The preseason preview is winding down. The next thing we write will be the Pitt game preview. We've covered a lot of ground to this point; in depth position group previews, critical looks at each side of the ball, a game-by-game breakdown of the season, and a look at the rest of the Coastal. Now's the point where our writers share their final thoughts going into the new year, their hopes and fears and everything in between.
Besides the obvious excitement generated simply by the return of football, what I'm really excited about are the position battles in camp. We won't really know the winners until the Pitt game (or game week for Pitt).
Given Coach 2J's best five approach, all the positions are up for grabs. The graduation of Jordan Ellis leaves a huge hole atop the depth chart at RB and there are seemingly limitless options. OZ is with the Atlanta Falcons, so who steps us as the go to receiver? There are a lot of talented options but they all have similar talents. Who breaks out? Will the TE position get emphasized and who then might emerge behind Tanner Cowley?
One offense, I'd love to see less reliance on two or three players. I think the talents are diverse enough, and similar in ability, that we can avoid becoming predictable by utilizing more of the players on that side of the ball.
On defense, all eyes are on linebacker for me. Two of the four spots are given (Mack, Snowden). But with two spots up for grabs, there are plenty of candidates for those openings (more outside than inside in reality). Whoever takes the baton from Chris Peace will have earned it throughout a grueling August.
The anticipated depth on defense should also let Bronco, Nick Howell, and Kelly Poppinga to wreak havoc with formations and lineup combinations. It has potential to be a beautiful thing for fans that love a hyper, swarming yet disciplined defense.
Also, don't overlook the battle at the specialist positions. Brian Delaney is in play for kickoff specialist (seems a given), place kicker, and at punter. Ideally Nash Griffin or Justin Duenkel steps up and wins the spot at punter or place kicker, respectively. Or they both knock off Delaney. And that should give UVA fans a lot of confidence, especially at place kicker as Delaney was a season saving find at the position in 2018.
Go Hoos! Beat Pitt! Beat VPI!
Regular Season Prediction: 10-2 (7-1 ACC); Coastal Division Champions
My prediction for next season is not only optimistic – it’s somewhat nervous. I’m nervous because of the elephant in the room that this year the first window closing on the Mendenhall era. Year four brings a crop of talent to the fold that is the best Mendenhall will have on aggregate since he got to Charlottesville, and a lot of that talent (Perkins, Hall, Mack, Reed, Dubois) will be gone after this year. I think the team is somewhat aware of this, and rather than fearing for the future, they’re probably lighting a fire under each other that this is the year. You can see it in the promotional videos, the interviews, and talking to the casual fan – the New Standard is reaching its first peak. On paper, this team is ready for the best season in recent school history. That means success comes down to limiting the little mistakes, the last second losses of last season and injuries – three of the hardest factors to control.
Like a great investor, though, the team looks like it’s doing its part to limit that controllable risk. The discipline they’ve developed since 2016, along with growth into the offensive and defense systems, gives me great confidence that the peak can be reached. A Coastal championship, and a New Year’s Six Bowl will hopefully be the rewards for that peak being met.
A breakdown of my season prediction:
@ Pitt: W, 28-21
vs. W&M: W, 42-10
vs. FSU: W, 21-17
vs. ODU: W, 34-14
@ ND: L, 28-17
@ Miami: L, 20-17
vs. Duke: W, 31-21
@ L’Ville: 31-13
@ UNC: W, 34-28
vs. GT: W, 24-10
vs. Liberty W: 49-17
vs. VT: W, 28-27
ACC Championship: vs. Clemson: L, [score redacted]
I know I say this almost every offseason, but this is the most excited I've been about football for a long time. For the first time in nearly a decade (which accounts for the majority of my fandom), Virginia has some real expectations. If it wasn't for what I think is a generational talent in Trevor Lawrence, Bryce Perkins would be a legit ACC player of the year contender. Listening to the broader ACC, and Tech fans in particular, talk about how special of a player Perkins is might be the best complement you can give the Virginia football program in the past season.
That said, like it was last year, the margin for error is slim. There is better depth, yes, and we have a very good quarterback. But this is still a team that limped to the finish a year ago, losing three of its final four games. If it wasn't for the Belk Bowl smackdown against a South Carolina team without its best player in Deebo Samuel, I'm not sure the optimism would be as high. If there's one thing I've learned watching college football, it's that bowl games are fluky and not always the best indicator of success. The win was absolutely a morale boost; it was the first time Virginia had headed into the offseason off a win since 2005. But if Virginia didn't win that game, on paper, the 2018 season wouldn't have looked all that much different from the 2017 one, when Virginia again limped to the finish. The sting from the inexcusable loss to Virginia Tech would probably feel much sharper, too.
