Tag Archives: Virginia Cavaliers

Virginia Takes Care of Business

At this stage of the reclamation project that is Virginia football, I think the highest compliment that for the program in any given week is that they took care of business. On Saturday against the UConn Huskies, Virginia took care of business.

Virginia was the better team on Saturday. They had better athletes, they were better prepared, they had the better coaching staff. For this those who have been following Virginia football since the departure of George Welsh, that is usually a recipe for disaster. Another chapter in the  on-going Virginia Athletics saga “Can you believe we lost to…”

Not so Against UConn. It has been a long time since a game seemed like it was never in doubt from start to finish – in Virginia’s favor. Virginia’s offensive line, which saw personnel changes from last week’s loss to Indiana was effective all day. Kurt Benkert consistently had time to check down to secondary receivers, who were frequently wide open, sometimes well behind the UConn defense. Gone were “the drops” from last week and well-thrown Benkert passes were hauled in for big gains. Jordon Ellis, Olamide Zaccheaus, and Daniel Hamm had seams to run and were often able to get outside of the Huskies’ containment.

Virginia’s defense was not dominant but played outstanding assignment defense. They were in the position to make plays and far more often than not kept the UConn offense off balance and between the 20s. While Micah Kiser had his usual all-American performance (15 tackles & 2 sacks), the most exciting defensive performance came from Brenton Nelson. Formerly a member of the Virginia track team, Nelson looked more like Kenny Easley than Carl Lewis. He had an athletic interception that killed a promising UConn drive and 2 pass break-ups, one of which prevented a UConn touchdown, to go along with 8 tackles. Virginia’s defense often depends on its defensive backs being on islands and playing 1:1 defense. Nelson, Thornhill, Blanding, and Hall showed well all day, allowing Virginia’s front several to focus on controlling the line and penetrating the UConn backfield.

Heck, Saturday was so good for Virginia that kicker AJ Mejia kicked a season-best FG of 28 yards. It is my opinion that it had enough leg to be good from 35 yards. While we are not ready to declare the kicking game effective yet, it has improved and needs to continue that trend if Virginia has any chance to go bowling in 2017.

While Virginia was dominant the entire afternoon, a couple of issues raised their heads that Virginia needs to clean up before they head west to Boise. After 2 weeks of very clean play, Virginia committed 9 penalties for 109 yards. Some of these penalties were classic bonehead mistakes. Two chop-blocks and one very bad targeting penalty accounted for 45 penalty yards and the ejection of Andrew Brown. Virginia was a good enough to get away with these mistakes against UConn. Boise State is likely to make Virginia pay if they commit similar mental errors next week.

Virginia’s kickoff team also needs to improve its performance. Despite a tremendous kickoff coverage hit from former walk-on Ben Hogg that pinned UConn back at their 15-yard line in the 4th quarter, Virginia allowed over 31 yards per kickoff return. Virginia can give up field position against UConn, but you can bet your last dollar that Virginia Tech, Miami, and Louisville, will convert field position advantages into points. Virginia has a very thin margin for error as they rebuild the program. Mistakes like these can turn potential wins into frustrating losses, prolonging the rebuild of the program.

Rolling into week 4 of the ‘17 season, the good news is that Virginia has matched its win total from last year and has a winning record for the first time since 2014. The sobering news is that Virginia is heading into the meat of its schedule. Virginia has some tough contests ahead, starting Friday night in Boise. Call me crazy, and clearly the hope was that Virginia would be 3-0 heading to Boise this week, but I am becoming more optimistic about the game this week and the rest of the season.

Virginia has not been spectacular in their first 3 games, but they have been well prepared. With a few exceptions, Virginia has avoided the self-inflicted wounds that have deflated so many potential wins the past several years. We have the right players on the field at the right time and are making more plays than not. The weaknesses that have plagued Virginia in the early games this season seem to be trending in the right direction.

I hate making predictions because I usually get them wrong. My good friend Nick is much better prognosticator of Virginia fortunes than I am. I usually defer to his predictions. However, I am encouraged by the progression of the program in the first three weeks of the season and I expect Virginia to be very competitive against Boise State this weekend. Okay, I’ll say it. Despite opening as a 13 point dog on the Vegas meeting line, I think Virginia takes care of business again this weekend and comes home with a hard-fought and much-deserved win. I hate making predictions and I hate making bets. At least the prediction won’t cost me any money.

E-mail David at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dmrayner.

Sunny Day, but a Gloomy Loss in Charlottesville

The weather on Saturday was a glorious reminder that Charlottesville is a beautiful place to spend an (almost) early fall afternoon. Tailgating was a delight and the lots around Scott stadium were close to capacity. Revelry was in full swing. Once the game started, the weather was still glorious and the tailgating around Scott stadium was still in full swing. Many of the Virginia faithful chose to continue to enjoy the Charlottesville weather and not let a football game spoil the good tidings of the day. Smart move.

While last week, Virginia won pretty decisively on a gloomy day, this week was the inverse of last. While I am was not overjoyed with the winning performance against William & Mary, I am not ready to throw in the towel on the 2017 season based on this week’s loss.

While Indiana is no football power, they are losing their moniker as the perpetual doormat of the Big 10. They went to a bowl game last year. Looking at their schedule and their performance to date, they have a decent shot to go bowling this year as well. This was a solid test for Virginia, which it failed, though not as miserably as some might project.

Virginia was well prepared for this game. They were not surprised by any of Indiana’s offensive plays or strategies. Virginia’s defense did not give up big plays throughout the game that exposed an ineffective game plan. Virginia did not commit any turnovers for the second week in a row, though the ‘Hoos had some help from the officials keeping that streak alive. Virginia committed 5 penalties for a paltry 26 yards. Poorly prepared teams turn the ball over and commit stupid penalties. Virginia did none of those on Saturday. The defense was well prepared for the Indiana’s hurry-up offense and made plays early that showed they knew what they were doing against the fast-paced Hoosiers.

For three quarters, the Virginia defense was solid. They are not going to overwhelm anyone with their speed, but they were generally in position to make plays and made the most of the many bad positions into which they were thrust by the offense and special teams.

So where did Virginia go wrong? That would be the offense and special teams.

While special teams was a disaster for the second week in a row with the punt team matching the ineptitude of the field goal unit, the offense was not a disaster, they were just ineffective.

Virginia will not win more than 2 games this season if it cannot improve the field goal execution. No team can succeed if the maximum field goal range is inside the 10 yard line. This is embarrassing for a D1 program. Virginia has the worst kicking team I have ever seen at the college level.

