2011 Record: (8-5, 5-3 in ACC)
Head Coach: Mike London (36-18 All-Time, 12-13 at Virginia)
Last Bowl Game: 2010 Humanitarian Bowl: lost to NIU 40-17
Out of Conference: 9/1 vs Richmond, 9/8 vs Penn St, 9/22 at TCU, 9/29 at La Tech
Toughest ACC Away Games: 9/15 at GT, 11/3 at NC St, 11/24 at Virginia Tech
Toughest ACC Home Games: 11/10 vs Miami (Fl), 11/15 vs UNC
Stat to Cheer: Opponents scored on 72% of trips to red zone (2nd in ACC, 8th in Nation)
Stat to Fear: 28 turnovers (last in the ACC, 104th in Nation)
Phil Steele's Returning Starters: (Offense: 7; Defense: 5; Specialists: 0)
Key Defensive Returnees: LB Steve Greer (103 tackles), LB LaRoy Reynolds (88 tackles), CB Demetrious Nicholson (60 tackles, 2 INT)
Key Offensive Returnees: RB Perry Jones (915 yds, 5 TD), RB Kevin Parks (709 yds, 9 TD), QB Michael Rocco, (13 TD, 12 INT), OT Morgan Moses, OT Oday Aboushi
Inside Scoop with Lambeth Field:
CFBZ: After going 4-8 in his debut season, Mike London led the Cavs to an 8-5 record in 2011. What were the primary reasons behind the jump in wins?
Lambeth Field: Like most new coaches in a rebuilding project, you are trying to implement your philosophy with players you did not recruit. Case in point, Virginia changed from a 3-4 defense to 4-3. So not only do you have to essentially start from scratch with your front 7, you have to redefine roles for each player. In 2010, the Hoos were one of the worst rushing defenses in the ACC. 2011 saw them improve to 4th and cut out over 600 opponent yards as they became more comfortable.
On offense, it was a switch from Groh’s last ditch effort in 2009 to go to a spread offense, to London’s ground and pound. Again, the Cavs saw a 500 yard spike in rushing over the previous year. These two changes saw a 7 point swing in offensive ppg to defensive ppg from 2007, and when 5 wins were by 7 points or less, that is the most linear difference from the two years. Now there are a lot more subtile differences, like 3rd down defense efficiency (down from 42% to 33%) and 2nd year QB Mike Rocco managing the offense better over a 7 game stretch that lead to some key wins, but now that the players know what London is trying to do and as more of his pieces are game ready, Virginia should see more consistent results.
CFBZ: Despite a very good season, Virginia was left with a bad taste in it's mouth with losses against Virginia Tech and Auburn. What did the team learn from those losses?
Lambeth Field: They found out that, while they made massive strides from the previous administration, there is still a long way to go. Virginia was a mediocre 4-3 before they got hot and finished the year 8-4, but a lot of those wins were close and had a bunch of breaks go our way (see University, Florida State). But as Virginia got more efficient, there were still some issues that were evident all year that were glossed over by victories. Three things still stand out.
First, while rushing defense improved leaps and bounds, the secondary still had a lot of issues, mainly in safety coverage. More often than not, whether it was skill or ability, the middle was open all year long, and VT and Auburn exploited it a variety of ways from post routes or running backs catching the safeties cheating up and breaking long runs for touchdowns. Second, our special teams were deplorable, from missed field goals, to the return game, to trying fake plays when clearly other teams are expecting it. Lastly, when Rocco manages a game, we are in a position to win. When he is off, he throws bad picks and pick 6s, and usually lose. Outside of the Miami game and the last drive of the FSU game, he rarely ‘won’ a game on his shoulders. And as we move forward, these are the main areas that Virginia has to improve on.
CFBZ: What areas do the Cavs need to improve in 2012 if they want to contend for an ACC Championship?
