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An Absurdly Premature Assessment of: Virginia

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A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the long offseason.
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The least you should know about Virginia...
2007 Record • Past Five Years
2007: 9-4 (6-2 ACC; 2nd/Coastal)
2003-07: 37-25 (22-18 ACC)
Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*
2004-08: 40 • 19 • 39 • 25 • 61
Returning Starters, Roughly
12 (6 Offense, 6 Defense)
Best Player
Phil Steele, Rivals, Scout, SuperPrep, your cousin, your grocery bagger, Nas, the corpses of both James Dean and Gavrilo Princip and whoever else dared to venture an opinion in 2005 ranked Eugene Monroe the best incoming offensive tackle in the country, and he was legitimately next-big-thing as a true freshman. Monroe only split starting duties as a sophomore, though, losing his job after the first three games, and was overshadowed in postseason awards and draft hype last year by Branden Albert despite giving up zero sacks against the likes of Calais Campbell, Hilee Taylor, Darrell Robertson and Chris Ellis. Four years in, if he’s not actually the best tackle in the country, Monroe is the only Virginia player after the offseason roster purges worthy of any award hype. Scouts will always have a soft spot or 320-pounders.
Apocryphal Mascot Anecdote
One of the old Virginia mascots was a black-and-white mongrel dog named Beta who was loved by the campus, attended courses about Plato and barked at his name during roll call, etc. Story goes the dog was left behind in Athens after a UVA game with Georgia in the thirties, a good 393 miles from Charlottesville. Two weeks later, Beta shows up scratching at the back door of the frat house in charge of him, "cold, ragged and hungry." Over 14 days, that’s 28 miles a day, about a marathon. If Beta walked nonstop – no eating, no sleeping, no wandering off course – he’d have to cover a little more than a mile an hour to get from Athens to the Virginia campus in that time, assuming he was always on track. Could Smokey pull that off? Uga? Please. Uga can’t make it through halftime without stopping to lay down and pant on his ice bag. I tell ya, these mascot dogs today are for shit.
* According to Rivals
What's Changed. Virginia won nine games without being demonstrably good at anything last year, with the notable exception of the efforts led by the defensive line: stopping the run and rushing the passer. The Cavs were thirteenth nationally in rush defense, one of only ten defenses to hold opponents under three yards per carry, and tied with Ohio State for sixth in sacks; by every other measure, the team was thoroughly mediocre, occasionally (as in the offensive passing game) truly bad. The biggest part of that push was soon-to-be-millionaire Chris Long, but not enough attention was paid to his up-and-coming counterpart, sophomore Jeffrey Fitzgerald, who had seven sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss and scored a difference-making touchdown on an interception (created by a Long tip) against Georgia Tech. With Long basking in all the draft hype, and nose tackle Allen Billyk following him out, at least another potential star would be holding down the front.

But, oh, what a fun offseason it's been. Fitzgerald was one of three Cavs AWOL from class in January, and subsequently put on academic probation through the entire 2008-09 term; he'll probably transfer, leaving zero holdovers from the only unambiguous positive of last year's team. Among other players suspended for being academic no-shows were starting quarterback Jameel Sewell and Andrew Pearman, a return guy expected to make some noise in the running back rotation. Among other players suspended or booted outright since December are linebacker/accused credit card thief J'Courtney Williams and backup cornerback/alleged e-Bay abuser Mike Brown. Altogether, seven players with remaining eligibility have left UVA since the end of the season, only one of them - probably first round pick Branden Albert, an all-ACC choice so badass he left school early as a guard - voluntarily. On top of the other nine starters trickling out due to natural causes, any sense of momentum or continuity from the `07 turnaround will be hard to come by.

Wait, these guys are supposed to be in class?! When was I supposed to find out about this?
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What's the Same. Only twice last year, in the loss to N.C. State and the one-point win over Wake Forest the next week, did Virginia attempt more passes than runs, which will be two more times than it happens this fall if the gameplan has its way. Not only is UVA breaking in a new, inexperienced quarterback who lacks Sewell's athleticism (Sewell was over 400 yards rushing before sacks each of his two seasons as a starter), but it returns two nearly identical starting running backs, Mikell Simpson and Cedric Peerman, whose combined production should be better than any other two backs in the ACC except James Davis and C.J. Spiller.

