Team: Virginia Cavaliers
2014 Record: 5-7 (3-5)
Recap: Missed opportunities leave the Cavaliers bowl-less.
Despite a 5-7 record, Virginia was far from a bad football team. It wasn’t exactly great offensively, but on the defensive side of the ball, the Cavaliers held their own. Mike London’s squad got off to an impressive 4-2 start before things unraveled, causing Virginia to lose five of its final six games. All the Cavaliers needed was a couple of breaks here and there, as five of the team’s seven losses came by eight points or less.
It was a season of missed opportunities for London and company, but the past is the past, and if the head coach wants to save his job, Virginia will need to find a way to get into a bowl game. Given a brutal non-conference slate and a difficult conference schedule, that’s going to be much easier said than done.
Key player: Matt Johns, Jr., QB
Virginia’s quarterback situation last season was an absolute mess, and after Greyson Lambert decided to transfer to Georgia, Johns will now have a chance to be a constant starter under center. While Johns only started three games in 2014, he picked up plenty of valuable experience in getting a lot of playing time, and that should give him confidence entering the new season. There’s no doubt that the offense has to improve in a lot of areas, and the progression will start with Johns.
Biggest strength: Defense, Defense, Defense
The Cavaliers may not be as good as they were a year ago on defense from a statistical standpoint, but there’s a lot of talent here. Although the starting linebacker unit is gone, sophomore safety Quin Blanding returns to lead what should be a very good secondary. Blanding is on a lot of preseason watch lists and has garnered preseason All-American honors from several highly respected publications. Cornerback Demetrius Nicholson should also be healthy, and that’ll give this defense a major boost. Virginia lost a lot of talent on the defensive line, but the pass rush should still be solid.
Biggest weakness: The schedule
You could go with the offense here, but the schedule simply isn’t gonna do this team any favors. Virginia opens up the season with back-to-back games against UCLA and Notre Dame, with the team traveling to Pasadena to take on the Bruins. As if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s still a tricky Friday night clash with Boise State on the schedule before ACC play even begins. From there, road trips to Pittsburgh, North Carolina, Miami, and Louisville will be huge challenges.
Most important game: at Pittsburgh (Oct. 10)
It is not out of the realm of possibility that the Cavaliers could be 1-3 entering October. If that’s the case, winning on the road in their first ACC game will be crucial. A 1-4 start would do nothing but add more and more fire to London’s uncertain future, and with the Panthers in transition under new head coach Pat Narduzzi, this is a winnable game for Virginia. A victory here would allow for some momentum with Syracuse coming to town the following week.
Best-case scenario: 6-6 (4-4)
Most people may see this as being too nice. But after Virginia takes its hits against UCLA and Notre Dame, a four-game winning streak may not be impossible. William and Mary, Boise State, Pitt, and Syracuse are all teams that the Cavaliers can beat if the offense steps up to the challenge. And with so many unknowns with North Carolina and Miami, winning road games against those two wouldn’t be all that shocking. Duke at home could go either way also.
Worst-case scenario: 3-9 (1-7)
Because there doesn’t seem to be a truly great team in the ACC Coastal division, it’s going to be a mess of a division once again. That can be good for a team like Virginia, but it can also be bad if things veer off course early on. This division will be about momentum, and if the Cavaliers can’t find any early on in the ACC campaign, the losses could start piling up in a hurry.
Early prediction: 5-7 (3-5)
It’s really hard to gauge where this team will be come December. Because of all the uncertainty in the Coastal, the Cavaliers will have a chance in every game that they play. However, with still a lot of unknowns on offense, it’s difficult to put them near the top of the pack. And unless they shock the world in those first two non-conference games, Virginia may miss out on a bowl yet again.