Tag Archives: Virginia Cavaliers

The Crossroads: Tennessee Takes Center Stage

Welcome to The Crossroads, which is my weekly look at the teams, players, coaches, etc. that are under the most pressure for this week’s game. I’ll be dropping in every Wednesday since that is the crossroads of the week and I couldn’t come up with a family-friendly title with “Hump” in it.
Let’s dive in, shall we? The list is in no particular order because it’s more interesting that way.

Tennessee

It seems very odd to say a 21-point underdog is facing pressure but such is life when you’re a former SEC power struggling to attain any shred of relevancy. Last year, Butch Jones and company received a pass when its road trip to Oregon went horribly awry. Frankly, the scheduling at Tennessee should be both commended and ridiculed – who goes to Oregon and Oklahoma in back-to-back years? That’s cruel to the best of teams.
As for this game, no one is expecting Tennessee to win. I mean, I did in the preseason, but I like to be different. The goal here for the Volunteers is to be competitive. It’s becoming hard to believe that Tennessee has been so bad for so long. The SEC East could potentially be much, much easier than in years past with South Carolina seemingly down and Florida a giant question mark. At some point, Tennessee has to start competing against top quality teams.
Remember, they took Georgia to overtime and beat South Carolina last year at home. It’s time to take that show on the road.

Bob Stoops

There has been talk that the Tennessee game is a no-win proposition for Bob Stoops, who spent the summer with his chest pumped out after thumping Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. If it’s a close win or, heaven forbid, a loss, that proves the SEC is better than he said. If it’s a blowout, it simply proves the SEC is weak and it won’t help the Sooners in the long-run.
Well, that second part is hogwash – Oklahoma has to wipe the floor with Tennessee. This is what Stoops get for opening his mouth. We saw what Oregon did a year ago to the Volunteers. Stoops and the Sooners need to do something similar.

The AAC

AAC commissioner Mike Aresco should send the Big Ten a Thank You card for its performance last week, which completely obscured the truly putrid day the AAC had. After a successful year one, the conference appears to be nose-diving in year two. Every team that has played has lost. Tulsa was wiped out by Oklahoma. USF couldn’t beat Maryland despite being plus-five in the turnover margin. SMU just lost its coach. The lone bright spot was a close Memphis loss.
If the conference wants to remain as the top non-power conference, they need a huge weekend. Thankfully for the conference, they have multiple opportunities. Houston travels to BYU, UCF travels to Missouri, East Carolina travels to Virginia, UConn hosts Boise State and USF hosts N.C. State. The two most important of these games are UCF and East Carolina, as they are likely to be battling for the conference title with Cincinnati.
The bottom line is the conference needs to start winning some non-conference games soon or it’s going to be a terrible year.

South Carolina’s Defense

Pretty self-explanatory, right? They were torched by Texas A&M in week one and looked extremely shaky against East Carolina last week. Now they face a Georgia team boasting the sport’s best running back and early Heisman frontrunner in Todd Gurley.
Of every team playing this week, none has more on the line than South Carolina, who could see its season be destroyed within three games. They have to win and the only way they do that is if they stop Todd Gurley.

Louisiana-Lafayette players

In Las Vegas, the biggest stunner of the week took place far from the spotlight. Louisiana-Lafayette was a 16-point favorite that got smoked 48-20 by Louisiana Tech. In response, coach Mark Hudspeth moved the players off-limits for media following the game and took the blame all by himself.
The next opponent is Ole Miss so ULL may not get a victory but I’d be stunned if they don’t put up one helluva fight.

Maryland fans

I bought two tickets to a Maryland game in 2012 – my UConn Huskies were in town to face their old coach Randy Edsall. That one purchase led to a barrage of flyers, e-mails and letters from Maryland all summer as they desperately tried to sell tickets. There are very real fears that Maryland’s terrible stadium will be overrun with opposing fans all season as they join the Big Ten.
This week, Maryland welcomes West Virginia, not a Big Ten foe but a traditional rival. Will Terp fans finally stand up and support their currently undefeated team?

Boise State

Speaking of my UConn team – and boy did they win an ugly game last week – they welcome Boise State. This game is an absolute must-win on every level for Boise State. UConn is at least a year away from being very competitive. The Broncos got crunched by Ole Miss on opening night but are making their second cross-country trip for a noon start that will feel like 10 a.m. to the players.

UCLA’s defense

UCLA gave up 469 total yards last week at home to a Memphis team that went 3-9 last year. It was a pathetic performance, assuming that Memphis has not suddenly become an offensive juggernaut.
This week, UCLA heads to JerryWorld to take on a reeling Texas team that is coming off of a complete evisceration at the hands of BYU. The defense needs to play way better.

Rutgers

Here it is Rutgers – your moment of Big Ten glory has finally arrived. Your welcome present? A 2-0 Penn State team that is going to enter the field like bats unleashed from hell after the news they are now eligible for the Big Ten title and a bowl game. The place will be packed. It’s a primetime game on the Big Ten Network.
Many pegged Rutgers for a poor season in the preseason but the opening night win against Washington State recalibrated things. The Scarlet Knights need to capitalize on this momentum now.

