Penn State makes the trip down south of the Mason-Dixon Line on Sept. 8 to face an old friend in the University of Virginia. A few years ago, I'd say Scott Stadium would be close to half full with Nittany Lions fans for this game, what with the enormous alumni base in the DMV. However, with Virginia's new lease on football life, tickets to this game might be tougher to get than many expect.
Going back to my days at LBU, I've been a virtual broken record saying how much I liked the Virginia Cavaliers as they stand this summer, with a little background to set it all up.hire at Virginia and the dividends I felt it would pay over the next few seasons. Going off the last 18 months, I'd say things are moving to prove correct my unabashed optimism about the Cavs. In today's Summer Snapshot, we'll take a look at the
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The Past Few Seasons in Charlottesville...
The tail end of Al Groh's tenure at UVA was like the last throes on the Titanic, with the Cavs going 5-7 in 2008 and 3-9 in 2010. After years of not-quite-great football under Groh--Virginia never won more than nine games, despite a few seasons of very big hype--he was canned in favor of a young star coach from across the Commonwealth. Mike London arrived on campus from his previous job as the head coach of Richmond. There he won an FCS national title, giving him instant credibility in the state, and more importantly, with recruits.
In the two years since, the program under London has grown and matured. Though Virginia won only four games in London's first season, the Cavaliers rebounded in a big way in 2011, finishing the regular season 8-4 before losing to Auburn in the Peach Bowl. Aside from the improvement on the field, London has been able to boost recruiting. Virginia is now frequently signing players who hold offers from some of the biggest names in the FBS, including stealing away quite a number of those pursued by Penn State. It's a program on the rise.
Last year London's team returned more starters that it does this season. But this year the team is overall much better and should not take the conference by surprise. Quarterback Michael Rocco returns with his 2,671 passing yards and 13-12 TD-INT ratio. His accuracy is there (61%), but obviously the interceptions need to go down. OC Bill Lazor doesn't run a super-pass-heavy offense, preferring a very balanced attack. That's where RB Perry Jones comes in, 85 yards short of 1,000 yards last year. From 2010 to 2011, the Cavaliers improved their rushing attack by 23 YPG (139 to 162) as Rocco became more comfortable as the first-year starter. Now that both return, the offense should have some real pop this season, especially with good weapons like WRs Dominique Terrell and Darius Jennings, both former Penn State targets.
The defense, however, might not improve nearly as much as the offense, returning fewer starters from a year ago. Only four of the top 10 tacklers from last year return, but losing mediocre talent in favor of good talent is always worth the adjustment period early in the schedule. Three true freshmen could end up starting on day one this fall: DL Eli Harold and Michael Moore, and LB Kwontie Moore. The backfield will be led by yet another former Penn State prospect, Demetrious Nicholson, who earned 2nd Team Freshman All-American honors in 2011. The rest of the secondary is raw, but has the ability to turn into a good unit. The rush defense improved by 65 YPG from 2010 to 2011 (204 to 139).
UVA doesn't shy away from any challenges on their 2012 schedule, facing Penn State at home and TCU on the road. The ACC schedule is decent, but they do miss out on playing Florida State and Clemson from the Atlantic Division. The best case scenario for Virginia is a hot start with a huge upset (not technically a huge upset, but perception-wise it would be) of Penn State, followed by at least splitting the road trips to Georgia Tech and TCU. The Cavaliers could be 5-1 heading into homecoming against Maryland, which is also a very winnable game. The final stretch ending with Virginia Tech could cause any high hopes to go right out the window. But this is a UVA team that has the chance to be a Coastal Division contender right up through November.
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