The 5-7 finish last season for Virginia marked the sixth losing season in seven years for the Cavaliers, and the seventh in the past nine years. Head coach Mike London has had five seasons at the helm but has posted just one winning season, an 8-5 record back in 2011. But this season could be a whole lot different.
Here’s what we know for sure about the Cavaliers:
Team name: Virginia Cavaliers
Conference: Atlantic Coast Conference
Location: Charlottesville, Virginia
Stadium: Scott Stadium (61,500)
Coach: Mike London, 23-38 (VA), 47-43 overall. This is his 6th year with the Cavaliers.
2014 Season: 5-7
Returning starters: 12 with 5 offense, 6 defense, and 1 special teams
Here is a look at what we think we know:
At the end of 2014’s disappointing finish coach London got a two year extension to his contract running through 2016. It caused such an uproar at the time the peasants and many of the Cavalier fans were taking to the streets with torches and pitchforks. Over his tenure there has been continuing dissatisfaction with the play-calling by London and his staff, and at the time of the extension some were calling for London's ouster. So if you think you smell smoke, it could be the burning match that has been thrown under London’s seat.
Five players to keep an eye on:
QB Matt Johns, 6-5, 210 lbs, is the ‘Hoos new starting quarterback who unseated the 2014 starter, Greyson Lambert, in spring ball. (The ‘Hoos is a nickname for the Cavaliers). Johns saw action in all 12 of Virginia’s games in 2014, including three where he started. He completed 89 of 162 attempts (54.9%) for 1,109 yards and 8 TDs vs 5 INTs. He also rushed for 107 yards and a touchdown. Is that enough to convince London to give him the starting position? It better be, because Lambert decided to bail on London (the 11th quarterback to do so since 2011) and has transferred to Georgia. Two backup quarterbacks departed as well leaving Johns to either do or die.
Senior WR T. J. Thorpe, 6-0, 210 lbs, played three seasons at North Carolina before transferring to Virginia. At UNC he appeared in 34 games for the Tar Heels, amassed a total of 42 career receptions 574 yards and five touchdowns. He was a finalist for the Johnny Rodgers Award as the nation’s top kick returner in 2011 after leading the ACC with 26.7 yards-per-kick-return. He also broke thirginiae school record for kick returns with 960 yards. Thorpe broke his foot in training camp before the start of the 2014 season, but came back to make 16 catches for 237 yards and 3 TD’s before the season ended.
RB Taquan Mizzell, 5-10, 200 lbs, is a former 5-star recruit nicknamed "Smoke" because of his abilities to elude defenders. In 2014, he was in all 12 of the Cavaliers games, rushing 64 times for 280 yards and two touchdowns. His longest run was 16 yards. With his runs averaging just 4.4 yards a carry, Smoke will be looking to live up to his name this season. But Mizzell was also the #2 receiver on the team with 39 catches that accounted for 271 yards. Add to that nine kickoff returns for 208 yards averaging 23.1 yards per return.
Senior DE Mike Moore, 6-4, 275 lbs, is one of linchpins of the Virginia defense and the epitome of what a defensive end is supposed to be. Moore is tough and athletic and appeared in all 12 games and started in 11 in 2014. He closed out his season with with 36 tackles, 8 tackles for loss and 3 sacks. Moore is #8 in the nation and # 2 in the ACC in fumble recoveries, accounting for 3 of Virginia’s 14 fumble recoveries.
Sophomore Quin Blanding, 6-1, 215 lbs, is a Phil Steele and Athlon Sports preseason All-American safety who was the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2014. He finished the regular season with123 tackles making him #2 in the ACC and 21st nationally. Blanding was also Scout.com's National Defensive Rookie of the Year and by some accounts on track to becoming the Cavaliers next great defensive star.
Second year offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild is the first one to admit the Cavaliers got away from play-action last season and has vowed that in 2015 they will be more explosive. If Fairchild’s name sounds familiar to Mountain West fans, it should. He’s had coaching stints at New Mexico and San Diego State and was the head coach at Colorado State (his alma matter) from 2007-2011. He’s been at Virginia since 2013. Last season his offense struggled with quarterbacks and an offensive line in flux. Under former QB Greyson Lambert the team generated just 137.8 yards per game in rushing offense and ended the season ranked 87th in total offense. But with QB Matt Johns under center this year Fairchild is promising the offense will be more dynamic and much more aggressive. He is implementing a return of a power rushing attack behind a solid, experienced O-line and the abilities of talented tailbacks like Taquan Mizzell. That might be a tall order for a running attack that ended up ranked #100 in the FBS in 2014. The passing offense is also beefing up with the addition of T. J. Thorpe alongside returning senior WR Canaan Severin, 6-2, 215 lbs. Severin appeared in all 12 of Virginia’s 2014 games, and started in nine. He made 42 catches for 578 yards and five touchdowns.
One word: formidable. Virginia's defensive front seven was ranked #20 nationally in defending the run, giving up just 120.7 yards per game on average. The defense finished last season ranked 29th in the country in total defense, 31st in sacks, and 23rd in interceptions. They led the ACC in fumble recoveries with 14. Unfortunately, that’s also the side of the ball heading into this season that has suffered the most in terms of losses. Expect to see some new faces on the block alongside returning starters DE Mike Moore, DT David Dean, 6-1, 295 lbs and DT DonteWilkins, 6-1, 300 lbs.
The secondary is anchored by senior CB Maurice Canady, 6-2, 185 lbs, an emerging playmaker from the 2014 season. Canady was a second-team All-ACC performer last year after making 37 tackles, 12 pass breakups and recording three interceptions. His 12 pass breakups ranked him #2 in the ACC. And, of course, the aforementioned safety, Quin Blanding.
Lou Groza Award semifinalist placekicker Ian Frye, 6-6, 215 lbs, has one of the best legs in college ball. He made 34 of 35 extra points, and booted 22 of 27 field goal attempts through the uprights. Three of those misses were attempts from 50 yards or more. He cinched the biggest win of the Cavaliers 2014 season with UV's third-longest game-winning field goal in program history: a 42-yard kick that boosted the Cavaliers over #21 Louisville.
Virginia’s 2015 schedule:
Sat, Sept 5 @ #10 UCLA, 1:30 PM MT, FOX
Sat, Sept 12 vs Notre Dame, 1:30 PM MT, ABC
Sat, Sept 19 vs William & Mary, 1:30 PM MT, ESPN 3
Fri, Sept 25 vs #16 Boise State, 6:00 PM MT, ESPN
Sat, Oct 10 @ Pittsburgh, TBD
Sat, Oct 17 vs Syracuse, TBD
Sat, Oct 24 @ North Carolina, TBD
Sat, Oct 31 vs #8 Georgia Tech, TBD
Sat, Nov 7 @ Miami (FL), TBD
Sat, Nov 14 @ #24 Louisville, TBD
Sat, Nov 21 vs Duke, TBD
Sat, Nov 28 vs Virginia Tech, TBD
The opener is at UCLA. Then a home game with Notre Dame, a game with FCS William and Mary, and a visit to Scott Stadium by Boise State before going into ACC play. That conference schedule includes away games at North Carolina, at Miami, at Louisville and home games with Georgia Tech, Duke and Virginia Tech. That is as tough a schedule as any ACC team could face. With the Cavaliers still seemingly in state of transition it is hard to see past another bowl-less 5-7 season.