Mike London

It’s pretty obvious Mike London got to hang around for another year because he lucked into having two five-star Virginia recruits stay in-state. The opener against UCLA provided some cause for optimism but, in the end, it was still another loss.
Louisville comes to town as a ranked team following its Labor Day beatdown of Miami. Mike London needs a big win at some point this year to validate his tenure and get him another year. Next week’s game is a road trip to BYU. Yikes. Virginia needs to win this game.

Statement, Redemption, Questions, and a Joke

Week #2 in the ACC Coastal was a week for redemption, continuing questions, and one big statement.
Virginia Tech headlined week 2 in the ACC coastal with a road win at Ohio St. There are a several conclusions we can draw from this game. First, Bud Foster remains a most capable defensive coordinator whose defenses are the foundation of Virginia Tech success. Virginia Tech’s defense was expected to be the key to success in 2014 and the Ohio St game did nothing to alter that expectation. The Hokie defense played fast and smart for 4 quarters with few breakdowns. Second, it is also clear from the Ohio St game that Kendall Fuller will be a multi-year, 1st team all-ACC performer before he graduates. On the offensive side of the ball, it looks like the Hokies will finally have a consistent passing attack led by gutty transfer QB Michael Brewer. However, before we crown Virginia Tech the champs of the coastal, a couple of other things were also clear from Saturday’s game. After struggling to put away Navy last week and losing at home this week, there is little doubt that Ohio St is not a top 10 team with or without Braxton Miller. Also, while Big 10 programs are working desperately to upgrade their team speed to compete on the national stage, it was evident that Ohio St does not have top 10 speed on either side of the ball. When the brute force offense of Ohio St matched up against the fast and well schemed defense of Virginia Tech, the result was a big statement win for the Hokies, an embarrassing home loss for Ohio St, and the 3rd high profile loss of the day for the Big10.
Following the trend of teams that appear to be on an upswing, Pitt followed a ridiculous drubbing of Delaware with a solid road win against Boston College. No one will ever confuse the BC home field advantage with Death Valley or The Swamp, but a road win against a potentially solid Boston College team was a confirming win for a Pitt program striving to establish an identity in the ACC. James Connor and Tyler Boyd made statements against the Eagles that they are top tier offensive threats who can carry the Pitt offense and create matchup headaches for the most adroit defensive coordinators. Quarterback Chad Voytic was an efficient game manager against better competition this week and showed flashes of upside throughout the game.  The Pitt defense was impressive as it held Boston College under 300 total yards for the game. After what should be a tune-up against Florida International next week, Pitt can make a statement that they are Coastal contenders in week 4 when they host Iowa.
 
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North Carolina’s performance against San Diego St was a confirmation win as well. The Tar Heels confirmed that their pre-season expectations may have been a tad aggressive. The Aztecs gained over 500 yards against a UNC defense that was equally unimpressive last week against FCS Liberty. Were it not for a late 4th quarter, game-saving interception in the end-zone, Carolina would have entered their early season bye-week with a 1-1 record.
Virginia followed up a strong performance in a losing effort against UCLA with a convincing win over a well coached but over-matched Richmond team. While Virginia fans were pleased with a second week of strong defensive production (7 turnovers and 4 sacks) the Wahoos are going to have to deliver more consistent production on offense to contend for the division crown. In what may be a blessing as well as a curse, both quarterbacks Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns played well for the Cavaliers and a QB rotation may be in the offing for a critical matchup with Louisville this weekend.
For the second week in a row Georgia Tech was underwhelming in victory. This week’s struggle against Tulane was little solace to the GT faithful looking for improved play after a lackluster win against Wofford.
Miami took care of business as expected against Florida A&M dominating all phases of the game. Al Golden’s Hurricane’s did exactly what they needed to do against  a struggling FAMU team. Miami needed a convincing win to rediscover a bit of the Miami swagger which they delivered in spades. A week four matchup against Nebraska in Lincoln will give Miami a chance to make a statement for the 2014 season.
It is hard to make any credible commentary about the 2014 Duke football team. Unfortunately that will continue to be the case for the next two weeks. Head Coach David Cutcliffe’s results at Duke are nothing short of miraculous. However, the 2014 Duke schedule is laughable and sinks the concept of scheduling for success to new depths. The first four opponents for the defending coastal champions are Elon, Troy, Kansas, and Tulane. Every program feasts on cupcakes early in the season, but this cornucopia would give Augustus Gloop a stomachache. The reality is that Duke will be 4-0 after it’s first 4 games yet we will have no idea what kind of football team they have. Maybe next year Duke can save some travel money and schedule all of their out-of-conference games against Southern Conference opponents.
With the exception of Virginia, which plays host to Louisville in what may be the most important game on their schedule, next week’s ACC coastal schedule compares favorably with a yawning festival. We look forward to weeks hence when coastal versus coastal matchups will begin to shake out the division hierarchy for 2014.