I believe the offense was not bad much as it was just ineffective. Receivers were consistently open all day, and they dropped passes. One notable drop was an easy touchdown early that could could have changed the complexion of the entire game. Other times receivers were open and Kurt Benkert over threw them. In fact, Benkert over threw literally every pass beyond 15 yards notably missing a wide open Andre Levrone for a touchdown.

I blame the eclipse. It is unusual for both receivers and a quarterback to be that off at the same time. It is my feeling that such a condition was an outlier and will not happen again.

What was not an outlier was the poor play of the offensive line. I was concerned last week when Virginia could not manage 100 yards rushing against an enthusiastic but over matched William & Mary front 7. The Virginia line was exposed again with a meager 55 yards rushing against a solid, but not spectacular Indiana front line.

Jordan Ellis does not need much running room to be a very solid runner. However, he needs some room and for most of the day on Saturday he had none. The Virginia O-Line had was pushed around all day. I understand the new players on the line and learning new roles. It is time for the offensive line to step up and deliver.

Kurt Benkert attempted 66 passes Saturday on a day when he was not at his best. Not because that was the game plan, but because it was the only option given the running game was so hopelessly ineffective. Any game where Kurt Benkert throws over 60 times is going to be a Virginia loss. The Virginia O-line has to find itself or Wahoo fans are in for another long season.

The biggest exposure on defense was was that Virginia’s front 7 depth is shallow. That said, Virginia held Indiana 100+ yards under their total against Ohio St. The Virginia defense made some big plays Saturday, but the Virginia offense could not capitalize on presented opportunities. Juan Thornhill made a spectacular interception that gave Virginia the ball inside Indiana territory. Most teams turn this kind of play into points. Virginia went 3-and-out, and the defense was back on the field.

It was clear by the 4th quarter that the defense was gassed. They were consistently put in poor field position throughout the day. Several times they rose to the occasion in the first half and stopped the Indiana attack, but given enough chances over an entire game, even mediocre teams will find ways to score, which Indiana did.

The weather forecast is for another delightful day in Charlottesville next week I quit giving stock-buying advice a long time ago and I am not big on making predictions on college football games. However, I think Virginia’s performance this week against UConn matches the weather and Virginia comes away with a solid win.

When Virginia wins Saturday, they will be a crossroads. Heading off to play Boise St the following week, everyone expects a loss…everyone but me, but then again, I quit making predictions on college football a long time ago, for good reason.

The New Era of College Football: The Haves Trump The Have-Nots

The evolution of college football has created a new reality. Thanks to the college football arms race in facilities, fan support, and money as well as the nascent playoff system, there are two types of college football programs:

  1. Those that have a chance to win a national championship
  2. Those that have no chance to win a national championship

There is no migration between the types of programs. You either have a chance to win it all or you don’t. The rich teams get richer, everyone else treads water or drowns.

While there are two types of college football programs, there are three types of college football fans:

  1. Those fans who correctly recognize that their teams have a chance win a national championship
  2. Those fans who correctly realize their teams have no chance to win a national    championship
  3. Those fans who incorrectly believe their team has a chance to win the national championship, when in reality, they have no chance.

No convinced? Take a look at the following videos:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NVC3UziHeGk and this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZU4NXtu2T5E.

These are, theoretically, facilities for college students. But we all know what these really are. Recruiting tools to draw top athletes to Texas and Texas A&M. These are “in-kind” payments to players who are ostensibly amateur athletes.

I have no doubt that the other programs with a chance to win a national championship have (or will soon have) facilities on par if not better than these. We all know the names of these programs – Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Auburn, Florida, Ohio St, Michigan, Clemson, Florida State, & Oklahoma. You could probably add Oregon, Tennessee, Notre Dame and a small handful of other programs to this list, but that’s it. No other programs have a chance.

It is not shocking for fans of programs like Virginia, Wake Forest, Duke, Boston College, Vandy, Kansas, and Northwestern that they have zero chance to win a national championship…ever. I think the fans of these programs understand that they will never have facilities like Texas or Texas A&M. They will never compromise their integrity to the extent that the contending programs must to get the numbers of top players needed to compete for a national championship. Fans from these programs and many more like them realize their role in the world of college football. They are fodder for the teams with a chance to win it all. They can have successful seasons and win bowl games, but they will never hoist the national championship trophy. Maybe that’s okay. The point of college, after all, is to educate young minds, not win national championships. College athletics is supposed to be entertaining, so if you recognize your place and revel in reaching the heights of success within the boundaries of your possibilities, college football is a great deal of fun.

What might be shocking to the vast majority of the fans of programs not listed above, is that their teams also have no chance to win a national championship. None, zero, zilch, nada… they just don’t realize it. Many programs fit this description…we can all name these programs with perpetually frustrated fans who mistakenly think they are on the cusp of breaking into the top tier of college programs – Virginia Tech, NC State, UNC, West Virginia, Michigan State, South Carolina, TCU, Baylor, Arizona, Missouri, Maryland, Iowa, Kansas St, and Arkansas among many others, have no chance to win a national championship. Unfortunately, their fans think they do.

Think about how excited fans of these programs are when they land a big-time recruit. A 5-star or high 4-star kid who is a “can’t miss” prospect. There are high-fives all around and dreams of winning the college football playoff. The sad reality is, the teams that have a real chance to win it all, get at least a half a dozen of these players – every year. Not one per year or every other year like the wannabe programs. So the teams with a real chance to win it all have 30 or more can’t-miss players on their teams. The wannabe teams might have 5.

None of this is lost on the best coaches in the industry either. Do you think Nick Saban is going to leave Alabama to coach Northwestern anytime soon? Urban Meyer going to Wake Forest? Which programs have huge donor bases that make space-age locker rooms possible? (hint: it’s not Duke and it’s not Virginia…nor NC State or West Virginia) The best coaches go to the programs with the biggest donor bases that pay the biggest salaries & fund the best facilities, which draw the best talent…and so the cycles continues.

Like gambling in Vegas, the college football game is rigged. Over the course of any season, there will be exciting times when wannabe teams beat the odds and score big upsets. But over the course of a full season (including the playoffs), a single wannabe program cannot beat the system. There are too many 30+ mega-recruit teams out there, getting better every day and one of those teams will win the national championship every time. It’s why house wins over time in Vegas. The swanky trappings of the Bellagio are not there because gamblers go home winners. The odds favor the house, so it always wins. The system favors the top programs, so they will always win.

As we begin the 2017 college football season, we could create a list of 18-20 programs with a chance to win it all. It would be the same list from 2016. The participants in the football championship will be from that list – with no chance for an upstart to crash the party. It’s like the list to get into the VIP section of a popular night club. Not on the list? Not getting in.

