Virginia Football: 10 Bold Predictions for the 2011 Season
It's a new year and a new season brings heightened expectations and excitement.
We are in year two of the Mike London era, and while the results off the field have been tremendous with recruiting, the on-field results have been lackluster so far.
The Cavaliers have so many question marks it is hard to make any predictions about how 2011 will fare.
Yet, judging from practice, past experiences and a little bit of psychic ability, I present to you 10 bold predictions that are going to happen this season for the Virginia Cavaliers.
While they may not all be the best news in the world for the fans in Charlottesville, it does point to a team heading in the right direction.
So let the debate begin!
Demetrious Nicholson Will Be the Best Player on Defense
Move over Chase!
Ask anyone and they will tell you the biggest buzz in practice has been true freshman Demetrious Nicholson.
The cornerback has risen up the depth chart with his athleticism and big-play ability, something that has been lacking on the Virginia defense for the past couple of seasons.
When you consider all the attention surrounding the other Cavalier cornerback Chase Minnifield and his ability, Nicholson will be given every opportunity to prove himself as just about every team will try to test the rookie over the preseason All-ACC selection.
Nicholson will not disappoint. His toughness mentally and physically will make the Virginia secondary one of the best in the ACC and give the Cavaliers a chance to ground some high-flying teams.
Unfortunately, if Virginia does not improve it's run defense, teams will never need to throw it.
Tim Smith Will Finish in the Top 5 of the ACC in Receiving TDs
Tim Smith's 2010 season ended before it ever really began.
The speedy wide receiver was grounded with a season-ending leg injury just two games into the year.
Well Smith is back and already proving that he still has the speed and hands to be a big target in 2011. Smith turned a few heads as a freshman in 2009, making some big touchdown grabs and averaging over 13 yards per reception.
His 69-yard bomb from Jameel Sewell, a quarterback not really known for his arm, showed Smith's ability to get open and get down field quickly.
Now with an inexperienced quarterback under center, it would seem foolish to say that Smith would finish in the top five of anything. However, with Virginia's improved running game, an experienced offensive line and the most depth at wide receiver in years, the claim is not preposterous as one might think.
Smith is the go-to target in the red zone, with others like true freshman Darius Jennings, senior Kris Burd (pictured) and Matt Snyder receiving attention of their own. If Virginia can spread the field, Smith will get more opportunities and a chance to become a big time name in the ACC.
Virginia Will Win a Game with Special Teams
Anthony Poindexter left his mark as a player for the Virginia Cavaliers, now he is trying to do the same as an assistant coach.
Poindexter took over special teams last year with some mixed results. The field goal unit struggled early on and kickoff coverage had its ups and downs. Yet, coach Mike London has made special teams a priority.
Last year, Virginia used plenty of trick plays on special teams. Sometimes they worked brilliantly, and other times they looked like a fool's errand.
The would-be fake punt against Southern California was a microcosm of the season. It held such promise until a penalty flag was thrown on the play.
Now the referees later admitted that the penalty was incorrect, but it was little consolation to the Cavaliers.
With a repertoire of trickeration, one of the best punters in the business Jimmy Howell and experienced place kickers, Virginia might just eke out a victory with its special teams this season.
Be it a well-timed punt inside the 20, a clutch field goal or a fake no one expects, Virginia has a chance to believe its special teams can finally come through for the team when they need it most.
Virginia Will Lead Against Virginia Tech at Halftime
Virginia has not beaten their arch rival since 2003.
However, that does not mean they have not had their chances.
Two seasons ago, Virginia only trailed by a point heading into the second half.
In 2008, Virginia led the Hokies 14-7 heading into halftime on the road at Lane Stadium before eventually falling by a field goal.
A year prior to that, Virginia trailed Tech by only two points entering the fourth quarter.
The passion and momentum of Virginia desperately trying to get back in this series has sustained them for a half until the superior talent of the Hokies has ultimately prevailed.
With the recruiting wars heating up and the Cavaliers desperately needing a competitive game for momentum's sake, Virginia will make the home fans happy for the first half by playing inspired football.
As for the second half...
Mike Rocco Will Start Every Game This Season
Even though Rocco has very little collegiate experience, the little we saw of him definitely showed some potential.
The true sophomore has composure, something a Virginia quarterback needs because of the pressure he will be facing from blitzing defenses.
Rocco needs to be willing to spread the ball. Virginia will want to run the ball and when he is called upon, Rocco will need to be accurate and not turn the ball over.
His potential is one thing that makes it seem like he can be the real deal, the fact that no one behind him seems to be making a stronger case is another big factor in his favor.
