Preseason projections are a tricky beast. A few come out in June, suggesting Virginia could be the clear choice in the ACC Coastal this season. By the end of July, others have deemed that too convenient, a default narrative seeking to have a seventh different team win that division in a seven-year span. In August, hands are thrown up in confusion, the Cavaliers going from afterthought to contender to perplexing possibility all without playing a single game.
All that came off an 8-5 season. What would the cycle have been if Virginia had gone 10-3 last year? It very nearly did. Only chaos deprived the Cavaliers from a double-digit win season, which would have been their first since 1989, the only such season in program history.
Virginia was 7-3 heading into its final two games, road trips to Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. It had split one-score games to that point, losing 20-16 at Indiana in the second week of the season when quarterback Bryce Perkins (pictured at top) went just 12-of-24 for 106 passing yards, and beating Miami 16-13. Against the Hurricanes, Perkins struggled even more so, going 12-of-21 for 92 passing yards and three interceptions.
By mid-to-late November, though, Perkins had fully adapted to his first season in the Cavaliers system. The Tech duo would not slow him down. In those two losses, he completed 35-of-55 passes for 476 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions.
Instead of Perkins’ passing game struggles, it was a fluke field goal that cost Virginia against the Yellow Jackets. In overtime, a Georgia Tech field goal hit the upright and went in; the Cavaliers’ ensuing field goal attempt missed.
It took two late fumbles for the Hokies to win their 15th straight against their in-state rival, one of which Virginia Tech recovered for a touchdown.
If those two last-minute losses go the other way, it is reasonable to think Virginia would have beaten West Virginia in the Camping World Bowl, just as Syracuse handily did. A 10-win season was that close to reality. Instead, the Cavaliers dominated South Carolina 28-0 in the Belk Bowl.
WHAT VIRGINIA LOST
Its leading tackler, ballhawk, pass-rusher, rusher and receiver. No, those were not the same player, but the totality of statistical leaders departing underscores how important one particular returning player will be — Perkins.
Safety Juan Thornhill heard his name in the second round of the NFL draft thanks to his team-leading 98 tackles and six interceptions last year. Third-team all-ACC linebacker Chris Pearce and his 7.5 sacks and 15 quarterback hurries also departed.
Offensively, running back Jordan Ellis (215 rushes for 1,026 yards and 10 touchdowns) and receiver Olamide Zaccheaus (school-record 93 receptions for 1,058 yards and nine scores) both went undrafted but look like distinct possibilities to stick to the rosters of the Cincinnati Bengals and Atlanta Falcons, respectively.
WHAT VIRGINIA GAINED
Last offseason, about 14 months ago now, Cavaliers head coach Bronco Mendenhall said he thought his roster contained only 27 ACC-caliber players. He did not intend for those comments to become public, but when they did, they resonated, for all the obvious reasons. Pulling in a better recruiting class than he had in his previous three cycles theoretically helps that cause, but perhaps not immediately. For help right now, Mendenhall hauled in three graduate transfers.
Richmond receiver Dejon Brissett averaged 14.9 yards per catch for the Spiders, only retaining eligibility after an injury knocked him out last year. He could be a starter for Virginia when they head to Pittsburgh on Aug. 31, as could Penn State transfer Alex Gellerstedt at right tackle. Arizona State receiver Terrell Chatman may also provide depth.
Air Force transfer Victor Oluwatimi, a traditional transfer who spent last season on the sidelines, may end up the starting center.
By supplementing his roster with these transfers, Mendenhall has theoretically bought his improved recruiting efforts time to develop.
Mendenhall enters his fourth season leading the Cavaliers after 11 years at BYU. He never suffered a losing season with the Cougars, beginning at 6-6 in 2005 and falling below eight wins only once more in averaging nine wins per season. He has already dealt with two losing years at Virginia, beginning at 2-10 before losing to Navy in the 2017 Military Bowl to finish 6-7. More than a stumble by Mendenhall, that should reflect the debris left by Mike London.
Then came last season’s 8-5. That is not quite linear progress, but it is about the most realistic version of it in this sport.
It is too simple and short-sighted to allow this summary to come down to only two words: Bryce Perkins. But it would not be inherently inaccurate.
In his first year starting at the FBS level, Perkins rushed for 1,124 yards (not counting sacks) with 6.2 yards per carry, scoring nine times. He completed 64.5 percent of his passes for 2,680 yards and 25 touchdowns with only nine interceptions. He was utterly stellar, earning third-team All-ACC honors. More should be coming.
Who will help Perkins is the question, and will their roles allow for a more explosive offense? The Cavaliers were quite efficient last season, especially on the ground, but they lacked the ability to strike quickly. Senior receiver Joe Reed may bring that solution and life to the passing game, having averaged 18.6 yards per reception last year as the third receiver on the team, catching seven of Perkins’ touchdowns.
There are options across the board, just not clear front-runners. At running back, junior P.K. Kier was expected to succeed Ellis, but a concussion limited him in the springtime and sophomore Wayne Taulapapa capitalized on the opportunity. Mendenhall is familiar with a career trajectory like Taulapapa’s, coming back from a two-year mission trip. Those were the usual for players at BYU, and Mendenhall learned to expect those players to need two full years before they were back in the full-swing of football. It may have taken Taulapapa less than half that.
No matter who become Perkins’ running partners, Virginia should increase its scoring from the 28.5 points per game of last season, which was a healthy jump from 2017’s 22.5.
Mendenhall’s strength, the Cavaliers had the No. 20 total defense in the country, giving up only 330.5 yards per game. Eight starters return to that unit, including second-team All-American cornerback Bryce Hall, who led the country with 22 pass breakups, adding two interceptions.
The secondary will be Virginia’s strength, but its front seven has many questions. Injuries depleted the 3-4 look last year, making this season’s unit tough to forecast. Even with those injuries, though, the Cavaliers gave up only 20.1 points per game, No. 21 in the country.
If Mendenhall had only 27 players fit for his conference a year ago, how many does he have now? If that roster was good enough to come two bounces — literally two bounces — from a 10-3 season, what heights can this team reach? Framing those questions as such suggests a 10-win season should be the expectation.
Bookmakers disagree. The season win total over/under for Virginia is a mere 7.5, although the over is acknowledged as more likely than the under.
The media may agree with the narrative. The Cavaliers were picked to win the Coastal in the preseason media poll. However, bookmakers give the edge to Miami with Virginia and Virginia Tech just behind the Hurricanes.
Looking at the Cavalier schedule with all those thoughts in mind, break it down as follows …
Three guarantee games: vs. William & Mary, vs. Old Dominion and vs. Liberty.
One top-10 game: at Notre Dame.
Four games against lesser ACC teams: vs. Duke, at Louisville, at North Carolina and vs. Georgia Tech.
Four tough ACC games: at Pittsburgh, vs. Florida State, at Miami and vs. Virginia Tech.
Go 3-0, 0-1 and 3-1 in those first three subsets, and the question then becomes, can Mendenhall find two wins in those four difficult conference games? Depending on the two, that could be enough to win the Coastal. Win more than two, and the linear-esque progression should continue.