The downside of this could be that as more college football fans realize the game is rigged against them, fans will lose interest and the game’s popularity could begin to fade. Then again, Las Vegas doesn’t seem to be losing its steam and state lotteries continue to be wildly popular. Maybe the fans of the wannabe programs understand their fate better than they let on. Maybe they are like the lottery players, thinking that someone is going to win this jackpot, if I buy a ticket it might be me, so every season, misplaced hope springs eternal. Unfortunately, the odds of winning the Powerball are better than their team winning the national championship.

E-mail David at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dmrayner.

Virginia Wins on a Gloomy Day

No matter how gloomy the weather, opening day for Virginia football in 2017 was much better than opening day in 2016. In many ways however, the gray and dreary skies were a fitting metaphor for the way Virginia played on Saturday. Some have suggested that Virginia’s play was conservative and efficient, playing well enough to win without taking too many risks or giving away too many of the new twists in Virginia’s offensive and defensive schemes. Maybe, but I’m not convinced, not a believer yet.

I have said many times, I hate playing William & Mary. The Tribe is always well coached and very well prepared. Win or lose, they always give Virginia a good match. Two of my high school classmates went to play for W&M coach Jimmie Laycock in 1981. While Virginia has gone through 5 head coaches from 1981 to today, Coach Laycock, a coaching legend, is still in Williamsburg, fielding very good teams and giving better skilled opponents fits. I am always relieved to walk away from the William & Mary game with a win. I walked away from this one relieved, but with a lot of questions.

It was puzzling to me that Virginia seemed so lethargic throughout the entire game. They clearly had size and speed advantages, but Virginia could never put the game away. Several drives that could deliver knockout blows to the Tribe started well, however all but the very last faltered at the hand of self-inflicted mistakes.

There are some in a college football world who see Virginia as a “soft” program. The results against a physically smaller, less skilled William & Mary team will do nothing to dispel those opinions.

Before we get too wrapped up in analysis, Virginia won Saturday against an enthusiastic FCS opponent. Last year Virginia did not. This year by definition has started infinitely better.

Virginia showed some flashes of brilliance that ultimately carried the day. Cavalier receivers were impressive and open all day. They ran good routes, found seams in the defense, and made positive yards after the catch. Quarterback Kurt Benkert hit his open receivers, most of the time anyway. Running back Jordan Ellis showed speed, power and little wiggle in his game. If the Virginia O-Line can give Ellis some running room, he has the potential to become the next great Virginia running back. Tim Cook had an impressive game, leading the Cavs in tackles in an emotional return to the football field after a two-year absence.

Perhaps the best outcome from Saturday, supporting the first opening day win since 2013, was the fact that Virginia did not commit any turnovers. The last time that happened was against Maryland, also in 2013. Virginia is going to have many games this year where they do not have the best talent on the field or the deepest bench on the sidelines. If they are going to win, Virginia will have to take care of the ball. Saturday was a nice step in that direction.

There were also problems on Saturday that raise questions in the minds of the Virginia faithful.

Virginia managed just 93 rushing yards against a smaller William & Mary front 7 that last year yielded 200+ rushing yards/game. The Virginia offensive line rarely imposed its will on an overmatched defense. The Virginia offensive line gave up 9 tackles for loss. Many were big losses. By contrast, Virginia managed only 3 tackles for loss. The Virginia O-Line is a work in progress. It had better make a lot of progress in a hurry if Virginia expects to post a respectable record in 2017.

The Virginia field goal team is still on par with a mediocre high school program. UVa’s PATs were not gimmes and the lone field goal attempt was reminiscent of last year’s field goal kicking circus. If Virginia cannot reliably kick field goals outside of the 20 yard-line, they we will lose games in ’17 as a result, without question.

Virginia failed a put much pressure on William & Mary quarterback Tommy McKee. When he was flushed from the pocket, he scrambled for positive yardage and made big first downs. It was disheartening to watch Virginia’s defense struggle to pressure an undersized FCS line. Even more disconcerting was that Andrew Brown had zero tackles. He was sometimes double teamed, but sometime not. Brown laying a goose egg has to go down as one of the biggest surprises of the game.

Virginia won on Saturday, that’s undeniably good. They were not dominant by any measure. That’s not so good. Conservative and efficient? Maybe. Not as improved as we all hoped? Maybe. We will see on Saturday when a much-improved Indiana team comes to Charlottesville.

I hope for a brisk, sunny day as a fitting metaphor for improved play by the Wahoos.

E-mail David at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dmrayner.

Virginia Football – Let’s Try This One More Time

The pre-season might be the best time of year for many college football programs. It certainly was for Virginia football last year. Standing ovations for new head coach Bronco Mendenhall making an appearance at JPJ, followed by bullish statements about bowl games. Graduate transfers infusing talent into a program that clearly had holes to fill. Late summer ’16 was awash with optimism. Then the Richmond Spiders came to town and washed all expectations for a return to football respectability down the drain as Virginia suffered the first of its 10 losses for the season.

Here we are again. Late summer. The joy of pre-season excitement is in the air. I am hearing lots of optimistic football chatter among the Virginia faithful once more. Virginia hasn’t had a punt blocked in months, hasn’t given up a 4th & long since the Louisville game, and its record stands at a level 0-0. Is this the zenith of the ’17 football season for the Cavaliers? Maybe, but then again, maybe not.

A lot has changed since the start of the ill-fated 2016 campaign:

Virginia has added experienced graduate transfer talent across the offensive line bringing much needed depth to an area of persistent weakness for the Wahoos.

Virginia has jettisoned teams like UCLA and Oregon from the schedule. While Virginia has one last debt to pay in its non-sensical scheduling over the past several years with an away game at Boise State, it is both prudent and hopeful to see teams like UConn, Indiana, & William & Mary on the schedule…where Virginia has a fighting chance for a win. Mercifully the ACC scheduling gods kept both Clemson and Florida State off the Virginia slate in 2017.

Virginia has 2 pre-season all-Americans on defense in Quinn Blanding and Micah Kiser as well as a potential early-round NFL pick in Andrew Brown.

The health of the team is good with few summer-camp injuries.

The staff has another year under their belts and a better understanding of the talent on hand. Comments from the staff indicate that they are making adjustments to both offensive and defensive schemes that leverage the skills of the team and cover deficiencies where they exist.

Virginia has experience across the offensive line, in the receiver corps, and at QB. The defense returns a mix of seasoned veterans and red-shirt freshmen ready to make their mark on Virginia football.

Anyone ready to book their bowl season travel plans yet?

In the words of Lee Corso ‘Not so fast!”