Status Check Week for Virginia

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DE Eli Harold leads a UVA defense that needs to stuff Louisville’s rushing attack this weekend. Photo by Mike Ingalls thesabre.com

After the season’s first two weeks Virginia sits at 1-1, precisely where the schedule suggested it would be. The Cavaliers surprised with a game effort against then 7th-ranked UCLA but the victory over FCS opponent Richmond did not provide much in the way of additional insight into the rebuilding campaign. So while UVA has now completed 1/6th of its schedule, we still don’t really have a very good idea which way Virginia’s season is going to break. This week’s tilt against 21st-ranked Louisville should give the Cavaliers a 2014 status check.
Virginia is an early 10-point home underdog against the Cardinals, who are 2-0 after thumping Miami 31-13 in its ACC debut and then hanging 66 on an overmatched Murray State team last weekend. If Virginia is going to improve its football fortunes it will need to beat Louisville for its first win against an FBS opponent in more than a year.  The back end of Virginia’s schedule looks incredibly difficult so the Cavs need to win early and hold serve at home if embattled Coach Mike London is to survive UVA’s overzealous scheduling.
On paper this matchup is intriguing as it pits a Louisville offense that is averaging 48.5 points per game against a Virginia defense that has nine takeaways and has surrendered just two touchdowns on the season.  Strength vs. strength. Murray State was the kind of cupcake matchup that schools use to pad their bowl resumes but that don’t really provide much in the way of an assessment. However, the Miami score was a bit of an eye-opener given that Louisville was expected to take a step back offensively this year after star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater matriculated to the NFL.  Louisville has a monster running back in 241-pound senior Dominique Brown.  Louisville wants to run the ball. Virginia is doing a great job stuffing the run.
Virginia’s defense last weekend overwhelmed Richmond, forcing seven turnovers and continuing the fine effort it showed against UCLA.  Richmond’s QBs did amass 363 passing yards against UVA, but the Cavaliers countered that with three interceptions.   On the season, UVA ranks in the top ten nationally in several defensive statical categories—sacks, turnover margin, fumbles recovered—and would rank 8th nationally in scoring defense if the NCAA only counted points actually given up by the defense in this category instead of total points surrendered. The Cavs have been especially stout against the run, stopping 40% of opponent rushes for a loss or no gain, ranking 5th nationally in that statistic.  It appears that Jon Tenuta’s attacking schemes have taken hold in this, his second season running the defense.
Virginia’s fans would feel a bit more comfortable about a possible defensive letdown this weekend were they not so concerned about the state of the offense. Virginia will need to show a little more on offense this weekend than it has shown so far.  Virginia’s play calling has been unimaginative and coordinator Steve Fairchild seems determined to establish the run despite the young offensive line’s struggles to open rush lanes.  Meanwhile, Virginia is again dealing with a quarterback shuffle.  Greyson Lambert entered the season as the clear starter and anointed team leader but his first half struggles against UCLA gave the coaching staff reason to turn to backup Matt Johns.  While Lambert appeared tentative and burdened by the expectations placed on him, Johns played fast and loose and looked like the second coming of Brett Favre.  The two QBs split time last weekend against Richmond and posted similar stats, but UVA’s offense appears to function better with Johns under center.  For now. If Lambert can increase his comfort level and stay with the play and not check down as quickly, he may regain control of the huddle. For now though, the coaching staff seems content to rotate QBs and play the hotter hand. Critics have noted UVA’s overwhelming propensity to run on first and second down and pass on third down.  UVA will need to mix up the play calling this weekend if the offense is to do its part and relieve some of the pressure on UVA’s defense to hold the line.
Which unit will be exposed this weekend—Louisville’s offense or Virginia’s defense? Louisville, once known only for its basketball team, has done an incredible job building a top-ten athletics program and the football team is the centerpiece of the effort.  Coach Bobby Petrino is back for his second stint at the school and the Cavs are squaring off against the Cardinals for the first time since a 16-15 home win against them in 1989. A home win this weekend would do wonders for the team, its coach, and the beleaguered fan base. You can be sure that the national media will take notice if the Hoos can record a victory over a nationally-ranked team and score its  first conference win since November 2012. Virginia came tantalizingly close against UCLA and that game and the follow up effort against Richmond no doubt has given the team some confidence.  Virginia appears to be missing only one ingredient in its turnaround formula: a winner’s mentality.  Beat Louisville this weekend and Virginia’s 2014 prospects improve considerably.

UVA Turns Heads in Loss to UCLA

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Eli Harold (7) and Mike Moore (32) led a UVA defense that sacked UCLA QB Brett Hundley five times Saturday. Photo by Mike Ingalls thesabre.com

