams' No. 1s. Beyond Nicholson, however, it's a crapshoot. Four-star sophomore Brandon Phelps didn't see much playing time last year (he fought it out with Drequan Hoskey for the starting role opposite Nicholson), three-star sophomore Anthony Harris "led" the other returnees with just 10.0 tackles, sophomore safety Pablo Alvarez might be healthy after missing last year with injury, and … we'll see. It is easily the biggest question mark on the team. At least, it's the biggest question mark outside of special teams, which wasn't very good last year and must replace its kicker, punter and kickoffs guy.

Defining Success

It is always tricky defining success a year after an unlikely breakthrough. The stats usually suggest a step backwards is coming, but fans typically expect another step forward. So we'll just say that with a tricky but winnable seven-game home slate (Richmond, Penn State, Louisiana Tech, Maryland, Wake Forest, Miami and North Carolina) and winnable road trips to Duke and, potentially, N.C. State, Virginia should be able to aim for an approximation of last year's win total. Seven or eight wins should be perfectly acceptable in a consolidation-of-gains year.

Prognosis

Whether Virginia takes a step backwards in 2012 or not, the 2011 season redefined the Cavs' trajectory. After George Welsh and Al Groh crafted consistently decent teams in Charlottesville -- Welsh won at least seven games in a season for 13 straight years but only once won 10, and Grow won 25 games from 2002-04 and another nine in 2007 -- the program ran off the rails a bit. Groh's tenure finished with eight wins in two years, and London won just four in 2010. The Cavs needed a breakthrough season to prove that they could still reach their previous, perfectly solid heights, and they got that. Make another bowl in 2012, let a host of young players develop, and aim for bigger things in the future, whether anybody else believes in them or not.

For more on Hoos football, visit Virginia blog Streaking The Lawn.

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