While it is great to have a stable of returning upperclassmen on the team, let’s not forget that those upperclassmen went 2-10 last year. Bronco’s recruiting class was ranked 57th nationally according to Rivals. The football tide is rising in the ACC and the biggest question for Cavalier fans is can Virginia keep up with the pace?

It is certainly possible that Virginia will post a respectable season in ’17. It is not completely ridiculous to think that Virginia could make a bowl game for the first time since 2011. However (you knew that was coming) Virginia needs some good luck.

The Cavaliers are woefully thin at many positions, most notably at quarterback. If Kurt Benkert gets hurt, guess how many combined snaps the backup quarterbacks have played at the college level? The unfortunate answer for those hoping to spend the holidays in Shreveport at the Independence Bowl, is zero. Making the quarterback depth chart more frightening is the fact that Virginia’s offensive line play has not been stellar the past few years. While the expectations are high for improvement in the trenches, if Kurt Benkert is running for his life the first few Saturdays in September, the Virginia season could come unravelled in a hurry.

Maybe the biggest asset in the Virginia arsenal this year is the simple fact that if any program in the country is over due for a little good luck, it’s Virginia. So Virginia fans, cross you fingers, go dig up that old rabbit’s foot, and look for some 4-leaf clovers. Virginia can put up a respectable season this year, but the fates are going to have to smile on the Cavaliers.

Comment on this story in our free forum.

E-mail David at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dmrayner.

Photo: Wikipedia

Will ACC Football Continue Its Roll After Last Season?

Will ACC football do it again? I could answer this question in a couple sentences, but that wouldn’t be any fun for anyone.

ACC football was on a roll at the end of the year last year, with ACC teams winning the overwhelming majority of the bowl games in which they played. Not to mention, Clemson eventually won the National Championship Game.

With a new season less than a few weeks away, now is definitely the time to ponder whether the ACC can (and will) do it again. For me, it depends on what exactly “it” is. If the ACC must win the title and win the same number of bowl games, I just don’t see that happening again. If the ACC simply must have a playoff participant and win most of its bowl games, then maybe “it” can be done.

The playoff participant I’d expect to emerge from the ACC this season would not be the Clemson Tigers, though. If anything, I expect the Florida State Seminoles to earn a spot in the College Football Playoffs this postseason and be the ACC team mostly likely to win the title. Vegas says I’m not alone in this expectation.

Florida State may have lost running back Dalvin Cook, but it looks ready to reload and move forward this season. Cam Akers is expected to pick up where Cook left off, so Seminole fans need not worry about that loss. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Deondre Francois also has an entire season of experience now, which should help him better lead the Florida State offense. The Seminole defense returns countless starters and will have Derwin James back this season (if he can stay healthy). This combination of offensive and defensive power is what makes Vegas (and me) hot on Florida State this year.

On the other hand, Clemson is in for a rebuilding year after losing its dual-threat quarterback Deshaun Watson to the NFL. The Tigers lost multiple other starters that leave a few big holes on both sides of the ball. Two major departures that come to mind are Ben Boulware (defense) and Mike Williams (offense). Clemson fans might place their confidence in Dorian O’Daniel and Hunter Renfrow to step up to replace those two, but I don’t have that same confidence—yet.

As far as the non-conference games during the season and the bowl games during the postseason go, there are countless other ACC football teams that look ready to take on formidable opponents. I’ll be brief, but here are a few teams worth giving some attention.

Virginia Tech had a great first season under one of my favorite head coaches, Justin Fuente. If the Hokies can improve their ball security, they may even finish above that 9-3 mark from last season.

Miami had a solid season under Mark Richt as well. Hurricane fans remain confident as ever, but I’m not entirely sure what to make of this team now that quarterback Brad Kaaya is gone. He may not have been elite, but he was an important part of Richt’s offense.

Louisville was flying high behind Heisman trophy winner Lamar Jackson early last season, but fell from grace by the end of the year. After watching that collapse, the Cardinals are another team that I really don’t know what to think about yet.

Georgia Tech had an interesting season last year, finishing 8-4 in the regular season and beating two SEC teams during that time. The Yellow Jackets beat the Vanderbilt Commodores and the in-state rival Georgia Bulldogs during the regular season. Georgia Tech also went on to beat Kentucky in its bowl game. This season, Georgia Tech gets a chance to prove itself early against another SEC foe—the Tennessee Volunteers. Let it be known right now that I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Yellow Jackets take down the Vols in this season opener.

The Pittsburgh Panthers, North Carolina Tar Heels, and NC State Wolfpack are a few other teams to keep on the radar in the ACC this season.

To wrap things up I’m also going to give you my prediction for the end-of-year standings in the ACC.

ACC Atlantic Division:
  1. Florida State
  2. Clemson
  3. Louisville
  4. NC State
  5. Syracuse
  6. Wake Forest
  7. Boston College
ACC Coastal Division:
  1. Virginia Tech
  2. Miami
  3. Georgia Tech
  4. Pittsburgh
  5. North Carolina
  6. Duke
  7. Virginia

With those being my standings, I would expect Florida State to beat Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship game and secure a spot in the College Football Playoffs.

While the ACC may not be quite as good as last year, I do still expect a championship contender from the conference and a strong record in non-conference games.

 You can email Kristen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @KristenBotica.

Featured photo courtesy of Ashley Romanosky.

Virginia Fans are Divided on Bronco Heading into Season 2

The start of fall football practice is just over a month away. It is no secret that Bronco Mendenhall has many hurdles to clear before Virginia football gets back to a winning groove. He has a new challenge this year. One of his own making. After one season, the Virginia fan base is split on the wisdom of bringing Bronco and his band of assistants to Charlottesville.

Posting a 2-10 record in his first season has many Virginia fans concerned. Opening the season with a convincing 17-point loss to University of Richmond took a lot of the optimistic winds out of Bronco’s sails. The team’s performances in the following weeks did little to build confidence in the direction of the program. The rotten cherry on the soured sundae was a thumping at the hands of Virginia Tech when Bronco deployed a ridiculous QB rotation that ended in utterly predictable failure.

The recruiting season has not brought tidings of joy to hardcore Virginia fans who spend the football off-season analyzing the whims of 18-year old high school footballers. While Bronco is filling his 2018 recruiting class at a brisk pace, the reality is that Bronco is bringing a different breed of cat to the program.

A standard measure of a recruit’s talent is always the “offer list”. Who else wanted a recruit to play for them? Over the Groh and London years Virginia landed many recruits with impressive offer lists. Fans were often giddy when Georgia, Penn State, USC, and Florida were vying for kids who decided to come play for Virginia. Unfortunately, those kids didn’t win that many games wearing the orange & blue.