Lambeth Field: I kind of hit on the big keys this year we will be looking at to take that next step, but there are a lot more subtile points that Virginia needs to work on if they can win the Coastal in 2012. One of the biggest and still polarizing issues this year comes down to quarterback. While Rocco knows OC Lazor’s offensive system, he is not a big play maker. He is very accurate in the mid-to-intermediate passing game, Virginia uses screens and a combination of over the middle and out routs to pick up yardage. The two X-factors that really has divided Wahoo Nation has been (1) incoming 1st year Greyson Lambert, who wowed fans across the state in the spring as a grey shirt with his arm and touch in all aspects of the passing game and (2) the out of left field addition of Phillip Simms to the UVa roster. Now the second point pretty much mutes the first point as Lambert is this will most certainly change his grey shirt to red. But, Simms has put in for a hardship waver to the NCAA, and if he can play in 2012, you might see a heated competition between Rocco’s familiarity vs. Simms overall skill set. Either way, production from the QB spot is going to be key. Second, we have a ton of wide receivers on the roster, and need a few to really stand out, mainly in separating from corners outside the numbers. Tim Smith, Darius Jennings, and Dom Terrell all have the ability and speed to do so, but have not put it all together in a game scenario. Lastly, on defense, while run stopping has improved leaps and bounds, quarterback pressure and sacks from the defensive line was not really there. They would get into the backfield, but couldn’t finish off the play. From spring practices, it looks like a more explosive line, but again, this was practice and Virginia will need to see that in game situations.
CFBZ: What is your gut feeling on the final record for 2012 and what makes the season successful in your eyes?
Lambeth Field: There is kind of a few different ways to approach this answer. First off, the schedule this year, especially non-conference is a lot harder from the year before. While we get in state I-AA Richmond to open up the season, we also play Penn State at home the next week, then head to Georgia Tech, TCU, then come home to Louisiana Tech (who played TCU very well in their bowl game in 2011). Getting through that stretch above .500 will be a challenge. Luckily, the next 6 games are all winnable, finished up by a trip to Blacksburg to close out the season. 8-4 is possible, but 7-5 would be a realistic conclusion. As far as a ‘successful’ season, London set the bar pretty high last year for his young team by turning around a 3-9 team in 2009 to an 8-5 team in only 2 years, where we thought that it might happen either this year or next. In addition, Virginia last year was the only team ever in the history of college football to win at Miami and at Florida State in the same year. Very hard to live up to in his junior campaign. Not taking a huge step back this year would be viewed as an acceptable year. In the hay day of Virginia Football from 1989 to 1998, Virginia was extremely consistent: around 8 wins a year and bowl appearances, peppered with wins over Virginia Tech. A return to that consistency should be step one before the Hoos can realistically start thinking about conference championships or BCS (or whatever it will become) games. But the overall measure, for better or worse, will be wins and losses against Virginia Tech, and until Virginia can break the 8 game losing streak, the Cavaliers can’t think of Coastal or ACC Championships. At the end of the day, Virginia should have a solid season and a 2nd consecutive bowl appearance should be in the mix.
The Cavs schedule this year is an interesting one. They have two very tough out of conference dates with Penn State and TCU. They also face Louisiana Tech and Richmond and while those should definitely be wins, those teams aren't pushovers. What makes the schedule even more interesting is that the Cavs don't play Clemson or FSU this year. Missing out on two of the best three teams in the conference is definitely a big deal. In conference, there are a number of ways the season could play out for Virginia but they definitely have a shot at contending for the ACC crown because of their schedule.
Despite finishing 8-5, Virginia actually scored less points than their opponents in 2011. In order to do that you have to win some close games (won five games by a score or less) and you have to get taken to the woodshed at least once (lost to Virginia Tech 38-0). Virginia found a way to win games in 2011. The big question is if they can continue to find those breaks in 2012.
One pretty basic rule is that if you turn the ball over less than your opponent, you have a much better chance to win. In 2011, Virginia lost five games and in those five games they turned it over a whopping 16 times against just 4 takeaways (that's a turnover margin of -2.40). They only won two games in which they lost the turnover battle (a three point win at Indiana and a one point win against lowly Idaho). It's pretty basic, but control the turnovers and control the football with the running attack and the Cavs have a chance to be very successful this season.
Another interesting thing to look at is starters lost to injury. According to Phil Steele, Virginia was third in the Nation with just four starters lost to injury. Cavs fans hope this happens again but it's not likely and this year we will find out a much better idea of the depth that London has built at Virginia in his short tenure. Do they have guys that can step in and replace their first tier starters?
I think Virginia will have a good team this year. I think they will be scrappy and competitive but ultimately I think they take a step back in terms of their win-loss record this season.
2012 Prediction: 6-6
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