Welcome back to our 2019 Football Season Preview. To view our preview table of contents and read already-completed pieces, click here or on the Series button above.
Counting down the days until the season kicks off, we're ready to start breaking down the schedule game-by-game, with summaries of each team we'll face and our confidence level in the Hoos to get that win. Today, we'll tackle the first four games of the 12-game slate.
Date: Saturday, Aug. 31, 7:30 p.m.
Location: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, Pa.
2018 Record: 7-7 (6-2 ACC)
Last Meeting: Pittsburgh 23, Virginia 13, Nov. 2, 2018, at Virginia
Athlon Preseason Ranking: 54th (4th in the Coastal)
CFN Preseason Ranking: 56th (6th in the Coastal)
Strengths: Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi fired offensive coordinator Shawn Watson in the offseason and hired former Massachusetts coach Mark Whipple to lead that unit. Whipple’s resume includes the early development of Ben Roethlisberger when he was quarterbacks coach with the Steelers, and Narduzzi hopes Whipple can get more out of returning starting QB Kenny Pickett, who will have intriguing weapons to throw to, including Maurice Ffrench, who recorded 35 catches for 515 yards and six TDs in 2018. Ffrench also had 8.6 yards per carry and a pair of TDs, but on just 19 totes, and he added two kick return TDs. I’m sure Pitt wants to get him more touches. And Taysir Mack caught 25 passes for 22.3 yards per reception. On the other side of the ball, safety and leading tackler Damar Hamlin (90 stops, two picks, four breakups), should be joined in the secondary by cornerback Jason Pinnock, who also had a pair of interceptions last season. Cornerback Dane Jackson is back, too, and although he didn’t record any interceptions, he did have 14 breakups to go along with four tackles for losses. Defensive tackle Keyshon Camp returns after leading Pitt with 18 QB pressures. Linebacker Elias Reynolds tallied 49 tackles, 3.5 for losses, and a sack.
Weaknesses: Pickett was underwhelming last season, completing 58.1 percent of his passes for 1,969 yards, 12 TDs, and six interceptions, and he was sacked 33 times behind a line that lost four starters. With two 1,000-yard running backs departing in Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall (and a combined 21 scores), the Panthers are looking for more production out of their passing game, and if Pickett can’t improve behind a new-look offensive line and new OC, backup QBs Nick Patti and Davis Beville could get their shots. At running back, A.J. Davis, Todd Sibley Jr., V’Lique Carter (137 yards and two TDs on just nine carries against Duke in 2018), and the top recruit in Pitt’s 2018 class, Mychale Salahuddin, should all get chances to step up. Despite his reputation as a builder of great defenses at Michigan State, Narduzzi’s Pitt defenses haven’t been anything special. Last year’s edition gave up 27.8 points and 387.6 yards per game, firmly middle-of-the-pack numbers nationally. And on Aug. 9, Pitt’s defense got bad news: DE Rashad Weaver, who led the unit with 14 tackles for losses and 6.5 sacks, tore his ACL in practice and is out for the season.
Summary Thoughts: Besides Virginia Tech, no team in the Coastal has been a bigger thorn in Virginia’s side recently than Pitt. The Cavaliers have managed just one win over the Panthers since they joined the ACC in 2013 when the Wahoos held on for a 24-19 home win in 2014. Last season, UVa had a chance to really grab complete control of the division in the mud at Scott Stadium, but a controversial horse collar penalty helped turn the tide of a close game, Mandy Alonso went down with an injury, and the Pitt running game ran wild. Meanwhile, UVa’s offense just couldn’t find a spark in an ugly 23-13 loss that helped Pitt eventually claim the Coastal. This game could really set the tone for the season. If the Cavaliers can win on the road against a division opponent that has been tough for them to beat, then they can start to think about a Coastal title and possibly more (by more, I mean eight, nine, or 10 wins, not necessarily taking down Clemson haha), even though they of course wouldn’t say that. Lose, and then it is back to square one and trying to get to 6-7 wins. I think it is that significant of a game. The last time UVa opened the season against an FBS opponent, it lost to UCLA 34-16 in 2015. This is a very different UVa team yes, but I’m just emphasizing the Hoos have to be ready. Having lots of returning starters should help, but this is no ordinary FCS opener. It is a division rival on the road, and if UVa wants to go places in 2019, it’s got to be ready to go quickly.
