Virginia (8-5, 5-3 ACC) started the season with four wins in its first seven games. A victory over No. 12 Georgia Tech was unexpected, but close calls against the likes of Indiana and Idaho, as well as a loss to Larry Fedora's Southern Miss squad, led many to believe Virginia was not ready to contend for an ACC Championship.
The Cavaliers faced three road games in the final five weeks of the season. Simply reaching a bowl was an uphill battle. However, Virginia won four straight games, including the programs first-ever victory in Tallahassee over Florida State, to set up a date with rival Virginia Tech for a spot in the ACC Championship game. The Hokies dominated the Cavaliers, 38-0.
Virginia settled for a berth in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against defending national champion Auburn. The Tigers defeated the Cavaliers, 43-24, but the loss did not dampen the fact that the 2011 campaign was an unexpected and pleasant surprise for Virginia.
The Cavaliers' offense last season was neither remarkable nor inept. The unit ranked in the middle of the pack in nearly every statistical category. Out of 120 FBS teams, Virginia ranked 56th through the air (237.69 ypg) and 52nd on the ground (162.08). Despite the Cavaliers' solid record last year, they were actually outscored by their opponents. Virginia ranked a solid 46th in scoring defense (23.85 ppg) and the offense ranked 86th (23.23 ppg).
Starting quarterback Michael Rocco (222-of-366 passing, 2,671 yards, 13 TD, 12 INT) returns for his junior season. Rocco was solid last season, but Alabama transfer Phillip Sims could possibly challenge for the starting job this fall.
Perry Jones (184 car, 915 yards, 5 TD), Kevin Parks (152 car, 702 yards, 9 TD) and Clifton Richardson (72 car, 366 yards, 2 TD) combined to rush for nearly 2,000 yards in 2011. Jones was particularly versatile as he not only led the Cavaliers in rushing, but was also second on the team in receptions (48 rec, 506 yards, 3 TD). Jones needs to be counted on as a receiving threat again this fall with the graduation of 2011-leading receiver Kris Burd (66 rec, 913 yards, 3 TD).
In addition to the trio of running backs, three starters along the offensive line, including preseason All-ACC tackle Oday Aboushi, return this fall to form what should be one of the top rushing attacks in the ACC. Overall, the offense returns seven starters.
The defense faces more questions and uncertainty than the offense. In particular, the secondary must replace three starters, including All-ACC cornerback Chase Minnifield (50 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 3 INT, 1 TD), who started 48 games in his career. Sophomore Demetrious Nicholson is the lone returning starter to 2011's 32nd-ranked pass efficiency defense (119.99).
An inexperienced secondary can be mitigated by a veteran front seven. Unfortunately, Virginia only returns three starters in their 4-3 front. The Cavaliers welcome back All-ACC linebacker Steve Greer (103 tackles, 2 sacks), but must replace 2011 top pass rusher Cam Johnson (30 tackles, 4 sacks), who was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers. Virginia ranked a meager 90th in sacks (1.54 per game) last season, so the loss of Johnson is a big blow. Look for the lone returning defensive lineman, Jake Snyder (36 tackles, 1 sack), to take a leadership role upfront.
Quotable: "Michael has been very mature about it. Here's a guy who has been here three years and welcomes the fact that there are skills and talent level of a lot of players coming into our program, that if they make us better, they make us better, if it helps us win, then they help us win. It makes the competition better. He's said he's ready to raise his level of competition to show he's the guy." – London on Rocco embracing the transfer of Sims to Virginia
Matchup to Watch: The Cavaliers were picked to finish fourth in the ACC Coastal by the media behind Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and North Carolina. Virginia faces the Hokies and Yellow Jackets on the road, but welcomes the Tar Heels to Scott Stadium for the Thursday night game in November. If Virginia is to challenge for the division crown, a victory over North Carolina in front of a rowdy home crowd is a must. The Cavaliers have not lost three straight in the South's Oldest Rivalry since the Tar Heels won nine consecutive meetings from 1974 to 1982.
Penalties: In Mike London's first season in Charlottesville, the Cavaliers only won only four games, including just one ACC contest. Not coincidentally, Virginia also ranked 14th in penalties (98) and eighth in penalty yards (880). The Cavaliers doubled their win total in 2011 and cut back on the infractions as well, ranking 73rd in total penalties (69) and 86th in yards (550). Improved discipline under London appears to be a key to success.
Sept. 1 Richmond
Sept. 8 Penn State
Sept. 15 @ Georgia Tech
Sept. 22 @ TCU
Sept. 29 Louisiana Tech
Oct. 6 @ Duke
Oct. 13 Maryland
Oct. 20 Wake Forest
Oct. 27 OPEN DATE
Nov. 3 @ N.C. State
Nov. 10 Miami
Nov. 15 North Carolina
Nov. 24 @ Virginia Tech