 
UCLA, a preseason top-10 team, did what was expected and beat UVA 28-20 in Charlottesville on Saturday. However, it was the manner in which it won the game that is causing observers to reassess preseason assumptions made about each team.  Is UVA better than expected or is UCLA perhaps not worthy of the preseason national title hype? I think Jeff Ulbrich, UCLA’s defensive coordinator, gave a hint as to the answer when he said after the game Saturday, “Man…Virginia…what a pain in the ass.”  Virginia is going to be a pain in the ass for most of the teams on its schedule this year because this team is much better than was generally thought before kickoff Saturday.
UVA bested UCLA in almost every statistical category on Saturday—more first downs, more rushing yards, more passing yards, more total yards, more plays, more possession time. Virginia’s offensive line, expected to be uneven at best and an outright liability at worst, acquitted itself well against a very good UCLA defense.  Virginia didn’t find much room to run but neither did it yield a sack.  Getting twenty points at kickoff from the oddsmakers, Virginia looked for large portions of the game to be the better team and not just a scrappy underdog playing with the optimism that comes with a new season and a fresh start.
UVA’s defense was predicted to be the team’s strength and that was certainly the case on Saturday. UCLA scored just once offensively. UVA’s front seven dominated, sacking Hundley five times and pressuring him all day long. The Hoos limited UCLA to a 38% percent third-down conversion percentage and stuffed UCLA on both of its 4th down plays. This defense is going to keep it in most games this year if Saturday was any indication.
Unfortunately it was the one category where UCLA posted the better number that foiled Virginia’s upset bid.  UVA committed three turnovers to UCLA’s two. In 2013 UVA managed to score just 13 points off 21 opponent turnovers, an absolutely abysmal statistic. It was therefore encouraging to see UVA score 10 points off the two UCLA turnovers Saturday. What was less encouraging was the fact that UCLA turned UVA’s three turnovers into 21 points, returning two interceptions and a fumble for touchdowns. UVA has football records dating to 1930 and never has an opponent scored three defensive touchdowns in any previous game until UCLA did it Saturday.  Had Virginia tackled the runner on any of the turnover returns I think UVA’s defense would have kept UCLA out of the endzone and the Cavaliers most likely would have won.
Last year UVA was one of the most penalized teams in the conference, repeatedly killing drives with mental mistakes.  Virginia committed only 4 penalties for 20 yards on Saturday and none were of the driving-killing type.  Both coordinators expected much better execution this year and, with but one lamentable exception, that was the case Saturday.  On what turned out to be the game’s most important play with UVA in the red zone and driving for a potential game tying score late in the 4th quarter, QB Matt Johns misread the signal from the sideline and called the wrong play. In an obvious passing situation Johns instead called a running play which gained just two yards and unleashed a torrent of boos from Virginia’s incredulous fans.  For Mike London, Virginia’s head man and a coach whose game management is often subject to Sunday morning scrutiny, John’s gaffe came at just the most brutal possible moment.  After the game, Johns took responsibility for the mistake, no doubt attempting to shield his coach from additional criticism.


Virginia needs to–and will–regain the winner’s mentality this year.  Teams that believe they will win find a way to prevail.  Teams that have forgotten how to win often stumble when the opportunity presents itself.  Staring down a major upset on Saturday, Virginia blinked.  Looking at a ruinous loss, UCLA found a way to beat UVA’s defense for the one score it needed.  UCLA expected to win and it did.  UVA hoped to win and it didn’t. However, UVA’s effort on this past weekend should prove to the team and its doubting fans that 2014 will not be a continuation of 2013’s disastrous campaign.  Coaches don’t extend their careers with moral victories, but Virginia’s effort against UCLA on Saturday proved, to me at least, that the Cavaliers have the physical tools to compete and win.  When the team mixes in a winner’s mentality the Cavaliers might end up being college football’s biggest pain in the ass this year. The University of Richmond should not be too excited about making the trip to Scott Stadium this weekend.

A Dream Season

Congratulations, college football crazies the season is here and I couldn’t be happier. The crowds, the cookouts, the change of the seasons and the ups and downs; I love it all. So far this training camp I have highlighted some players to watch on the 2014 Pitt Panthers as well as giving some reasons for them winning or falling flat in this year’s ACC Coastal Division, but now is the time to go out on a limb and make a prediction for this year. I will give a brief description for each game and the reason for the outcome and I will stand pat whether I am spot on and way off, I stand by my prediction come hell or high water.
So here goes: the Pitt Panthers will finish with a record of 9-3 record and end up in the ACC Championship in North Carolina on December 6.
The Panthers will be 4-1 before their first division game and have some momentum.
Pitt vs. Delaware Blue Hens: Panthers will win 30-17 with some sloppy play early but the big play sophomores on offense and defense will propel the Panthers this game and the first few.
Pitt at Boston College: Panthers 17-10 in a defensive struggle the special teams for Pitt step up
Pitt at Florida International: Panthers 27-10 with starting quarterback Chad Voytik finally starting to get his bearings and a good feel for the offense around him
Pitt vs. Iowa: Iowa 27-17 with Iowa starting to come into the national focus with solid play out of their quarterback and a renewed fervor in the Big Ten forefront (especially with Braxton Miller gone from Ohio State)
Pitt vs. Akron: Panthers 17-7 in a real tussle and a heart stopper for the home fans, Pitt prevails on a 4th quarter defensive touchdown
Pitt at Virginia: Panthers 24-10 and the conference grind begins with this game being the lynch pin with Virginia supposed to be the bottom feeder, Pitt needs to beat the Cavaliers or this season will be shot
Pitt vs. Virginia Tech: Panthers 20-17 in a Thursday night battle the Panthers pull the upset (as they are want to do on Thursday nights against the Hokies. This game will put Pitt into the Top 25 polls
Pitt vs. Georgia Tech: Yellow Jackets 35-10 with the letdown after the big Thursday night game, the Panthers don’t show up on offense, defense or special teams. Head Coach Paul Chyrst calls for a 5:00 a.m. Sunday morning practice to work on the “fundamentals” or just have them run until they puke
Pitt vs. Duke: Panthers 24-20 rebounding after their crushing lose to the Yellow Jackets Pitt comes to play and hard against the outmanned Blue Devils
Pitt at North Carolina: Tar Heels 27-17 and the roller coaster is here with the young Panthers not traveling well to Tobacco Road. The Tar Heels are proving to be the Panthers stiffest competition for Coastal Division Champion
Pitt vs. Syracuse: Panthers 35-17 and the meeting with a familiar and old Big East foe proves just the remedy for the lackluster previous weeks performance.
Pitt at Miami: Panthers 24-13 and the Panthers clinch the Coastal Division and a trip to the ACC Championship. This is a banner season for the Panthers as they are now in the Top 10 in the AP and Coaches poll, can they win the ACC Championship, I will determine that at a later date.
So Panthers fans enjoy this season, it will be a roller coaster with a great ending.