Win Confidence (1 to 10): 5
Date: Friday, Sept. 6, 8 p.m.
William & Mary
Location: Scott Stadium, Charlottesville
2018 Record: 4-6 (3-4 CAA)
Last Meeting: Virginia 28, William & Mary 10, Sept. 2, 2017, at Virginia
Athlon Preseason Ranking: N/A
CFN Preseason Ranking: N/A
Strengths: The defense has some strong performers returning, including its leading tackler, sacker, and pass defender: linebacker Nate Atkins (68 tackles, including 5.5 for losses), defensive lineman Bill Murray (4.5 sacks), and safety Isaiah Laster (four interceptions). Also, four offensive linemen return.
Weaknesses: The offense mustered just 13.6 ppg and 14 TDs a season ago, and QB Shon Mitchell had just 1,281 passing yards, six TDs, and six picks while completing 59.3 percent of his passes. Leading running back Albert Funderburke is back, but he was only able to record 261 yards and one score on 3 yards per carry.
Summary Thoughts: Hoos Place would like to take a moment and honor the life of W&M running back Nate Evans, who was shot to death in Norfolk in March. Evans was a graduate of Lee-Davis High School in Mechanicsville, located just north of Richmond, and the team’s leading rusher as a true freshman in 2017. New coach Mike London certainly did not walk into an easy situation, as Evans was killed just a few months after he took the job. We know London is an inspirational man of faith and a great leader to help guide the team through the tragedy.
London replaces longtime coach Jimmye Laycock, who retired after a distinguished career of almost four decades at W&M. London worked under Laycock in Williamsburg from 1991-94 as the Tribe’s defensive line coach. After stepping down at UVa following the 2015 season, London spent 2016 at Maryland as the associate head coach and DL coach, and then moved to Howard to become its head coach. He improved the Bison from 2-9 to 7-4 in his first season, a campaign highlighted by a season-opening victory at UNLV, which was favored by 45 points. It was the biggest upset in terms of the point spread in college football history. Last year, HU dipped a bit to 4-6. London won’t have anything to lose and won’t be scared by UVa. I’m sure he’ll invoke his big upset with Howard and the 10-year anniversary of W&M toppling UVa in Charlottesville when the Tribe arrive at Scott Stadium on the first Saturday of September. Virginia will come into this game as a big favorite and will be expected to take care of business. That’s exactly what the Wahoos should do, BUT we’ve seen a short turnaround following a big season opener bite other good teams as well. Namely, Virginia Tech’s 2010 team comes to mind. That’s the one that was edged by Boise State at FedEx Field in a thriller then lost at home to James Madison a few days later. Granted, Tech didn’t face Boise until Memorial Day night, so the turnaround was shorter than UVa’s will be. Virginia shouldn’t have any issues with W&M, but I’d rather not see it waltz lackadaisically into its home opener against a team it should crush. I have confidence Mendenhall won’t let such a letdown take place.
Win Confidence (1 to 10): 9.5
Date: Saturday, Sept. 14, 7:30 p.m.