True freshman David Watford may be talented, but is it worth burning a redshirt?
If Ross Metheney were going to beat out Rocco, wouldn't he have done it by now?
Rocco is the guy, and if he gets injured or struggles, Metheny may have to ride out the rest of the season. However, given coach London's loyalty to Marc Verica last year, something tells me it is Rocco or bust in 2011.
Virginia Will Have a Top 25 Ranking Offensively
Now this is really a bold prediction when you think about it.
Virginia's offense has been anemic in the past. Prior to last season, the Cavaliers were lucky to be ranked in the top 100 let alone top 25. In Groh's final season with the team they ranked 118 out of 120 teams in total offense.
Yet, despite the bumps in the road, Virginia's offense ranked 37th in total yards per game in 2010.
Even with the change at quarterback and the loss of running back Keith Payne, Virginia's offense will continue to improve.
For one, Virginia has a more experienced and talented offensive arsenal, particularly at wide receiver.
Their offensive line is solid and can give the new signal-caller time to make a play.
Their defense will have to improve from its penalty-laden mess and give Virginia more scoring opportunities.
Virginia also has a relatively easy out-of-conference schedule that should tilt the numbers in their favor.
If Virginia continues to improve on offense, it will make the product better and give fans a reason to believe.
Virginia Will Finally Beat Duke
Sad to think that Duke has bedeviled the Cavaliers for awhile now.
Last year, Virginia put forth one of its more embarrassing performances of the season at Durham. Despite an offense that tore threw the Blue Devil defense, Virginia failed to mount much defensive resistance on their end.
Even though the Cavaliers had scored 48 points, Duke had an opportunity to extend the drive and potentially win the game with less than a few minutes to go on a fourth-and-20.
All Virginia had to do was stop them on this one play, and they would win the game.
Instead, they gave up a 32-yard pass and lost in humiliating fashion. It was the Blue Devils lone win of the ACC season.
Virginia cannot expect to be taken seriously if they cannot beat Duke. Something they have not done since 2007.
Even though quarterback Sean Renfree is a talent, Duke has severe weaknesses that Virginia simply has not had the talent or ability to exploit. Another loss would devastate the morale of the fan base and have Mike London answering some difficult questions.
How could Virginia lose to a team that you were able to beat at Richmond, for example.
Virginia has to get out of the cellar, to do that someone else has to fall in. This is Virginia's chance.
Virginia Will Lose 3 Games by over 17 Points
Hey, they never said rebuilding was easy.
Virginia will take a step in the right direction, but their will be some potholes on the road to recovery.
Florida State is loaded with talent at every position.
Virginia Tech has a dynamic running back and a defense that can break quarterbacks like Rocco.
Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Miami and North Carolina State all play the role of Jekyll and Hyde. On any given day, they can play magically and the next they can leave their fans scratching their heads.
With an inexperienced quarterback and so many problems to recover from in 2011, Virginia will lose games, and some of them will be pretty ugly.
The key will be to simply move on and learn from your mistakes. If Virginia grows from their losses, they will not have to deal with quite so many in 2012.
The Cavaliers Will Have a First-Round Draft Pick
Despite Virginia's struggles, the Cavaliers have always done well on draft day.
Last year though was the exception, but with Chase Minnifield on the roster, Virginia may have another first-round draft pick to join the likes of Chris Long, D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Eugene Monroe and Heath Miller among others to hear their names called early in the 2000s.
Minnifield is rated as having the top three cornerback by some scouts and definitely has the attention of the media.
He is the focal point of this team and a leader that will need to step up if Virginia's defense is going to erase painful memories from last year.
Minnifield has to continue to make big plays like he did last year with six interceptions.
If he can lock down opponents and make them pay for testing him, Virginia could really do some damage.
It could also lead to a major pay day and some face time with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
Virginia Will Make a Bowl Game
It's been a long time since Virginia felt good about the end of their season.
The Cavaliers have not reached a bowl game since 2007.
They have not won a bowl game since 2005.
Still, just getting to a bowl game would be a huge victory for Coach London and company given the negative attitude that permeated the culture of Charlottesville prior to his arrival.
A 6-6 mark will not be an easy task for Virginia which may have upgraded on talent but is still far short on experience. Nevertheless, the pieces are in place for a few upsets and a chance to turn heads in a low to mid-tier bowl game like the Military Bowl.
If the Cavaliers won that, Virginia would be in a similar situation it faced in 2002 when the Cavaliers beat up the West Virginia Mountaineers in the Continental Tire Bowl and appeared poised for greatness in the ACC before it all came crashing down.
Virginia needs this bowl for recruiting, for momentum and for confidence.
They will get it done.