Blue Horseshoe Loves UVa Football

If Virginia football was a stock, a week before the season opens or “trading” starts, would you buy, sell, hold, or avoid at all costs? There is one thing for certain about potentially investing in UVa Football, Inc., the shares are going to be cheap. Beaten down from the historical highs of the late 1980’s and 1990s, UVa football might even be a penny stock as we start the 2014 trading season.
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Like any company battling to win back customer and investor confidence, the 2014 Virginia football season is all about execution.  The ‘Hoos must improve in every phase of the game. There are 14 teams in the ACC. At the end of the 2013 season, in almost every statistical team category, Virginia’s ranking was a double-digit number. Let’s look at the basics. How did Virginia rank in putting points on the board and keeping opponents out of the end zone? This would be like looking at a balance sheet and income statement. Virginia was second to last in the ACC in scoring offense and last in scoring defense. Oddly enough, we were 10th and 11th respectively in passing and rushing yards which suggests that Virginia moved the ball, but then self destructed. This conclusion is supported by the fact that Virginia ranked in the bottom quartile of the NCAA for most penalties per game. Virginia did lead the ACC in one category in 2013…punting yardage. Thanks to Alec Vozenilek who did an outstanding job punting last year combined with the fact that no one in the ACC punted more often than Virginia, the Cavs led the league in the one category where it’s okay to finish last. Are you ready to sink your 401K into UVA Football, Inc yet?
 
When a company doesn’t have the best results to report to the street, investors always look to management for a track record of success and for assets that can drive profitable revenue in the future. Virginia has mixed news here as well. A leadership shakeup just before the 2013 season set the program back 3 years as new schemes were introduced on both offense and defense with predictable results. This is analogous to taking a very large charge against earnings. However, the new leadership has a track record of success. Specifically Tom O’Brien has led major turn around successes at Boston College and NC State as head coach and at UVa working on the staff of Jack…I mean George Welsh. The current staff knows how to win at this level and has the track record to prove it. Additionally, the UVa roster has talent across the board with offensive and defensive playmakers that could play for many of the best national programs. The offensive line is the biggest question mark heading into the UCLA opener on Saturday. It is talented, but young and for the most part untested.  The O-Line sustained two untimely preseason injuries to Jay Whitmire and Sadiq Olanrewaju – both projected starters. If the Offensive line can create a few seams for Kevin Parks and Taquan Mizzell and give Greyson Lambert a little time to find his playmakers, this offense will be vastly improved from 2013. Still not ready to buy?
 
Before you decide whether to invest in UVa football or a different ACC program, remember that many investors lose their shirts chasing last year’s winner. I am not saying that Florida State isn’t going to be very good and potentially repeat as national champion, but the program is flying high, trading at a hefty premium. Clemson is coming off a very productive year and should open the season trading at a premium as well based on recruiting classes that have ranked in the top 15 nationally each of the past 4 years. Other teams like UNC and Miami are going to jump on preseason hype and the promise of improved results over 2013. If I were shorting any program it would be Duke. As wonderful as the turn around story was for Duke football in 2013, the upside to improve on last year’s performance is limited at best. Blue Horseshoe loves Anacott Steel, not Duke Football.
 
If Virginia football was a stock, I’d be buying, but I wouldn’t bet the farm. The best returns are found in under valued stocks that can double or triple over time versus buying the $ 100 stock that goes up five bucks over the same period. There is no program with greater upside than Virginia and many of the pieces in place to deliver on its potential. There is a leadership team in place that has turned around other troubled programs. The talent, based on recruiting rankings is as good or better than many programs in the ACC. The key is execution, making first downs, finishing drives, avoiding stupid penalties, and converting turnovers into points. Virginia didn’t do any of these things well last year and has the stats to prove it. Virginia has the talent and leadership that should produce much improved results in 2014. If Billy Ray Valentine and Louis Winthorpe III can get rich while sending Mortimer and Randolph Duke to the poor house, then Virginia can win 6 games this year and deliver big returns for all of us who believe.

Lambert, London and the Upset Special

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Mike London is counting on Greyson Lambert to lead UVA this year.