A look at the offer lists of the 2018 recruiting class has many Virginia fans concerned. Bronco’s recent commits have offer lists that include Bucknell, Penn, Yale, and Cornell. Others have offers from Wake Forest, Vandy, and Boston College. Still others boast offers from Bowling Green St, Akron, and Florida Atlantic. Let’s recognize the obvious: Bronco is not recruiting the same kids as college football’s blue bloods…or even college football’s light-blue bloods. It sounds like his guys might do well as contestants on “Jeopardy”, but can they beat Clemson & Miami? Heck, can they beat Richmond & UConn?

The Virginia fan base is split into two camps: those who believe in Bronco and his system. They look at his past performance. His BYU recruiting classes were littered with castoffs from Southern Cal, UCLA, and Oregon. Bronco won a lot of games with those players. Many of them went on to play in the NFL.  Virginia’s “system” fans are convinced that Bronco’ can succeed in similar fashion at Virginia.

There is evidence to support this position. Jim Harbaugh was a “system” coach at Stanford. Harbaugh came to Stanford after a 1-11 season in 2006. The talent pool at Stanford was not deep when Harbaugh arrived. Rivals ranked Stanford’s 2004-2008 recruiting classes in the middle of the pack at best:

2004 57th

2005 41st

2006 54th

2007 51st

2008 50th

Yet in 2007, Harbaugh improved Stanford’s record to 4-8. He went 5-7 in 2008, 8-5 in 2009, and then reached his zenith at Stanford with a 12-1 season in 2010. Think about the redshirt juniors and seniors that led the 2009 & 2010 teams. They were kids from the middling recruiting classes that averaged 50.6 in national recruiting rankings. I recognize that one of those recruits in the 50.6 ranked classes was Andrew Luck. Got it. He’s a stud. However, his supporting cast on offense and defense was made up of “system guys” who developed during the years at Stanford and thrived in the Harbaugh system.

The system fans believe in Bronco. They believe in player development and past performance as a predictor of future success. I get the “system” fans’ argument. There have been several successful programs that back their stance. Paul Johnson at Ga. Tech is the consummate system coach. Ga. Tech has won a lot of football games while Virginia has floundered the past 10 years. I want to believe the system fans. I want to be optimistic, until I hear from the “athletes” crowd.

The opposing camp of Virginia fans feels that Bronco is doomed for failure at worst and mediocrity at best. As noted in an earlier column, it is not hard to conclude that Virginia simply does not have the athletes to compete and win in the rising tide of ACC football. Pick a team, any team from the George Welsh era and compare those players (their recruiting rank and NFL potential) with the players Virginia has on the roster now and more importantly with the players Bronco is bringing to the program. These fans will tell you, with great passion, that we can have the best system and player development on the planet, but unless you have the horses that can run with Clemson and Florida State, Virginia is going to be a perpetual bottom tier program.

Last season’s performance combined with Bronco’s recruiting strategy has created this fissure in the Virginia fan base. The gotta-have-the-athletes crowd is biding their time with Bronco, waiting for him to flame out with his players that belong in the Ivy League or the Patriot League. The System fans ask for patience and pray for at least 5 wins this season.

Only time will tell which position is correct. I tend to think that Bronco’s system has done very well in the past and deserves more time. I think it can succeed at Virginia, but I worry about a low ceiling for success and settling for 6 wins a year as the measure of a successful program. I also worry that if the system breaks down, we don’t have any one fast enough to run down the next Deshawn Watson or Lamar Jackson. It’s hard to consistently “out-system” the thoroughbreds coming to play at other programs in the ACC.

My bigger concern is that Virginia football needs all the help it can get returning to respectability. One of the assets Virginia needs is an optimistic and enthusiastic fan base. I am worried that a divided fan base likely spends more time in the West Lot than in the stands, which is not good for anyone, except the bourbon distillers.

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E-mail David at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dmrayner.

Perspectives on Virginia Football from the Glory Days

I had the pleasure to meet a former UVa football star at a cocktail party recently. He was an iconic figure from the salad days of Virginia football. A George Welsh recruit and player. A football warrior and a very nice guy who laughed when I asked him if he had any eligibility left because we sure could use him next year.

I have no doubt that he has endured the same conversation a hundred times with UVa fans looking for insight and inside scoop on the state of football affairs in Charlottesville. He was engaging, patient, insightful, and generous with his time. His perspective was thought-provoking at best, distressing at worst.

I asked if he thought Virginia was going to be better this year, if we were heading in the right direction. I hoped for a big smile and confirmation that indeed football at UVa was emerging from its 10-year funk. Instead I got a dose of reality that made me wish I’d gotten a double scotch before I started the conversation. The facial expression was one of concern, from someone who clearly wants UVa to get back to its winning ways. The net of his comments – we don’t have enough athletes. I rattled off a few of names of kids I viewed as top notch players…no confirmation, no bright smile, no “yes, that kid is a player”. Just sincerely held concern that we don’t have enough athletes.

I was taken aback, but who was I to argue about talent levels with someone who had been there and knew first hand? How could I question what it takes to win in the ACC with one of the many star players who had won in the ACC through his entire career under George Welsh?

So, after I got home, before I changed, I poured another drink and spent an hour or so looking at some of the rosters from the George Welsh days. The days when Virginia won a lot of football games. When Virginia was clearly the best team in The Commonwealth and one of the best teams in the ACC. A scan of the rosters of the late 1980s &1990s yielded the same conclusion – there was a lot of talent in the program in those years. I needed to pick a point of comparison for the current roster, so I picked one outside of my conversation and settled on the 1998 team. While a little bit of a “cherry pick” this was not the No. 1 team in the nation nor the team that featured the Barbers of C’ville in the final years in orange & blue.

The 1998 team was a good one, however. They went 9-3 overall, 6-2 in the ACC, and lost a heart-breaker to a good Georgia team in the Peach Bowl. As I looked at the roster, my heart sunk a bit, as did my expectations for the 2017 football season.

Let’s bounce around a few names from the Cavalier roster in 1998:

Aaron Brooks, Thomas Jones, Antwoine Womack, Anthony Poindexter, Terrence Wilkins, Casey Crawford, Billy Baber, Chris Luzar, Monsanto Pope, Noel LaMontagne, John St. Clair, Antonio Dingle, Patrick Kearney, Wali Rainer, Byron Thweatt, Donny Green, Antwan Harris, & Maurice Anderson. If you are keeping score at home, that is a count of 18 players…all of whom played at least 1 season in the NFL. Several had exceptional NFL careers. At least 2 had exceptional careers in the NFL cut short by injuries they sustained at UVa. There was also a pack of players who were borderline NFL talent that played big roles for UVa in the late 1990s. Guys like Anthony Southern, Kevin Coffey, Ahmad Hawkins, Brad Barnes, Tyree Foreman, & Tim Spruill.