There would have been no discernible difference last year if Simpson and Peerman were actually the same guy: Peerman had 113 carries for 570 yards in the first six games before going down for the rest of the season with a foot injury; Simpson, who had no carries in the games Peerman played, had 113 in the last six games for 585 yards. Vespucci couldn't map a division of labor that clean or symmetrical. Simpson was far more active in the passing game - 43 catches to Peerman's 13 - which might entice coaches to get both of them on the field with Simpson in some kind of receiving role. It's not like there are any other great options: the top wide receiver last year only caught 21 balls, well behind Simpson and two graduating tight ends (does Groh's offense ever love its tight ends), so even with `06 leader Kevin Ogletree back from a medical redshirt, they need all the weapons they can get out there.

Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. If you're trying to form any conclusions about the new quarterback from statistics, harumphs Al Groh, you're fooling yourself. That's good news for Peter Lalich, the only one of the three contestants with any game experience, since the sophomore's numbers fell well short of Scott Deke and Marc Verica in the Spring game. Lalich is the assumed heir to Sewell's underwhelming tenure, since he beat Deke and Verica for the backup spot as a true freshman and wound up playing early and often, but coaches let Deke start the last scrimmage for coming closest to the number in Groh's head. That may explain why Lalich is a little "testy" about being subjected to an open competition: telling a reporter "I don't have anything to say about that" in the age of careful PR training and team-oriented, no-control-over-that, one-day-at-a-time cliché is actually saying plenty about that, specifically, "I find it insulting and uncouth to be even subjected to position drills with these scurrilous ruffians," or something like that.

Based on nothing at all but a single line in one obscure newspaper story, I declare Deke the fan favorite, since he was a never-used senior who was "prepared to head into the work force" until Groh asked him back for a fifth year. His quote for the reporters? ""The opportunity to play football at the University of Virginia and be a student for another year was just a no-brainer." Lines like that are good for one solid "Get Out of Jail Free" card from the partisans, to be redeemed after the first (and only the first) of what is sure to be many, many interceptions.

Virginia on You Tube. I'm not saying Colin Cowherd speaks for America. Certainly he does not, on anything. But if he ever came close, well, Virginia fans, y'all do wear the traditional sundresses or coat and tie to football games:

What are you going to say to that? "At least we have class"? As Colin well knows, class is for losers.

See Also: There's a lotta gratuitous Cav hatin' out there, like this very active-armed young Hokie, who thinks ripping UVA is so nice he ripped `em twice, and needless antagonism of the Cavaqueers. ... Chris Long, running and jumping at the combine like a man 70 pounds lighter. ... And remember when Virginia was No. 1? It happened for a few weeks in 1990, thanks to the Moore Brothers, and they looked like it against Clemson, until eventual mythical champ Georgia Tech came to town.

Ogletree: If his ACL's alright, the only thing that's better than last year.
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Best-Case. One good definition of "best case" is "win a bunch of evenly-played games by the narrowest of margins," and by that standard, last year was a banner year. Five of UVA's nine wins were by two points or less; in one four-week stretch in late October/early November, the Cavs won three different games by a single point. Even if this team retains whatever combination of clock management, cool-headed fortitude and dumb luck it deployed to prevail in those games, the significant attrition on both sides is going to knock half of those games out of striking distance to begin with. With a set of backups vying to be the quarterback, no apparent difference-makers anywhere else on the offense, and the most disruptive individual defensive force in the country moving on, another nine-win effort is a little off the deep end. A bowl game, in fact, might be a little off the deep end. With as little good as I can spot on paper, a .500 ceiling seems generous.

Worst-Case. If the offense is as bad as it has the potential to be - and that's a real special kind of bad, in the offensively-challenged ACC - the only games that look `automatic' are Richmond and Duke. And who knows yet what Cutcliffe's got going on at Duke? What happens to the collective confidence if USC scores 65 in the opener? Without the little edge that got UVA over the top in so many games last year, 2-10 is not out of the question. I can pick ten teams on the schedule I'd pick to beat Virginia if they played tomorrow, including East Carolina.

Non-Binding Forecast. Given that the difference between the nine-win, coach-feting success the team got and the four-win, coach-killing disaster it nearly got was almost nil with the pending first pick in the draft, I'd be surprised to find anybody who didn't predict a significant backslide. Major personnel losses, new quarterback on an already low-flow offense, an ongoing string of off-field trouble - the bill is coming due. The only mitigating element is the program's general consistency, under both Groh and his predecessor, George Welsh, who together have fallen short of .500 only twice in the last 20 years. On that arc, the absolute low end of the scale is 5-7; since the situation strikes me as that kind of desperate, without looking closely at any of Virginia's opponents, 5-7 is the bet I'd make.