Scott Stadium, according to estimates, will be approximately two-thirds full when the University of Virginia plays host to seventh-ranked UCLA at noon on Saturday, indicating what UVA fans think about the state of the school’s football program.  Virginia is a three touchdown underdog and I’d venture that no one except the most delusional UVA fan thinks the Cavaliers have any chance at all. The oddsmakers certainly don’t think so.
Not so fast, everyone.
UVA begins the 2014 season as perhaps college football’s biggest enigma.  They were 2-10 last year and lost nine consecutive games to end the season. Despite that record UVA continues to win recruiting battles against some formidable competition and has a roster this year that is as talented as any in school history.  The coaching staff is deep and peopled with coordinators who have head coaching experience and who have had success leading other schools. UVA has facilities that are on par with the nation’s powerhouse programs.  While unrealistic optimism is everyone’s favorite preseason currency, here is why I believe UVA can deliver what would be viewed as a shocker on Saturday. Virginia will start highly-recruited Greyson Lambert at quarterback on Saturday.  Lambert, from Georgia, chose Virginia over offers from Georgia, Alabama and other SEC powers.  He has a prototypical NFL QB build at 6′ 5″ and 235 pounds.  He has a cannon arm and supposedly can make all the throws.  He has game experience, having played in several games last year as a redshirt freshman. Observers of the program’s struggles over the past decade or so point to inconsistent QB play as a major reason for the team’s disappointing results.  If Lambert can slow the game down and manage the offense effectively, UVA could unlock the talent that is all over this offense.  Lambert is UVA’s most promising QB since current Oakland Raider Matt Schaub was under center for the Cavaliers.
On the other side of the ball, UVA’s defense should be a strength this year.  One rating service has UVA’s defense tabbed as the nation’s 23rd-best heading into the season.  Numerous starters return, including 2013 All-American safety Anthony Harris, super quick and highly motived DE Eli Harold (8.5 sacks in 2013), and team captain and stud middle linebacker Henry Coley. Mix in two of the nation’s top freshmen, Quin Blanding and Andrew Brown, and the notion that UVA’s defense will be formidable appears legitimate.
What else makes UVA difficult to handicap?  Last year UVA brought in new offensive and defensive coordinators.  Both Steve Fairchild (offense) and Jon Tenuta (defense) have admitted that last year was a year of adjustment for both the players and the coaches.  The coaches had to learn the players and the players had to learn the schemes.  Both coordinators expect better execution and fewer mental mistakes this year.
Then there is the big intangible. Head coach Mike London is loved by his players.  Unfortunately, London’s success as a mentor and recruiter has not been matched his success as UVA’s head coach.  The players know that they must play better and win games if London is to keep his job.  How do you figure that kind of motivation into a point spread?
What about UCLA?  The Bruins are highly-ranked and have a Heisman-hopeful QB in Brett Hundley. They are deep and talented and full of swagger.  Will the Bruins look past UVA? The oddsmakers are telling UCLA’s players that they will barely break a sweat on Saturday.  Head coach Jim Mora will caution the team about the dangers inherent in that thinking, but will the players take heed?  UCLA also will face some geographical challenges in this game.  It’s going to be hot.  Really hot.  Not the southern California low-humidity version of hot, but rather the southern version–swampy, sticky, cloying. Expect lots of cramping.   This game kicks off at noon.  That’s 9am Pacific time.  I’d wager that none of these UCLA players have played a 9am game since their Saturday morning Pop Warner days.  There is historical precedent for west coast teams struggling when making the trip east, although Oregon handled UVA easily last year under similar circumstances.
UVA is hard to figure.  No one thinks much of UVA’s chances in this game or really in any game this year given the team’s daunting schedule.  Nevertheless, folks who pay attention to the program honestly believe that UCLA might be walking into a trap this weekend. In games of this type, superior talent almost always wins the day.  Players make plays.  The problem for UCLA is that UVA has lots of playmakers too.  This is a talented team that desperately wants to send a message that last year and the few years before that are not indicative of this program’s potential.  If UVA is still in the game at halftime, watch out. Lots of things will need to fall UVA’s way on Saturday for it to pull the upset special but if that happens, the Virginia Cavaliers will be the talk of college football on Sunday morning.

Virginia Football and George Bailey

GeorgeBailyWhat happens to recruiting when a head coach has losing records in 4 out of 5 seasons? What happens when a disappointing 4-8 season is followed by an even more disappointing season of 2-10? What usually happens is the coach is reported to be “on the hot seat” and recruiting grinds to a halt as big name national and emerging regional recruits look for field success and coaching security in their playing careers. As Virginia fans know, for better or worse, there is rarely anything “usual” about UVa football.
Do you recall George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life”? Remember the scene when he was in Martini’s bar and at the end of his rope? He prayed a brief prayer that changed his life and the fate of Bedford Falls forever… “Dear Father in heaven, I’m not a praying man but if You’re up there and can hear me…” As a result of his prayer, his guardian angel Clarence appears and the story has a tearfully happy ending. The Virginia fan base is a lot like George Bailey headed into this season. We are at the end of our rope. We know that another losing season very likely means the end of Mike London followed by a coaching search to fill a job no one will want and at least 3 more years of rebuilding.
I had written an outline for an article that that focused on the importance of this year’s offensive line to the success of the program for the next several years. Then, Mike London did it again. He secured a verbal commitment from highly touted defensive end recruit Rassol Clemons who chose Virginia over offers from LSU, Tennessee, Clemson, & Kentucky. A few hours later London got a commitment from quickly emerging OL/DL recruit Eli Hanback from Patrick Henry high school just outside of Richmond.
The things that Mike London does on the recruiting trail just don’t happen. He is on the hottest of hot seats. Everyone knows he is a losing season away from being fired, yet for the last two years highly touted recruits with opportunities to play for successful programs with secure coaches continue to line up to join the Virginia program. In the current recruiting season Coach London has room for about 25 players. He has 20 commitments two weeks before Labor Day. He has verbals from three 4-star recruits which by historical standards is a solid number for Virginia coming off good season. CJ Stalker, Jahvoni Simmons, and Rasool Clemons had offers from national programs that are highly ranked in 2014 pre-season polls, yet they all chose to join the “hot seat” program. At least 3 more national recruits with offers from across the SEC, ACC, and Big 10 are hedging their bets just little, waiting to see some signs of success from Virginia in 2014 before jumping on board. Teams coming off successive losing seasons with a total of 6 wins against 18 losses don’t deliver these recruiting results. Mike London however, is a special leader. He is a role model to many of these kids. They respect and admire Mike London as their coach. They adore him as their mentor. Conversely, it is clear from speaking with Mike London that he genuinely cares for his players. I am sure every coach tells recruits how much they care about their success both on and off the football field. Somehow, Mike London connects with kids and their families. They trust him. They want their sons to learn from Mike London and to emulate the way he lives his life…both on and off the field.
Rayner: Average Gets it Done for UVa Football
These are special characteristics for a head football coach. I’d go as far as to suggest that they are unique to FBS college football. Coach Mike London brings assets to the program that no other coach can match. He is a part of the 1% in leadership skills. It is why the current Virginia recruiting class is ranked in the top 30 nationally nestled among and between teams that have had far more success than Virginia in the past 5 years. Mike London justifiably has his critics among the Virginia faithful. However, given his ability to recruit talent to Virginia in the face of hot seat recruiting headwinds, the potential for the program under his leadership is staggering. If Mike London can recruit this well coming off 4-8 and 2-10 seasons, imagine what he can do when he has successive 8-4 and 10-2 seasons. Imagine the recruiting juggernaut of a Mike London, secure in his job, producing winning results on the field. The upside is almost unimaginable.
Therefore here we all sit, the Virginia faithful at Martini’s bar…”Dear Father in heaven we may or may not be praying folks, but if You’re up there and can hear us…”