Mendenhall hasn't shied away from expectations as he's rebuilt this program from the ground up, but he's had some missteps. I don't mind the confidence he has in his program, but he's made some mistakes. He shouldn't have promised a bowl game in 2016, when the team went 2-10, and he should have managed the game better last season against Virginia Tech, where conservatism cost the team the game. And I hope we're not going to look back and think Mendenhall made a mistake laying down Coastal-title expectations like he did at ACC media days. Perhaps this is just my persistent belief that Virginia football can't have nice things, and I think the media blew the comments a bit out of proportion. But Mendenhall didn't do himself any favors, either. While I don't think teams will necessarily remember Virginia as the preseason Coastal favorite the Friday night before they face them, Mendenhall essentially eliminated any chance of peacefully flying under the radar, which is where I think many Virginia fans, myself included, feel most comfortable.
The team knows it must be ready for Pittsburgh week one, and a Saturday night home contest against Florida State two weeks later will be equally as important in Virginia's path to the Coastal title. Virginia really needs to win those games. A Friday night game in Miami won't be easy, and we know what normally happens when we play Virginia Tech. So I urge caution, because unlike past years where Virginia has eased into the schedule against non-conference foes, we'll know the true makeup of this team very quickly. Hopefully they look good.
But the benefit of the early tests is the way it allows the schedule to play out. The final three games of the season are at home, and while I'll undoubtedly miss the crisp October Saturdays in Charlottesville, it sets up for a good run. Playing recent FBS-add Liberty the week before Tech is nice, too. I also just generally like where games fall -- William & Mary before Florida State, ODU before Notre Dame, a bye before Miami, and a late season bye before Liberty (which is before Virginia Tech). We got lucky with a lot of these.
I'm not going to make a record prediction, but I think this team has a legit shot at the Coastal. That, plus the finale against Virginia Tech, will define the season for me. Cheers to all as I hope we enjoy a heck of a ride.
"Cautiously optimistic" is probably the best way to describe where I'm at right now. When we kick-started the preview, my opening thoughts gave away some enthusiasm, and I admitted that I'm bound for Pittsburgh over Labor Day weekend because I want to see in person what this team can do.
But I also acknowledge that this team winning the Coastal is still arguably a long shot, and that even improving on last season is far from a sure thing. The O-Line has a lot to prove, and will face a slate of defensive front sevens that range from solid (Pitt) to worrisome (VT) to elite (Miami). Bryce Perkins, as a mobile quarterback, will take more hits in the open field than we might like, and that always raises questions of durability. And while I love this staff's development of hard-working players, the baseline talent level is still below that of a number of our opponents like Miami, FSU, ND, and even Tech.
First things first, I want to see this team really handle it's business against the teams it ought to beat. That means not only the non-Power teams (W&M, ODU, and Liberty) but a pair of ACC programs expected to really struggle in Year 1 of a ground-up rebuild (Georgia Tech and Louisville). Virginia needs to score five solid wins against those five opponents for the season's baseline to even be set.
Matching/exceeding the results of the last two years will then hopefully come down to a trio of games that Virginia arguably should win, but by no means are givens. The road opener at Pitt sees a Panther team coming off a 7-7 season (the worst Coastal winner in memory) with question marks across their offense; it's Virginia's to lose I think, but we've been snake-bitten against Pitt for years and the road can be unforgiving. The second of this trio is a visit from Duke, whose number Virginia has had in recent years but is always well coached under the timeless coach Cutliffe. Lastly, a road trip to Chapel Hill will come when the Tar Heels have had two full months to get into a comfort zone with new coach Mack Brown's systems; they may actually be hovering around .500 at that point and hungry for wins to get to bowl eligibility, and UVA will need to be on point to get that road W.
The remaining four games will set the ceiling. Florida State was a mess last year but is still stocked top-to-bottom with elite athletes and if they've actually solved some of their problems with a new OC (Kendal Briles) and a second offseason under HC Taggart, they'll be a really tough opponent. Visiting South Bend will see the Hoos as likely the biggest underdogs they'll be all year, the Irish currently a Top 10 team, though we'll get them a week after they play a road date at Georgia and maybe we can catch them reeling. Miami is, with Virginia, considered a frontrunner for the Coastal, with Manny Diaz being promoted from DC to HC keeping their elite defense in place; it's another tough road date for the Hoos, though at least we'll have a bye week to prepare. And lastly, the Black Friday date against Virginia Tech needs no context; week 14 of the season means anything can happen between now and then with respect to health and momentum, so best not to even think about it for now.
With high hopes come expectations. There are different potential end results with which I'll be thrilled, or content, or disappointed. Fair or not, how things go on Black Friday will likely determine a lot of how I feel come next offseason; another loss means I probably need a Coastal title and ACCCG appearance to feel sated. Conversely, breaking the streak means I'd probably be okay if the team wins its share of games but still falls short of, say, Miami for the division crown. Check neither of those boxes and the offseason will feel pretty flat. Check both those boxes, though? And it's Virginia's best football season since the peak Welsh years.
I'll stop shy of making hard predictions. I just really hope that this is the year things break our way. Last year was on that track before the pair of OT losses took a little luster off the end of the campaign, but on paper this season sets up well assuming Virginia can simply do what it's supposed to, and of course good health reigns.
Call me greedy after the 2019 we've already had, I'm still lusting for even more trophies to fill the case at the end of the year.