Wow! Anyone want to send George Welsh a heartfelt thank-you note for all he and his staff did for Virginia football? Recall before Coach Welsh arrived, Virginia was a joke program, de-emphasized by design by the big dogs in The University administration. Virginia lost to good teams. Virginia lost to bad teams. Virginia lost to a mediocre Wake Forest team by 50 points not long before coach Welsh arrived. Yet there we were in 1998, with 18 future NFL players on the roster, playing toe-to-toe with the SEC (Virginia went 1-1 versus the SEC in 1998 beating Auburn on the road before losing to UGa in the Peach Bowl).

With all due respect to Kurt Benkert, Daniel Hamm, and Jack McDonald, the comps to Aaron Brooks, Thomas Jones, and John St. Clair are not encouraging. So where does that leave Virginia football with the 2017 season only 3 months away and counting?

Scanning the 2017 roster, it is not void of NFL talent. Quinn Blanding and Andrew Brown are solid NFL prospects and likely low to middle round picks in next year’s draft. After that, it gets hard to find kids destined to play on Sundays. My guess is Bronco will develop a few, but if the comparison for talent & depth is the 1998 roster, there are not 18 NFL players on the 2017 roster. Virginia might be fortunate if there are half that number.

This talent reality leaves Virginia fans pinning their hopes and guarded optimism on Bronco and his system. Going back to his BYU days, Bronco never had herculean high school players on his roster. However, during his tenure at BYU he sent 25+ players to NFL careers which shows his eye for undervalued talent and his talent for player development. I think this works for Virginia. At least it works for Virginia right now.

Virginia football needs stability. It needs discipline. It needs to learn how to win. It needs coaching grounded in fundamental football that results in strong player development. Bronco can deliver these things. I think Bronco can consistently deliver 5-7 wins a season. That might be good enough for Virginia football. It is certainly an improvement.

That said, Virginia is never going to be truly and consistently competitive if Clemson and Florida State have 25 or more players on their teams who are a step faster and push-up stronger than Virginia – discipline and player development be damned. It is hard to consistently win against teams that not only have better athletes, but that have a lot more better athletes.

I would never have thought this absent my recent conversation, but maybe Branco is a transitional coach for Virginia. Maybe he stops the bleeding. Maybe he brings discipline and a culture of winning more than losing to Virginia football and then hands the keys over to the next young hotshot coach who can build on Bronco’s foundation by recruiting 18 NFL caliber players on the same roster.

In this context, I think Bronco is the right guy for the Virginia job. Certainly, he’s the right guy for right now. If 5-7 wins a year with an occasional bump to 8 wins is good enough for Virginia fans, maybe he is the long-term answer too. I still think it is a coup that Craig Littlepage and Jon Oliver brought Bronco and his staff to Virginia. At some point however, Virginia is going to need “the athletes” to win consistently in the ACC and beat top-shelf SEC opponents on the road. Maybe winning will allow Bronco to ramp up his recruiting, though winning at BYU didn’t change his recruiting results dramatically over time. Maybe that is a function of BYU.  Maybe unfettered by BYU’s strict college experience, Bronco can compete with the national programs and close on 4 and 5 star recruits. Maybe.

I wish I’d had more time to ask more questions about the progress of Virginia football to someone who knew about winning and player development, but I had probably intruded too much already and as noted before, due to my short-sightedness, my drink was glass was empty. After the brief conversation and doing a little homework afterwards, I might want to keep a full drink glass for the coming season.

E-mail David at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dmrayner.

 

NCAA Tournament: The Sun Rises In The East

The East is a beast featuring last year’s champion Villanova, the team everyone loves to hate in Duke and four teams which aren’t getting enough respect heading into the tourney (SMU, Wisconsin, Virginia & Florida).

There’s an argument to be made (rightfully so) for the South being the hardest region (UNC, UCLA, Kentucky, Cincinnati), but the East gives us three teams that were ranked 1st in the nation at some point this season, another that is arguably the best in the B1G in Wisconsin and a team in Virginia that can shut down any offense at any time.

If Villanova can get past Wisconsin and Virginia, and Duke doesn’t stumble against Baylor or SMU we may end up with a Villanova vs Duke matchup in Madison Square Garden for a trip to the Final Four on the line.

Even if you don’t care about the basketball you can spend your time waiting to see if Grayson Allen has another meltdown, what custom suit Jay Wright is wearing, what fun things Wisconsin senior’s Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes will say and if Frank Martin has a complete meltdown on the South Carolina bench.

On the court your attention should be focused on Duke, who after winning four straight games against big time competition in the ACC Tournament comes into the NCAA Tournament finally looking like the team most national media members picked to win it all preseason. Harry Giles is starting to look like Harry Giles again, Jayson Tatum looks like the guy who’s the safest bet to succeed in the NBA in all of college basketball and Luke Kennard can get his shot off from any spot on the court at any time.

Even if the basketball turns out to be a bust there’s three letters that make this region better than any of the others…MSG. Anytime high level basketball leads to The Garden it automatically brings a level of excitement unrivaled by any other venue…hey, if the Mecca can prop up the overrated Big East Tournament it can surely do the same for some of the premier programs in college basketball.

(KenPom ranking in parenthesis)

(2) Villanova vs (212) Mouth St. Mary’s

Nova survived losing Arcidiacono and Ochefu from their national championship team and ran the Big East sweeping both the regular season and conference tournament on their way to a 31-3 record head into the NCAA Tournament. Josh Hart has been that dude while Jalen Brunson has blossomed into the floor leader during his sophomore campaign.

The NEC happens to be headquartered in my hometown so I’ll be pulling hard for MSM (to little or no avail). The Mountaineers won the regular season, going 14-4 before taking down the conference tournament. A 1 point win over New Orleans in the First Four earned them a date with Villanova, quite the reward. Three of their players score in double digits per game, led by sophomore Elijah Long at 15.1 (14.9 in conference). They don’t do anything particularly well that would make you think they have a shot in this one.

Time/TV: 7:10pm ET Thursday, CBS

Prediction: Villanova by 27

 

(23) Wisconsin vs (44) Virginia Tech

Wisconsin was my favorite to win the B1G before they hit a skid, losing 5 of 6 between February 12th and March 2nd. They have three players averaging double digit points, led by Bronson Koenig at 14.1 per game. Expect Koenig and Hayes to turn it up for the NCAA Tournament, both seniors have big time tournament experience. I not only like them to win this one but to also defeat Villanova in the round of 32. If anything, their soft seed hurt Villanova, who as a 1 will have to face such a good team in their second game of the tournament. The Badgers enter the tournament with the 8th best defensive efficiency in the country.