Is Virginia the New Duke?

2013 was a season of change in college football. A team from the ACC instead of the SEC won the national championship, college football bid farewell to the BCS, and Maryland decided it was a good idea to risk a $ 52M exit penalty to join the Big 10. Closer to home, Duke won 10 games while Virginia lost 10 games inspiring even the not-so-cynical among us to ask “Is Virginia the new Duke?” Maybe, but then again, maybe not.
 
If we are looking across the sports spectrum to include basketball, in his 6th year as head coach of the Duke basketball program, Mike Krzyzewski won both the ACC regular season and tournament championships and made it to the finals of the NCAA tournament. In only his 5th year, Virginia basketball coach Tony Bennett won both the ACC regular season and tournament championships and made it to the sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. So is UVa becoming the new Duke? Looking at the basketball programs, in the instructional words of the Magic 8-Ball “signs point to yes”.
 
Football is a different story. For 40 years, starting in 1975, Duke set the standard for futility in college football. During that span, Duke had 6 winning seasons which ironically also equals the number of seasons in which Duke won 1 game or less. That’s 1.5 winning seasons per decade, perfectly balanced by 1.5 seasons with no more than 1 win. Last year’s 10-win season was the first winning season for Duke football since 1994. For the few brave souls who went to the Duke football games, that’s a lot of games where the entire second half is spent at the tailgate (not that there is anything wrong with that.)
 
Over the same 40 year time span, Virginia had 23 winning seasons and 3 seasons with 1 win, the last of which came in George Welsh’ first season in 1982. During the past 10 years, which have admittedly been tough sledding for Virginia football, UVa had 4 winning seasons. By contrast, Duke had one winning season. Based on won/loss records over the past 4 decades and even the past 10 years, the assertion that Virginia is the new Duke is a stretch.
 
While the direction of the Virginia program over the past 5 years is alarming, as noted in prior posts, Virginia football is not struggling on the recruiting trail, which represents another point of departure from Duke football. Over the past 10 years, which includes 2 lean years at the merciful conclusion of the Al Groh debacle, on average Virginia’s recruiting classes ranked 37th nationally. By contrast Duke’s recruiting classes ranked 62nd. More importantly, over the past 5 years, the recruiting class differential has widened slightly with Virginia maintaining an average national class rank of 37th while Duke slipped to 67Th.
 
Chatting up a comparison of Duke and UVa football draws mixed reviews from the Virginia faithful. However, those stressed that we are devolving into the new Duke of ACC football are jumping the gun, worrying needlessly…which is something Virginia fans do well.
 
While Virginia has a long road to travel before we become the new “Duke” of college football, there are some things we can take away from the newfound success of Duke football. 1) Coaching Matters. David Cutcliffe’s work at Duke is just short of miraculous…close to but not eclipsing the miracle Mets of 1969. Cutcliffe won 16 games the past two years with talent that was not highly ranked, but that played within themselves and fit into Cutcliffe’s systems. Kudos to Coach Cutcliffe, he won in a job that had been a coaching graveyard since Steve Spurrier stopped in Durham for a cup of coffee. 2) Patience Pays Off. Duke didn’t turn the ship around in a year or even 5 years. It took 6 years of recruiting the right players, building the right culture, and avoiding the temptation of head coaching quick-fixes to quell anxious fans and donors. Virginia has a re-tooled coaching staff entering its second year in the program. We all want to win and win now, but we need let the players learn the systems and the coaches build a culture of winning. 3) Winning Cures Many Ills. We all know this. We saw it with our own miracle worker when George Welsh took a perpetually floundering Virginia program and put it football on the map. Is Virginia football turning into the new Duke? It hasn’t yet and won’t if we stay the course. The Magic 8-Ball tells us to “ask again later”.

