The time has finally come.
After all the anger and apathy surrounding the Virginia football program a year ago and the hope that reappeared after major staff changes, there is only one emotion felt by the entire college football community this week: Anticipation.
What does the future have in store for the 2009 Virginia Cavaliers?
Well the first step begins this week as Virginia opens its season against the Tribe of William and Mary.
The Cavaliers should expect a completely different start than what they experienced last year in their opener. In 2008, sophomore quarterback Pete Lalich was looking for his mouthpiece most of the game as the USC Trojans trounced the Cavaliers at Scott Stadium 52-7.
Virginia is 3-5 in season openers under Al Groh, but do not expect that losing trend to continue this weekend against the FCS opponent. The Cavaliers are 26-5-1 against the Tribe all-time and have won 13 of their past 15 out-of-conference games.
So even though the result should turn in Virginia's favor there are still plenty of questions surrounding this game. Here is a look at the top five questions heading into week one for Virginia.
5. Will the defense create turnovers for Virginia?
As strong as the Cavalier defense has been over the years under Groh, statistics show that the Orange Crush need to step up in some major statistical categories.
In 2008, Virginia finished 38th nationally in total defense but the Cavaliers ranked 8th in the ACC in both scoring and total defense. Worse yet, they ranked 10th in the ACC for turnover margin. The Miami and Virginia Tech games at the end of last year proved just how critical holding on to the ball will be this season. It also cost them a bowl game appearance.
For a team with little room for error, Virginia cannot waste opportunities.
While Marc Verica's 16 interceptions certainly played a large role in Virginia's poor turnover margin, the defense still finished ninth in interceptions and eighth in fumbles.
In other words, Virginia's defense simply need to step up and make big plays when they matter. With a new offense still in the works, the Cavaliers could really use a short field. Particularly in a game where they will undoubtedly feel pressure to put away their opponent early.
That won't happen though if Virginia defense continues to rank next to last in the conference in stopping teams on third down. Long drives give the opponents confidence while deflating the spirit of the defense. The worst thing Virginia can do is let the Tribe stay in it and gain momentum.
William and Mary seems to be the best opportunity for the highly revered secondary to make some big plays and get the crowd into it. The Tribe's quarterback, senior R.J. Archer, started only one game last year and although they are returning practically their entire defense the offense is still young.
For a team that boasts about its strong defense needs to not only talk the talk but walk the walk this season. This weekend is a good place to start.
4. Will the kicking game improve?
Perhaps no unit was more of a work in progress last year than the kicking team.
The year began with Yannick Reyering, a former All-ACC soccer player, handling the field goal duties and although he showed the leg strength his accuracy failed him and injuries sidelined him for most of the season.
In his place, Virginia looked to Robert Randolph and after a good training camp appears to be in line with punter Jimmy Howell as the starting kickers this season.
It has been a long time since Cavalier fans have had a reliable kicker that they had little fear of going to in a make-or-break situation.
When Connor Hughes was at Virginia, he went 67-of-80 in his field goal attempts. Three of his four years he missed three field goals are fewer.
Since Hughes left in 2005, Virginia's kickers have combined to go 39-of-57, including 12-of18 last season.
While Randolph was 3-of-4 there were concerns over how far he could kick the ball and therefore did not attempt some of the longer field goal tries. Now that Randolph seems firmly entrenched it is time to see if he can combine that accuracy with a strong leg.
Even though Virginia fans are anxious to see the new offense, they will definitely breathe extra sigh of relief if they could rack up a field goal or two in the process to help Randolph gain confidence for the bigger games down the road.
3. Will the offensive line be ready to run?
We all know that Al Groh can produce offensive lineman.
Eugene Monroe was the lastest Virginia alum to land high in the NFL draft, but before him was Branden Albert and before that D'Brickashaw Ferguson.
However, the question will be not only how will the Cavaliers deal with the loss of Monroe but how will the line deal with the new spread offense.
It was certainly a dramatic departure from the pro sets typical of Groh teams, many of Virginia's lineman talked about how weird it felt to have that much space between blockers. There were definite growing pains but offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon seems confident in them and the talent in certainly there for Virginia to have a very good offensive line in 2009.
With three experienced but flawed quarterbacks, the o-line has a responsibility to give these players time. While they may have more talent than their opponent, the Tribe's experience on the defensive side could make things rather interesting.
If Virginia's line struggles, watch out, it will not bode well for the future. The last two seasons Virginia finished with losing records a common denominator was a poor start by the offensive line.
Al Groh can't afford history to repeat itself.
2. Will running back Mikell Simpson play?
The man who surprised everyone in 2007 when he came from fourth on the depth chart to mid-season hero. However, it will be a hard to be a hero with an injured leg.
Simpson was wearing a boot earlier this week and that has Virginia fans concerned. Despite his great play two years ago, injuries hampered what could have been a solid encore performance. With the loss of Cedric Peerman, Simpson is the only experienced running back option besides fullback Rashawn Jackson.
While most indications are that Simpson will play one has to wonder how long and how well that performance will be. If he does not display that signature speed that made him so dangerous in 2007, expect Jackson and Torrey Mack to get an opportunity for that top spot on the depth chart.
Mack has impressed this August and could become the number one option sooner rather than later. However, if Virginia is to win seven or eight games, they will need Simpson to contribute somewhere close to the level he once. Groh will need both of them to keep defenses on their toes and keep his offense in the end zone.
Depth can make or break a team and this will be an early test to see just how deep this Virginia team will be.
1. Who will be the starting quarterback?
The biggest question of all is being held like a top secret dossier.
Let's face it, we all know that Vic Hall will most likely be the starting quarterback. Just don't expect Al "Bill Parcells disciple" Groh to waste any sort of "advantage" by blabbing that publicly.
Groh will do everything he can to make the William and Mary Tribe game plan for three different quarterbacks.
In the Tuesday press conference, Groh was asked repeatedly about his starter. Each and every time he explained that he was fortunate to have three viable options. He would go wherever the spirit moved him.
So I'm to believe Groh is going to play "rock-paper-scissors" for this?
Hall is first on the depth chart and stating the obvious would not be giving up any tactical advantage.
After all, no one knows how Vic Hall is going to do out there this weekend. His lone quarterback performance was after just one week of practice and is really just a small glimpse into what this Gretna High star can achieve. They could examine the Virginia Tech game all they want, but it will do little good.
Vic Hall's arm will be the most watched thing in this game and for good reason.
However, it will be interesting to see if Hall is used in any other capacity. We all know that Hall was a cornerback for three years and has returned punts the past few seasons. While the secondary is probably no longer a destination for him, he could have a few other roles on offense to show off his play-making skills.
Finally, what about the other two quarterbacks. How much action will Jameel Sewell and Marc Verica see in this game? Will it come in the first quarter or in the fourth quarter?
These three men know that nothing is guaranteed this season. They have been practicing for months but this is the audition that can make or break their careers at Virginia.
After all, you never get a second chance at a first impression.
The Virginia Cavaliers have been a big question mark this entire offseason. Fortunately, we are just a few days away from the answers.
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