Virginia enters 2009 with its eyes set on getting back to a bowl after a disappointing 5-7 season last year. Head coach Al Groh is on the hot seat in Charlottesville having already fired his OC, who was also his son, after last season. Gregg Brandon is the new OC having served as Bowling Green's head coach the past six years and was Urban Meyer's OC for two years there as well.
To get more insight into the Cavaliers prospects this year, I talked with the head of From Old Virginia.
One week it is 28 point loss to Duke and then a 31-0 shutout of Maryland. What do you think was the cause of Virginia's up and down 2008 season?
Nothing different, to be honest, than the usual awesomeness at home (see my post about UVA's home record this decade) and putridity on the road that UVA fans are long accustomed to. There were exceptions, like beating Georgia Tech in Atlanta, but it's no coincidence the midseason win streak coincided with a long homestand. The end result of what you saw really wasn't much different from the typical home-and-road schizophrenia we have to put up with every year.
Who do you think will get the majority of the QB snaps in Virginia's opener and why?
Vic Hall. The coaches are excited about the potential for excitement here, although not nearly as excited as the fan base that's been waiting for Al Groh to put Hall back on offense after several years at cornerback. Hall and Jameel Sewell fit the offense better than Marc Verica, and Sewell has some rust to shake off.
What does Al Groh need to do to dial down the heat on him in Charlottesville?
Easy: Win. Actually, even that won't do it. I think there's always going to be a permanent level of heat on Groh that won't really ever go away.
A winning season will push it to the background where the Fire Groh crowd will wait it out until we start losing again, but if we can't get past Virginia Tech, it may not matter.
What unit will have the biggest learning curve in new OC Gregg Brandon's spread offense?
If I had to pick just one, it'd be the receivers. The focus of the passing game has rarely been on the receivers in Groh's offenses. Now, it's all receivers, all the time; Brandon likes to use four at once, a formation which might literally be brand new at UVA in Groh's time.
Who do you expect to step and replace Cedric Peerman in the backfield?
Mikell Simpson's talents seem ready-made for this offense. I think he'll have a big season, with a big assist from Torrey Mack; Simpson has never shown he can be the load-carrier for a whole season. Brandon's offense, however, will get Simpson the ball in space, where he's excelled catching screen passes and such in the past.
Likewise, for the receivers UVA lost its top four from last year, who do you see stepping up and filling Kevin Ogletree and Co. shoes'?
The top three receivers to watch should be Javaris Brown, Jared Green, and true freshman Tim Smith. The staff made no secret of its praise and high expectations for Brown, and Green (the son of NFL Hall of Famer Darrell) was impressive last year. All three are burners with big-play potential.
Does UVA have another outstanding offensive lineman waiting in the wings after two recent high draft choices?
There isn't likely to be another top-ten pick for 2010 in this bunch, but RT Will Barker is expected to provide a steadying, anchor force and leadership for the line, and could have early-round NFL talent. Also watch out for LG Austin Pasztor, who stepped in as a true freshman last year and brought a huge improvement in the unit's run-blocking.
The defense lost five of its top six tacklers from 2008. Which direction is this unit headed in 2009?
It depends on how fast the new linebackers mature. With so many departed starters, nobody has a starting spot nailed down. The secondary is, frankly, stellar, and the defensive line is experienced if thin, but Al Groh's 3-4 defense relies on the linebackers to be the playmakers.
If they step up to the plate, it will be a very stout defense. If they show their inexperience, it could be a long year.
Who will be a surprise player this year that many outside of Charlottesville don't know about?
I've mentioned Torrey Mack as well as a few wide receivers, but look out especially for Rodney McLeod at safety. This kid is a player and a half. He may be overshadowed by Ras-I Dowling at cornerback, but you won't be able to help but hear McLeod's name again and again on TV broadcasts—he will be a real playmaker.
UVa's non conference schedule has one BCS team (vs. Indiana) and two strong mid-majors (vs. TCU, @So. Miss). How do you see the Cavaliers faring out of conference?
2-2 at worst. God help us if we lose to William & Mary, and IU really isn't any good either. TCU is going to be a killer matchup, but do not count out UVa at home—many UVa fans are actually dreading the Southern Miss game more, as it's on the road where the "boogeymen" are.
I think 3-1 is the best bet, with a split between TCU and Southern Miss.
What is your prediction for Virginia this year and do you think they will go to a bowl?
7-5 with a bowl trip, but that's subject to change as I go through all the nail-biting ups and downs and neurotic countdown-clock-watching of the preseason.
My thoughts on Virginia...
The Wahoos have a chance to catch people off-guard with their new offense if they get the right QB in there. Their o-line should be good with four starters back and they have adequate talent at the skill positions. Defensively, I agree that the inexperienced linebacking group will be key to success.
I also agree with the UVA blogger that Al Groh needs to do more than win to keep his job; he needs success against archrival Virginia Tech as well. The situation at UVA is very similar to that of former Georgia Tech head coach Chan Gailey, who was fired after the 2007 season.
The out-of-conference schedule is fairly difficult, but I agree that UVA will win at least two and has a good shot to win three (don't see them winning four, though). The ACC schedule is average but Virginia has to win its home games to have a chance at a bowl. I am not as high on Virginia as From Old Virginia, but they have a shot at 6-6 if they catch some breaks.
Best Case Scenario: 7-5
Worst Case Scenario: 4-8
BCS Championship 150/1
ACC Championship 30/1 (tied for 8th)
Win Total - 5
Thanks again to From Old Virginia for their insight.
What do you think of the Cavaliers this season? Are they bowl bound in '09 or is Al Groh on his way out?