Va Tech finished the ACC regular season 10-8 with some nice wins over Duke, Virginia (2OT), Miami and a sweep of Clemson. They failed to beat up on any of the other ACC heavyweights and got their three largest wins (Duke, VA, Miami) at home. They have a shot at the upset due in part to their ability to knock down the outside shot (40.3% as a team), but in the end Wisconsin should end up being too much for them. The LeDay’s lead them in scoring (Zach 16.3 PPG, Seth 14.0 PPG) while four other Hokies also average double digit point totals per game. Their offense is legit, I just don’t think their defense makes enough stops to win.

Time/TV: 9:40pm ET Thursday, CBS

Prediction: Wisconsin by 9

 

(7) Virginia vs (59) UNC-Wilmington

Virginia enters the tournament touting the nation’s best defensive efficiency, and boy can they be boring to watch if you don’t appreciate grind it out basketball. Their adjusted tempo of 58.5 is dead last in the country, making them the slowest team in the nation. The Cavaliers are led in scoring by senior London Perrantes at 12.5 point per game and he’s the only Virginia player to have a double digit scoring average. Wilkins availability is up in the air for the UNCW game as of this writing.

UNC-Wilmington likes to play faster and touts the nation’s 18th best offense when it comes to efficiency.  They excel taking care of the ball and at shooting a high percentage from two-point range, but have had issues on the defensive end. The Seahawks are led in scoring by C.J. Bryce (entertaining dude to watch) who comes into the tournament averaging 17.6 points per game. Four total UNC-W players score in double digits per game, with three averaging at least 14.5 points per game. Kevin Keatts is a hot name in coaching circles right now, but in the end the Virginia defense will be too much for them to overcome.

Time/TV: 12:40pm ET Thursday, truTV

Prediction: Virginia by 12

 

(9) Florida vs (64) East Tennessee St.

Florida enters the NCAA Tournament coming off back to back losses to Vanderbilt. Prior to those losses, they had won 10 of their last 11 with the only loss coming on the road at Rupp. It’ll be interesting to see if they find their groove again, while they’ll get past ETSU, Virginia awaits in the round of 32. They do a nice job protecting the three-point line and enter the tourney with the nation’s 4th best defense based on efficiency. The Gators are led in scoring by KeVaughn Allen at 13.9 points per game, while Canyon Berry (12.1) and Devin Robinson (10.9) are also in double figures.

ETSU will rep the Southern Conference after winning both the league’s regular season and conference tournament. They shoot a healthy percentage (38.2%) as a team from deep, but expect Florida’s defense to negate their outside scoring. The Buccaneers will have to get to the line and do some damage inside to have any shot at the upset. The good news for anyone looking for the upset is their roster is experienced, boasting 13 upperclassmen. They’re led in scoring by T.J. Cromer at 19.1 points per game, while Desonta Bradford (10.6) is the only other ETSU player in double figures.

Time/TV: 3:10pm ET Thursday, truTV

Prediction: Florida by 9

 

(11) SMU vs (59) USC

The NCAA decided SMU couldn’t play in the NCAA Tournament last year so one would expect they’d come in hungry and on a mission. Their offense is legit and they boast two wins over a Cincinnati team with a stifling defense, including a 15-point victory in the AAC championship game. Their offense is balanced and they come into the tourney hitting 40.6% of their threes, good for 5th best in the nation. The Mustangs are led in scoring by Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye at 18.8 points per game, while three other players averaged double digits this season. SMU finished AAC play at 17-1 before running through the conference tournament, their only stumble a two-point loss at Cincinnati on January 12th. They sport length on the perimeter but lack it inside and will go small every occasionally, with Ojeleye at 6’7’’ their tallest player on the court.

USC overcame a double-digit deficit to defeat Providence in Dayton during the First Four. Their last win over a top 50 program came on January 25th as they took down UCLA at home. All year they’ve looked to be a couple of pieces short, and that should be the case again in this one. Not much stands out for them statistically on either side of the ball, just ball security where they only turn it over 15.6% of their possessions, good for 16th best in the nation. The Trojans are led in scoring by sophomores Bennie Boatwright (14.6 PPG) and Chimezie Metu (14.5 PPG). It’s interesting that the Trojans top two scorers are listed at 6’10’’ and up yet they only get 49% of their points from two-point range.

Time/TV: 3:10pm ET Friday, truTV

Prediction: SMU by 11

 

(12) Baylor vs (87) New Mexico St.

Baylor has mastered being more talented than most of their opponents and outplaying them for 35 minutes. They should have enough to get into the round of 32, but they have a lot of toughness questions to answer if they plan on advancing beyond their expected opponent of SMU. As usual, they excel on the offensive glass and do most of their scoring on the inside. They play at a slow pace and do an awful job taking care of the ball, but their talent alone should carry them in this one after a quick exit last year in the NCAA Tournament. Motley who hurt his finger in their last contest is probable for their first tourney game.

NMSU enters the tourney representing the WAC (which had a down year) after finishing in second during the regular season and defeating Cal St. Bakersfield (regular season champion) by 10 in the title game. The Aggies get a large percentage of their points from the free throw line and will have to get there a ton to have any shot against Baylor. The Aggies are led in scoring by Ian Baker (16.6 PPG). It’ll be tough for them to take down Baylor without Sidy N’dir who they’ve been missing for all but 9 games this season.

Time/TV: 12:40pm ET Friday, truTV

Prediction: Baylor by 7

 

(32) South Carolina vs (29) Marquette

South Carolina comes into the tourney riding a two-game losing streak, a loss at Ole Miss and a first-round SEC tournament loss to Alabama. Senior Sindarius Thornwell leads them at scoring with 21 points per game, while two other Gamecocks averaged double digits this season. They make their living on the defensive end, as they enter tourney play with the 3rd most efficient defense in the nation. Their issues have been on the offensive end as they’ve shot poor percentages from both three point and two-point range.

Marquette enters the tournament with some nice wins (vs Vanderbilt, at Xavier, at Creighton, vs Villanova) and some head scratching losses (at St. John’s by 14, at Georgetown by 18). The Golden Eagles shot a nation best 43% from deep this season, and are top 50 in two-point field goal percentage, but have allowed their opponents to shoot high percentages from both as well. They’re led in scoring by freshman Markus Howard (13.2 PPG) and sport a balanced offense as 4 other Golden Eagles averaged double digits this season. Their offense is the 8th most efficient in the nation, it remains to be seen if they’ll get enough from it to carry their defense against South Carolina. Center Luke Fischer is listed as probable for the South Carolina matchup.