Location: Scott Stadium, Charlottesville
2018 Record: 5-7 (3-5 ACC)
Last Meeting: Florida State 34, Virginia 20, Nov. 8, 2014, at FSU
Athlon Preseason Ranking: 31st (3rd in the Atlantic)
CFN Preseason Ranking: 36th (2nd in the Atlantic)
Strengths: Kendal Briles is the new the offensive coordinator after Walt Bell left to become head coach at Massachusetts (and I’m sure plenty of fans are saying good riddance). Second-year coach Willie Taggart is obviously hoping the young offensive mind who has pulled the strings on high-powered offenses at Houston, Baylor, and Florida Atlantic can breathe some life into an attack that last year averaged just 361 yards and 22 points. RB Cam Akers has NFL-level talent and size (5’11’’ 212 pounds) but couldn’t get much going behind the Seminoles’ bad offensive line in 2018 after breaking the school’s freshman yardage record in 2017 (1,025 yards). Akers averaged 4.4 yards per carry last year and 5.3 in 2017, recording six and seven TDs, respectively. Wideout Tamorrion Terry is a dangerous threat who tallied 35 receptions in 2018 with eight TDs and 21.3 yards per catch. James Blackman is expected to take over full time under center, and if he can’t get it done, Wisconsin transfer Alex Hornibrook is waiting for a chance. Blackman has shown flashes and in limited time last season, he completed 64.7 percent of his 51 passes with five scores and one pick. Safety Hamsah Nasirildeen is back after leading the team with 91 tackles, and he displayed versatility in the spring, practicing some at linebacker in 3-4 alignments. Linebacker Dontavious Jackson collected seven tackles for losses, and cornerback Stanford Samuels returns after pacing the defense with four picks.
Weaknesses: The offensive line was embarrassing a season ago, as Deondre Francois was sacked 29 times, and Blackman six. Two seasons ago, Blackman was also sacked 29 times. As I already mentioned, the Seminoles have a strength at running back in Akers, but it’s been hard for to find room to run. The OL also gave up the most tackles for losses in the conference. The line has to be better for FSU to take a step. And despite some talent, the defense underperformed. FSU was the worst team in the ACC against the pass and gave up 32 ppg. The defensive coordinator is still the same, Harlon Barnett. He was the co-defensive coordinator at Michigan State for three seasons before coming to Tallahassee to join Taggart.
Summary Thoughts: Quick: When was the last time Virginia hosted Florida State? The answer is 2010, in London’s first season, and I remember being at the game. UVa was 2-1 with victories over Richmond and VMI and a three-point road loss to USC. The London era seemed to be off to a good start, despite the wins being over FCS opponents. No. 23 FSU promptly crushed Virginia 34-14. The ACC’s wacky schedule rotation that I can’t explain had Virginia playing at Tallahassee the next season and also in 2014, which was the last season these two tangled on the gridiron. Both of those games went pretty well. The former of course was London’s marquee win at Virginia, with the Cavaliers taking down No. 23 FSU, 14-13, in a crazy ending (I can still hear Dave Koehn yelling, “And Virginia’s gonna win anyway!”), setting up the division-title clinching battle with Virginia Tech the next week. The 2014 matchup came the year after the Seminoles smoked almost everyone and claimed the national title, so the Cavaliers’ 34-20 loss at No. 2 and undefeated FSU didn’t seem that bad.
In line with the 2011, 2005, and 1995 wins in this series for UVa, this is a night game and potentially another huge matchup, if Florida State is looking more like its usual self. If UVa takes care of W&M and ODU like it should (yes, yes, we hear you Hokies), the ‘Noles and Panthers are the teams standing in the way of a 4-0 UVa start. I am worried now that Briles is the offensive coordinator. I am glad that the game is early in the season, presumably before FSU may hit its stride. But I am thinking the offense will be improved, maybe just not a lot by that point. Hopefully the new-look OL has issues dealing with what should be a formidable UVa DL. FSU’s defense will probably take a step up, too, despite the loss of pass rusher Brian Burns, because it has eight returning starters. I am thinking the atmosphere, especially if UVa beats Pitt (and W&M) will be really lively, probably eclipsing the atmosphere against Miami last year. UVa will need to be ready to bring energy and rudely welcome the Seminoles in what will be their first road game after facing Boise State in Jacksonville and Louisiana-Monroe at home. Will we see a repeat of 2018 for FSU? Or will it more resemble the FSU we are used to seeing, a team that often waltzes to nine-plus wins? I’m thinking the answer will land somewhere in the middle, but either way, the Wahoos need to be ready to go, because it could be another big moment for the program.
