Previewing Virginia

The 3-1 Clemson Tigers will head to Charlottesville for a Thursday night nationally televised contest versus the Virginia Cavaliers with plenty on the line in the ACC pecking order.

In this 11 part series I will break down and predict each Clemson football game for the 2004 season. Of course, much can and will change as fall practice commences and the season progresses. So by no means do I envision a scenario where I am perfect, but the hope is to give a realistic view of where Clemson, and the rest of the ACC, will fall in the upcoming season.

Week #1: Previewing Wake Forest
Week #2: Previewing Georgia Tech
Week #3: Previewing Texas A&M
Week #4: Previewing Florida State

October 7
Clemson at Virginia 7:45, ESPN
The Cavaliers are coming off a 8-5 season with wins over Duke, Western Michigan, Wake Forest, North Carolina, Troy State, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh. Their 5 losses came to South Carolina, Clemson, Florida State, North Carolina State, and Maryland.

As I predicted in previous articles, Clemson will enter the game 3-1 and will be coming off a loss to Florida State. Virginia should be off to a 4-0 start to the season with wins over Temple, North Carolina, Akron, and Syracuse. The Cavaliers will be playing their 4th straight home game after opening the season in Philadelphia against the Owls.

In all likelihood, both teams will be ranked in the top 25 heading into this Thursday night showdown.

On offense, the predictable Cavaliers will have to find a replacement for All-ACC QB Matt Schaub. Schaub was arguably one of the top quarterbacks in the country and his early draft status attested to that fact. Marques Hagans, the apparent leader for the job of replacing Schaub, has had a sketchy spring after being arrested in April and charged with disorderly conduct. While Hagans was acquitted of the misdemeanor chargers, the impact of a team leader being arrested has yet to be played out.

Head coach Al Groh has hinted all spring that he may take the pressure off Hagans and simply run the ball more. If the spring game is any indication, Groh is not kidding. But at some point the Cavs will have to be able to throw it if they want to finish in the top half of the conference, and the jury is most defiantly out on Hagans ability through the air.

While UVA may have trouble throwing the ball, there is no lack of talent at running back. Wali Lundy and Alvin Pearman are as good a tandem at running back that there is in the league, and they both will more than likely carry the offensive load for the Cavaliers.

The wide receivers took a hit with the suspension of Ottawa Anderson in July. Anderson, according to Groh, will have to sit out the entire 2004 season, which leaves the Cavaliers desperately searching for a go-to wide out. Senior Michael McGrew will attempt to step his game up in the absence of Anderson. Fontel Mines and Deyon Williams have only 14 catches between them, but they will be counted on in a big way as the season progresses.

The Cavaliers and head coach Al Groh will do battle against Clemson on a Thursday night game in Charlottesville.
The lack of playmakers at receiver means that All-American TE Heath Miller will probably get thrown the lion's share of balls in the passing game. Groh already loves to put the ball in his tight ends hands, and the lack of talent at wide out probably means Miller will get a full work out throughout the course of the 2004 season.

The offensive line, much like past many of hte past offensive lines in Charlottesville, is big and talented, and all 5 starters return.

Elton Brown highlights the talented group at guard and he is flanked by Ian Cunningham. Center Zac Yarbrough and he is about to become the Cavaliers first three year starter at center since Tim Morris in the mid 1980's. Tackles D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Brad Butler nail down the tackle positions with authority. Ferguson has been a starter at tackle since the day he set foot on campus.

Defensively, the Cavaliers will have plenty of experience and talent that should put the unit near the top of the conference at the end of the year.

On the line, the Cavs return all three down lineman for the 2nd straight year. Senior ends Chris Canty and junior Brennan Smith are versatile and quick on the feet. While Canty gets most of the attention because of his size (6-7), Smith has been similarly productive at the other end and offers a nice compliment. Senior nose tackle Andrew Hoffman played extremely well down the stretch last season grading out the best against some of the best centers in the league. The three combined do a wonderful job up front, which lets the linebackers fly all over the field and make plays.

And those Cavaliers linebackers are extremely talented and can make all the plays you would want from that position. Darryl Blackstock, Ahmad Brooks, and Kai Parhman are incredibly all contenders for the Butkus Award for the best linebacker in the country. The scariest thing about Brooks and Parham is that they are young and still learning Groh's system, which could mean that both will be noticeably better this year compared to last. If that is the case, the Cavaliers will arguably have the best linebacker corps in the country by season's end.

The secondary has some question marks as safety Jermaine Hardy recovers from knee surgery. Marquis Weeks, Robbie Catterton, and Lance Evans all battled it out in the spring to provide depth, but neither of the three are as talented as a healthy Hardy.

Tony Franklin is the lone starter that returns at cornerback after turning heads as a freshman last year. Marcus Hamilton will more than likely nail down the other corner spot, but there are no other secondary players with any experience to add depth.

Analysis and Prediction
There is nothing extremely scary about the Cavalier offense, even with the talented running backs and Miller at tight end. Groh will bore you to death with his dink-and-dunk philosophy, and it should be even more of the same with an inexperienced quarterback at the helm.

But it has never been Groh's forte at Virginia to wow you with offensive production. He will play conservative and lean on his defense and hope other teams make mistakes to give his team a victory. The formula has been somewhat successful, at least by Virginia standards, as the Cavaliers have gone bowling under Groh.

The Clemson defense should be able to keep the Cavalier offense out of the end zone for most of the evening if you don't let Miller beat you. While the running backs and offensive line are as good as any group in the league, the absence of a threat to throw the ball should make scoring touchdowns difficult for the Cavalier offense unless they are given a short field.

Moving the ball on the Cavs will be another story altogether.

Running the ball will be difficult, so look for the Tigers to try and exploit the secondary as much as possible and match up the talented linebackers with some of Clemson's speedy wide outs. But at the end of the day, the Cavalier defense is still very good, and scoring points will be a challenge.

The other X-factor in this game is the Thursday night away game. This has always been a disruption for the Tigers for whatever reason. While Charlottesville is not the toughest place to play in the conference by any means, the disruption of the Thursday night game adds to the home field advantage for Virginia.

And the final point is that Groh has found a way to frustrate Clemson since he came to Virginia. Even last year, a game in which Clemson won in overtime, the Cavalier coaches found a way to get back into the game after Clemson cruised out to an early lead.

The stars for this one just don't line up. I think Clemson is a better football team. The Tigers are much better offensively and comparable on defense. But this one is destined to be that let down game that always seems to dog the Tigers.

Coming off the loss to FSU, Clemson will stumble again and be upset on an ugly night in Charlottesville to fall to 3-2 on the young season.

Virginia 16 Clemson 13

Also See: An Offseason Look: Virginia Top Stories