UVA Football: Top 5 Storylines of 2013
2013 has plenty of questions for ACC football next season.
How will the three new teams fare in the expanded conference?
Can Maryland build upon its early success before quarterback attrition cost them a winning season?
Will Virginia Tech bounce back and be more like Virginia Tech? Will Clemson and Florida State finally live up to preseason hype?
No team, though, is more full of questions than the Virginia Cavaliers. A team that appeared heading in the right direction with an 8-5 campaign in 2011 only to fall abysmally short last season at 4-8 with some ugly losses on the scoreboard.
Clearly the administration was not happy, and the fallout was severe. Virginia's two leading quarterbacks are gone, as well as its biggest and strongest running back, Clifton Richardson. That does not even count graduating players like Perry Jones and Steve Greer.
The coaching staff was almost entirely gutted, and now Virginia enters 2013 with almost nothing written in stone. So with these question marks, we look at the biggest story heading into training camp this August.
5. Is There Fire with That Smoke?
Despite the disappointing 2012 campaign, the Virginia Cavaliers were still able to land one of the top running backs in the country, 5-star recruit Taquan "Smoke" Mizzell.
The Virginia Beach product was ranked by Rivals as the top running back in the country and the No. 29 prospect overall. After a close call with Ohio State and linebacker Curtis Grant a couple of years ago—and Virginia sneaking past Alabama last year for quarterback Greyson Lambert—Mizzell symbolizes the culmination of coach Mike London's improved recruiting.
The question becomes, what can we realistically expect as a true freshman?
On one hand, learning the playbook should not be that difficult for Mizzell—after all, everyone is starting anew with the coaching changes. Virginia does have the experienced and talented Kevin Parks on the depth chart along with Khalek Shepherd to provide competition for carries.
However, his biggest impediment will be the offensive line woes. Virginia simply had a hard time pushing the line of scrimmage and creating holes for the rushing attack.
How else do you explain why Virginia went from 162 yards per game on the ground to 128 yards with essentially the exact same cadre of running backs?
In 2011, Virginia had over 200 yards of rushing offense against Maryland, Miami and Georgia Tech each. In 2012, only against Maryland did the Cavaliers have more than 98 rushing yards.
Smoke may be sensational, but how much can we expect him to do by himself?
4. Schedule, Schedule, Schedule
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One of the most interesting—or terrifying—things about Virginia football in 2013 is the schedule.
Coach London has made a point to tell his charges that the Cavaliers are challenging themselves by playing the best.
That is certainly a glass half-full approach, but Cavaliers fans cannot look at things with such rose-colored glasses.
Instead, Virginia looks at a schedule with few guaranteed victories.
In the "uphill battle" column, though, Virginia will have tilts with Oregon, BYU, at North Carolina, at Miami and, of course, the Virginia Tech game that the Cavaliers have not won since 2003.
While Virginia will certainly get a chance to see how it stacks up against some very talented teams, that look in the mirror could be a scary sight.
Don't believe me, ask the guy in the glass.
3. How Offensive Will the Offensive Line Be?
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Last year, one of Virginia's biggest strengths became a weakness as the Cavaliers offensive line failed to dictate tempo and bring success in 2012.
As mentioned in another slide, Virginia's rushing attack dropped nearly 40 yards per game in 2012, and as a result, the win total was cut in half.
The Cavaliers have some talent at quarterback, but they have a propensity to turn the ball over. Running the ball allows for stability, and it shortens the game down.
If Virginia can control the clock, it has an opportunity to wear down its opponent and pull away toward victory. In 2011, Virginia had more plays than its opponents nine times and went 6-3 in those contests. In 2012, Virginia had 56 plays against Virginia Tech compared to 95 plays by the Hokies.
Yes, Virginia still had more plays than its opponents in a majority of games last season, but most of those contests were already decided. In the close games and the plays that mattered, Virginia lacked that physical toughness up front to be successful.
With a true freshman slated at the center position to go with a sophomore at right tackle, Virginia will have to adjust in 2013.
While the left side looks to be stacked with senior big men Luke Bowanko and Morgan Moses, can they develop the leadership and tenacity necessary for a comeback season?
2. Quarterback Controversy...Again
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It wouldn't be Virginia football if there wasn't a quarterback controversy.
At one point last year, Virginia had six quarterbacks on the roster.
Now the Cavaliers have to deal with the aftermath of that turmoil and pick up the pieces as both Michael Rocco and Phillip Sims have gotten off the coaching carousel for good and transferred.
That leaves Virginia coach Mike London with two realistic options, redshirt sophomore David Watford and redshirt freshman Greyson Lambert.
Watford has more collegiate experience, being part of the quarterback dysfunction with Rocco in 2011. However, his career stats of 30-of-74 for 346 yards with three touchdowns and four interceptions is far from Heisman-caliber.
Watford's size is a detriment, much like his mentor former Cavaliers signal-caller Marques Hagans. It hurts his accuracy being unable to see over the line of scrimmage and his athleticism is good, but not great enough to innovate on the spot.
Case and point, the disaster that was Virginia's spring game where Watford and Co. was "sacked" 14 times under the two-hand touch rule. Two of those were Watford in the end zone for a safety. Even with those kind interpretations of a sack, either Virginia has the 1985 Bears defense or Watford is dead man walking in 2013.
That leaves Virginia with golden-armed Lambert. This kid has undeniable talent and potential, the question is just how much London will let him grow.
London has shown he cannot leave well enough alone. He has loyalty to Watford, perhaps to the detriment of the team. How will this hoopla be decided?
If the past three seasons have taught us anything, it won't.
1. Coach Tom O'Brien?
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North Carolina State severed ties with head coach Tom O'Brien after years of good but not great football.
Virginia clearly decided to jump on the ensuing chaos, not only nabbing defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta but O'Brien himself.
Why a man near 70 years old would take such a demotion would not seem to make sense on the surface. Of course, leaving Boston College for North Carolina State was a questionable move too.
O'Brien certainly had a long tenure as offensive coordinator at Virginia, but the explanation goes much deeper than that. It goes to the Virginia Tech debacle in 2012 where Mike London sat on two timeouts and allowed the Hokies to march down the field, only to use them in a vain attempt to "ice the kicker."
Coach London is a great recruiter and motivator, but he is not a man who can game-plan. His in-game management has been horrendous, with blown calls, alarmingly high penalties and most importantly an inability to adjust to game situations.
At times, London has gone for it on fourth down, not even aware of the distance of the first down-marker.
These are mistakes that make Virginia appear like an amateur team. The best teams in the country cannot look so foolish, and Virginia administration is clearly aware of this.
Forget the title, Tom O'Brien will be leading the Cavaliers on game day. His job is to run the team for those 60 minutes and for the much more passionate, charismatic London to handle the other six days and 23 hours as the face of the program.
This requires humble egos and patience.
That is why it is the most interesting story heading into 2013.
How much control will O'Brien have and what will everyone's reaction to this corrupt bargain be?