Win Confidence (1 to 10): 5; Kind of a cop out I know, but can make a better judgment after seeing what FSU – and Virginia for that matter – does in its first two games.
Date: Saturday, Sept. 21, TBA
Location: Scott Stadium, Charlottesville
2018 Record: 4-8 (2-6 CUSA)
Last Meeting: First meeting
Athlon Preseason Ranking: 117th (7th in CUSA East)
CFN Preseason Ranking: 115th (5th in CUSA East)
Strengths: Middle linebacker Lawrence Garner returns after leading last season’s team in tackles with 100, nine for losses, and adding an interception and a forced fumble. Jordan Young is also back at an outside linebacker spot, and he was ranked third in tackles with 75, including three for losses. Joe Joe Headen and Lance Boykin are back at cornerback. Headen had no picks but seven breakups and Boykin recorded one INT. Offensively, leading rusher Kesean Strong is back after recording 499 yards (4.7 yards per carry) and nine touchdowns to go along with 21 catches and a pair of scores.
Weaknesses: Blake LaRussa put up some pretty good numbers at QB, but he’s skipping his senior season to attend seminary school. Sophomore Steven Williams began 2018 as the starter but didn’t impress, completing just 50.6 percent of his passes for 507 yards, two TDs, and two picks. He had offseason shoulder surgery and is competing for the starting spot with a pair of junior college transfers in Messiah deWeaver and Stone Smartt (no, not made up names or spellings). DeWeaver led East Mississippi Community College to the NJCAA national championship. Yep, that’s the same school that Bryce Perkins’ junior college lost to in the 2017 title game. Redshirt freshman Jonah Fitzgerald and true freshman Hayden Wolff are also in the mix. Top receivers Jonathan Duhart and Travis Fulgham are gone. The leading returning wideout is Darrell Brown, and he caught just nine passes a year ago. Virginia Tech transfers Eric Kumah and Chris Cunningham are part of the receiving corps. The line needs to be better, too, after LaRussa was sacked 29 times. Despite a few good returners, ODU’s defense was awful in 2018, giving up 471 yards and 36 points per game, two of the worst marks in all of FBS. The Monarchs have a new defensive coordinator, David Blackwell, who was East Carolina’s defensive coordinator. ECU ranked 101st in yards given up a game, not a lot better than ODU’s mark, which was 118th.
Summary Thoughts: Coach Bobby Wilder has been at Old Dominion since 2009, when the school reinstated the program. From that year through 2013, the Monarchs went 46-14. In three of those seasons, they were an FCS Independent. In the other two years, they were part of the CAA. Since transitioning to FBS, life has been mostly difficult. Yes, they went 10-3 in 2016 and won the Bahamas Bowl, but in the other four years, ODU is a combined 20-28, and last year’s 4-8 mark was his worst while at the school. In reality, this game should not be that much more difficult than the William & Mary game. Even Liberty, which went 6-6 last season and lost to Virginia 45-24, defeated ODU 52-10 a season ago. But the Cavaliers don’t have to look far to see what can happen if they aren’t prepared. ODU shocked the Hokies in Norfolk last season 49-35, and I imagine Bronco Mendenhall and veteran players will remind the team of that and use it as a way to make sure they are mentally ready.
The first part of the season is very tricky for UVa. There are two almost-certain wins and two games that could be very significant to how this season turns out. UVa will need to live up to the cliché and take each game one at a time. Looking forward to Florida State could cause it to overlook W&M a bit. Checking ahead to the ACC schedule could cause the Hoos to not take ODU seriously. But ODU’s upset of Tech gives something for the coaches to point to and say, “Don’t do this.” And like I mentioned above about W&M, having Mendenhall should help in these situations. If there’s a team that I think should be mentally prepared for the up-and-down nature of the first four weeks of the season, it is this one.
Win Confidence (1 to 10): 9