Coach: Al Groh (5th season, 30-21) 2004 record: 8-4 (Lost to Fresno State in MPC Computers Bowl) ACC finish: 5-3 (t-3rd) 2004 I-A offensive rankings:Rushing: 9th (242.8 ypg) Passing: 91st (180.6 ypg) 2004 I-A defensive rankings: Rushing: 24th (118.6 ypg) Passing: 27th (194.8 ypg)
at Boston College
at North Carolina
Depth Chart: Offense
6 returning starters in red
Depth Chart: Defense
6 returning starters in red
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For the first time since Al Groh came to Virginia in 2001, the Cavaliers finished a season with a bad taste in their mouths.
Groh's teams had been known as strong closers, winning the last game of the season three straight years, including consecutive victories in the Continental Tire Bowl. Last year, however, Virginia's defense imploded in a 37-34 overtime loss to Fresno State in the MPC Computers Bowl. Virginia limped home from Boise with a record of 8-4, after starting 5-0 and rising to No. 6 in the polls. "We didn't play our best, and that's regrettable," Groh said.
He was referring to the bowl game, but he could have been referring to the season. Virginia failed to make the leap from good to great that Groh and his players had openly talked about. The Cavs beat the teams they should have, but failed to win any of the conference showdown games that really mattered.
What now? The Cavaliers are not exactly back to square one, but they did lose a truckload of talent, including a pair of players who opted to enter the NFL Draft a year early.
Fortunately, at least two other players coveted by the NFL opted to stay, and Groh's last few recruiting classes have been highly rated. It's time to see if those players are as good as advertised.
"There are always good players and good leaders who leave," Groh said. "But there's always another group that's ready to come up and replace them. I think we have a number of guys in those circumstances."
The Virginia offense could use a makeover, something a little less conservative. The Cavaliers played to their strength last year, which was a power running game. It worked much of the time, but when Virginia needed to stretch the field, it was often unable to.
Finding some playmakers, particularly at receiver, is a priority. Deyon Williams and Fontel Mines have shown potential. Both are now juniors, and it's time to produce. Sophomore Theirrien Davis is also an intriguing prospect.
If Virginia can find some receivers, quarterback Marques Hagans is more than capable of getting them the ball. A dazzling talent, Hagans might be the best athlete on the team. He led the ACC in completion percentage a year ago and was second in passing efficiency. He also averaged 5.1 yards per carry.
"The key thing about him is his team won eight games last year and won quite a few games that it wouldn't have won if he wasn't the quarterback," Groh said.
Tailback Wali Lundy has been productive throughout his career, rushing for 2,619 yards and catching 99 passes in three years. Lundy also has 41 career touchdowns, 33 on the ground.
The line should again be a strength, with All-ACC tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson the anchor. Brad Butler and Brian Barthelmes also return.
Any defense that returns linebacker Ahmad Brooks can't be too bad. Brooks, Virginia's leading tackler the past two seasons and a finalist for the Butkus Award last year, is arguably the top returning linebacker in the nation.
His running mate, Kai Parham, also returns on the inside of Virginia's 3-4 scheme. Parham was second to Brooks in tackles with 80.
The outside linebackers will be new, but there are plenty of young prospects. The big need on the defensive line is for a nosectackle, a critical position in the Virginia defense. Keenan Carter, a 324-pound sophomore, is the leading candidate. At end, Brennan Schmidt returns for his fourth year as a starter, and sophomores Chris Johnson and Chris Long made impressive debuts last season.
The secondary returns starting corners Tony Franklin and Marcus Hamilton, who struggled at times but improved as the season went on. The safeties are talented but inexperienced; their development will be a key to the defense.
Connor Hughes slumped a bit last year, but if he returns to '03 form, he'll be one of the top place-kickers in the nation. Punter Chris Gould won the job late last season and was a welcome improvement over Sean Johnson, who netted just 28.3 yards per kick.
There was a clear gap between Virginia and the ACC's dominant trio of Virginia Tech, Florida State and Miami last season. The main difference was speed. The Virginia offense, while big and physical, didn't scare anyone. Its defense also lacked blazing speed, particularly in the secondary. Groh has recruited faster players and team speed has improved each year. Still, it remains to be seen if the Cavaliers can match the Hokies, 'Noles and 'Canes athletically.
But with an experienced quarterback in Hagans and a receiving corps and secondary that are expected to be improved, Virginia could be a factor in the conference race. One plus: The Cavs play Tech and Florida State at home. If they can go two-for-three against the big three, they'll have a chance to reach the ACC's first-ever title game.