Mike London Needs to Win Now

Miami v Virginia
Geoff Burke/Getty Images

The University of Virginia will find itself in a difficult situation at the end of the upcoming season if its football team does not reach bowl eligibility. The school will be forced to make a decision on the continued employment of head football coach Mike London, revered as a mentor and “father figure” to his players.  London’s off-field successes are numerous but it’s his 18-31 record as UVA’s coach that is the problem.
London demands accountability and his off-field mentorship is defined by these three principles:

  • Go to class
  • Show class
  • Treat People with Dignity and Respect

While all schools talk the talk of athletes being students first, UVA walks the walk. Virginia is first and foremost an institution of higher learning, charged with molding students into career-ready graduates. But while UVA’s alumni delight in seeing the school routinely ranked among the nation’s best academically, they pine for the days when UVA made another ranking: the football top 25.
The current status of the football program puts the school’s administrators in an awkward position.  A successful football program determines the profitability of any school’s athletics department and allows for the funding of the non-revenue sports. Football success also spurs the giving that supports all areas of the university, not just athletics.   Because state funding now makes up less than 5% of the school’s operating budget, alumni giving is especially important at UVA. It is therefore economically vital for UVA to field a winning football team.
Mike London was hired in 2009 and given, by current coaching standards, a relatively modest salary of $1.7 million per year for five years. After UVA surprisingly went 8-4 in 2011 and was invited to the Chick-Fil-A bowl, the school extended his contract, adding two years to his deal and giving him a 23% raise.  London is due to make $2,330,213 this year on his current contract, which runs through 2016.
Were UVA fans and alumni happy with the state of the football program this would all be a non-issue.  However, last year UVA had its worst year since 1982, winning just two games and no conference games. The media reports that London has the most tenuous job security of any football coach in the country.  Athletic Director Craig Littlepage has been adamant that London is the right man to coach the team, putting him at odds with fans longing for a return on their investment in the football program.
Making the situation even more difficult is the fact that London recruits phenomenally well and his players love him.  Some coaches, knowing that tenure doesn’t exist in coaching, prefer not to get too close to their players.  London is the opposite, embracing his role as a mentor. “I’m in it for the players. I’m in it for the players’ development.  My personal goals are that they become educated men because one day they’ll be husbands, fathers, employees, employers much longer than they’ll be a football player,” London said recently.
“We can come in and talk to him about whatever we want, whether it’s something about football, about class, something personal, something with our lives, something going on with the program,” said senior cornerback Demetrious Nicholson. Tony Covington, a former UVA  and NFL player and currently a UVA football radio commentator, speaks glowing of the man. “Coach has a great football mind and kids love playing for him.  They love playing for him because they know that he genuinely cares about them. Not just as football players but as family.  Coach London goes into a recruit’s home and tells that young man and his family that he will treat that young man like his own son…and he actually means it.  How else do you think that his recruiting classes have consistently ranked in the top 30 nationally despite a UVA winning percentage of only fifty-eight percent?” (Tony’s math is off because, at 18-31, London’s win percentage is actually 37%, but the message is clear and his recruiting prowess is a testament to the power of that message.)
ACC football writers have predicted that UVA will finish last in the league’s Coastal Division this year.  There are just too many questions about this team to give the media any confidence that this team will be markedly better than last year. This is the fifth year of London’s tenure and his rebuilding efforts should be showing some results by this point. He has pulled in recruiting classes that amaze pundits and that belie UVA’s status as a struggling program.  However, London’s message of early playing time, the chance to turn around a program while earning a degree from a prestigious university, and the opportunity to play for a man who has demonstrated more than just a football interest in their wellbeing resonates with recruits.  Despite his hot seat status London so far this year has verbal commitments from 15 recruits who are forming another impressive recruiting class for next fall. It was rumored that commitments from two 5-star recruits in the last class saved his job and UVA may be facing the same situation this year.  Were London to be dismissed, would this year’s highly-ranked recruits opt out?  Everyone knows that a team must have talent to win.  If London is fired, UVA risks alienating the impressive talent that he has brought to town and that he hopes will reverse UVA’s fortunes.
This year is critical. London’s contract runs through 2016 and with another losing season there is no way UVA could extend it.  Were he retained as the coach and not given an extension it would mean that he would be recruiting as a lame duck.  Opposing coaches would feast on this. Additionally, London will be due a longevity bonus of $250,000 if he still is the coach on January 15, 2015.  The football program must make meaningful progress this year in order to quell fan unrest and allow the school to extend his contract.  London’s situation is hopeless otherwise.
For those who choose not to follow the media herd, there are hints that a turnaround is in the offing.  If new starting QB Greyson Lambert can effectively manage the game and if his young offensive line can open holes for the running game and also give Lambert time to pass, everything else looks pretty good. UVA’s defense should be stout this year and there are playmakers all over the offense if they can find room to operate.  Granted, these are big ifs but there is room for some optimism.
UVA hired London thinking that he was the right man for the job.  The school would rather not fire him, eat the remainder of his contract, and start another rebuilding program. London is a good mentor and a good representative of the University, but is he a good coach? The players know that they are playing for their coach’s job. “Coach London looks out for us players,” senior running back Kevin Parks said. “He puts his players first. We’ve got to play harder for him and do everything within our will to win games for him and keep him around.”