Time/TV: 9:50pm ET Friday, TBS

Prediction: South Carolina by 2

 

(13) Duke vs (136) Troy

Duke comes in as hot as can be having won four straight (including wins over Louisville, UNC and Notre Dame) to win the ACC Tournament. Harry Giles is close to returning to the player everyone touted pre-injury and Jayson Tatum seems to have finally realized how good he is. Their offense has been fine, it’s the defensive end where they tend to slip up, especially against athletic guards who can drive. Luke Kennard (20.1 PPG) led them in scoring while 4 other Blue Devils averaged double figures. I have them going to the championship game, but it’ll depend largely on Tatum and Giles and whether Grayson Allen has re-found his stroke.

Troy won the Sun Belt tourney after only finishing 10-8 in conference play during the regular season. They avoided UT Arlington in the conference tourney, but did defeat 2 seed Georgia St. on their way to the championship. Keep an eye on sophomore Jordon Varnado (16.5 PPG) and junior Wesley Person (14.8 PPG) for the Trojans. They don’t do anything extraordinarily well, and should have a tough time with all the weapons the Blue Devils possess.

Time/TV: 7:20pm ET Friday, TBS

Prediction: Duke by 28

 

Overall Predictions:

Round of 64

Villanova over Mount Saint Mary’s

Wisconsin over Virginia Tech

Virginia over UNC-Wilmington

Florida over East Tennessee St.

SMU over USC

Baylor over New Mexico St.

South Carolina over Marquette

Duke over Troy

 

Round of 32

Wisconsin over Villanova

Virginia over Florida

SMU over Baylor

Duke over South Carolina

 

Sweet 16

Wisconsin over Virginia

Duke over SMU

 

Elite 8

Duke over Wisconsin

 

Champion

Duke

 

The Real Madness of March

Every year, I spend far more time and energy than I should filling out my NCAA Tournament March Madness bracket.  I debate whether chalk or Cinderella’s will prevail.  I agonize over which 12-5 upsets are ripe for the picking.  I look at strength of schedule and see who beat who, as if that matters.  Then, I spend the entire tournament second guessing myself.

Inevitably, I get caught in between rooting for my bracket and cheering for those Cinderella’s that capture our hearts.  It ends up being a very stressful month and at the end, I never feel like I have fully enjoyed what is truly an amazing sporting event.

I like to act as if I know what I’m talking about when predicting these games.  Really, I don’t.  None of us do.  Why bother pretending?  It’s not like I’m a big college basketball fan anyway.  I mean, sure, I watch the tournament religiously.  The first Thursday and Friday of games are days that I believe should be national holidays.  Why play the charade of going to work and acting like I’m not watching online?  I am.  #SorryNotSorry (I am, however, sorry I just used that expression. #NeverAgain)

Anyway, when it comes to regular season college basketball, I never watch many games.  This season though, that’s never been truer.  Confession: I watched a grand total of three full college basketball games this winter.  The complete list: Mt. St. Mary’s vs. Michigan (I was actually in attendance), Xavier vs. Cincinnati (Go Bearcats! #BeatX), and Tulsa vs. Cincinnati (Again, I was in attendance).

So, yeah, I don’t really have any idea what went on this college basketball season.  (Though, I hear tripping people has become a hot button issue.)  What I do know, from hardly following along, is that there was a lot of movement in the Top 25.  It seems to me that this is one of those years where there are a ton of good teams in the field, but not many great ones.  Is that a fair assessment?  Honestly, I’m asking.

Let’s highlight some things as I take my first look at the bracket.  (That’s right; I didn’t watch the selection show either.)

East

Hey!  Mt. St. Mary’s made the field… sorta.  The only first round upsets I have here are Marquette over South Carolina and New Mexico State over that Baptist school in Waco, Texas.  Give me Virginia over Florida in the second round.  Other than that, there’s nothing too exciting.  Looks like an easy path to the Final Four for defending champion Villanova.

Midwest

Woo, lots going on here.  First, Michigan State got lucky.  The Spartans are bad but the Hurricanes sound beatable.  The rest of the first round seems pedestrian but man, look at these possible second round matchups.  Kansas vs. Michigan State is enough said.  Iowa State meets Purdue in a battle of teams with high hopes.  Creighton vs. Oregon will be fun.  And Michigan gets a shot at revenge against Louisville.  I’m still upset about 2013 and, as a result, I’m going into full homer mode.  The Wolverines beat the Cardinals, the Ducks, and the Jayhawks on their way to Phoenix.  (#SorryNotSorry… Damnit, that didn’t last long.)

West

Smart guy alert in the 8-9 matchup as Northwestern and Vanderbilt get together.  Wait, the Northwestern Wildcats made the NCAA Tournament!  Congrats to them.  I’ll even pencil in an opening round win for them before getting smacked by Gonzaga.  Give me the other smart guys at Princeton to pull the upset on Notre Dame.  On the bottom half, I’m going a little upset crazy.  Florida Gulf Coast makes another run to the second weekend with wins over Florida State and Maryland.  And St. Mary’s finds its way to the Elite Eight for a fourth try at besting West Coast Conference rival Gonzaga.  You know what they say, “it’s tough to beat a team twice, thrice, four times in the same season.”  Well, Gonzaga will.

South

I’ve got Seton Hall beating Arkansas for the same reasons I have Marquette beating South Carolina.  I’m Catholic and the SEC is still a terrible basketball conference, until proven otherwise.  Middle Tennessee State earns its second tourney win over a Big Ten opponent in as many years, my second 12 over 5.  Cincinnati will beat UCLA with a superior defense the likes of which the Bruins have never come up against.  Unfortunately for my adopted school, the Kentucky Wildcats will be waiting in the Sweet Sixteen.  North Carolina will be able to handle Coach Cal’s bunch en route to yet another Final Four.

Final Four

Last year’s championship game was so phenomenal, why not have a rematch?  Michigan and Gonzaga fall victim to destiny.  This time around, Villanova won’t need a buzzer beater.  The Wildcats will repeat, beating North Carolina quite easily.

There you have it.  Now all that’s left to do is wait until Thursday so I can hide my internet browser behind some important-looking work stuff and enjoy this damn thing for once.

I recommend you do the same, but don’t expect many of you to.  That chance at glory is too tantalizing to pass up, isn’t it?  Yes, you’d rather drive yourself crazy trying to arrive at the perfect bracket that you’ll literally never achieve.

And to you all I say have fun losing your group for the umpteenth time to your aunt who bases her picks on the team mascots.  After all, this is the real madness of March.

E-mail me at [email protected] and I’ll send you back an invite to my bracket group.  Should be easy to beat me since I’m not trying, right?

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