December 13, 2004
After Solid Season Made Few Impressive Statements, Cavaliers Move On With Great Talent, Big Questions CHARLOTTESVILLE After conversing with Clemson's Tommy Bowden and Georgia Tech's Chan Gailey, Virginia coach Al Groh said he has heard nothing but good things about the football bowl game in Boise, Idaho. Of course, it's no wonder that Bowden and Gailey had positive reactions. Their teams were victorious in the 2001 and 2003 Humanitarian Bowls, respectively. If Virginia (8-3) can get past Fresno State (8-3), Groh is likely to have a similar approval rating.
Although oddsmakers installed Virginia as an early five-point favorite, the Bulldogs figure to present a formidable challenge, having scored 280 points in their last five games. Fresno State isn't likely to be intimidated by a school from one of the BCS conferences, having opened the season with victories at Washington and Kansas State.
In Groh's mind, nothing beats winning and, if the Cavaliers can beat Fresno in whatever fashion, Virginia will have won 26 games in three seasons, matching the highest three-year total in school history. Already, the Cavs have performed a feat accomplished only once previously in school history, when they won at least eight games in three straight seasons from 1947-49.
Win or lose, four losses would be the fewest by a Virginia team in Groh's four seasons, although the Cavaliers have played fewer games than they did in 2002 (9-5) and 2003 (8-5). Yet many would find an 8-4 season unfulfilling, based on the Cavaliers' NFL-caliber talent at some positions and their climb to No. 6 in the rankings this fall.
A 36-3 loss at Florida State brought the Cavs back to earth and, while subsequent losses to Miami (31-21) and Virginia Tech (24-10) were not as lopsided, Virginia did not beat a ranked team. At the time UVa played them, Florida State was ranked seventh, Tech was 11th and Miami was 18th. The Wahoos' eight victories were over Temple (2-9), North Carolina (6-5), Akron (6-5), Syracuse (6-5), Clemson (6-5), Duke (2-9), Maryland (5-6) and Georgia Tech (6-5).
After being picked third in the preseason, the Cavaliers finished in a tie for third with Miami and UNC and would have gone to the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando if not for a declaration by UVa president John Casteen that the team would not play in a bowl game over the Dec. 13-21 exam period.
Since North Carolina already had been picked for the Continental Tire Bowl, which had the fifth choice of ACC teams, Virginia was relegated to Boise. At one point, UVa had hopes that it would be released to play in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., but MPC Computer Bowl officials had all the cards and used 18th-ranked Virginia as a draw to lure Fresno.
Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage left it up to the ACC office to work on a release, but why ACC officials would have wanted to intervene isn't readily apparent. After all, the league had an agreement with the Boise people, and once Clemson elected not to play in a bowl, Virginia was the only ACC team available to live up to the agreement.
Besides, it wasn't until Nov. 24, three days before the Virginia-Virginia Tech game, that UVa confirmed that there definitely was a problem. That revelation could not have been well-received by Champs Sports Bowl executive Tom Mickle, who excitedly had told reporters earlier in the day that he was assured an eight-win team.
The inability to land a bowl spot commensurate with its finish has been an on-going problem for Virginia, despite the large crowds that have followed the Cavaliers in recent years. In the past three seasons, UVa has tied for second, tied for fourth and tied for third and gone to the bowls with the fifth, fifth and sixth pick of ACC teams.
That has not done much for the popularity of fourth-year athletic director Littlepage, but everything would have worked out if the Cavaliers had not lost two of their last three games, most notably at Virginia Tech, where they gave up 24 points and 265 yards in the second half (166 in the fourth quarter).
All of Virginia's holes had been exposed by the end of the year, most notably
at defensive back and wide receiver. Senior safeties Marquis Weeks and Jermaine
Hardy did not have an interception between them, and
off-and-on starter Marcus Hamilton had four of the five interceptions UVa got from its cornerbacks.
After passing for 200 yards or more in five of the first six games, 5-11 junior Marques Hagans passed for 94 yards against Miami and 111 against Virginia Tech. One of his big problems, aside from his short stature, was the unavailability of the Cavaliers' top returning receiver from 2003. That was because UVa's top returning receiver was Hagans, who had 28 receptions in 2003, when he also was the No. 2 QB behind Matt Schaub.
The receiver and secondary positions remain issues looking ahead to the 2005 season, but there are other questions to be answered, most notably the status of All-American tight end Heath Miller, All-ACC linebacker and Butkus Award finalist Ahmad Brooks and outside linebacker Darryl Blackstock.
Brooks has two more seasons of college eligibility, while Miller and Blackstock have one, but all three are considering a jump to the NFL. Only Miller will have graduated, but Brooks and Blackstock will want to see how they handle first-semester exams and have some confidence that their academics will hold up into next year.
That doesn't even count the players who are completing their eligibility, such as All-ACC tailback Alvin Pearman, All-ACC offensive guard Elton Brown, second-team All-ACC center Zac Yarbrough, underrated nose tackle Andrew Hoffman, wide receiver Michael McGrew and the safeties.
Oddly, most of the players in that group, as well as injured defensive end Chris Canty, were recruited by the staff of Groh's predecessor, George Welsh, who was not nearly the relentless recruiter that Groh is. Groh's last three recruiting classes all have been ranked among the top 25 in the country, and there is plenty of talent in the program, even if it is not spread evenly by position.
The Virginia Tech game added to speculation about Hagans and whether it is a given that he will be UVa's starting quarterback next year.
"Who else would it be?" Groh said, an indication that no other quarterbacks have shown the kind of promise that would make it easy to move Hagans back to receiver and have him return punts, as he did in 2002-03.
Virginia Departing Players
RG Elton Brown, DE Chris Canty, LB Dennis Haley, S Jermaine Hardy, NT Andrew Hoffman, WR Michael McGrew, RB Alvin Pearman, S Marquis Weeks, OC Zac Yarbrough
LB Rich Bedesem, TE Patrick Estes, FB Brandon Isaiah, LB Jon Thompson, LB Bryan White
2005 Returning Starters
Special Teams (2)
Other Tested Returnees
WR Emmanuel Byers, OG Ian-Yates Cunningham, OG Ron Darden, WR Imhotep Durham, RB Michael Johnson, RB Wali Lundy, WR Fontel Mines, FB/TE Tom Santi, FB Jason Snelling, WR Deyon Williams
CB Philip Brown, NT Keenan Carter, LB Jermaine Dias, S Lance Evans, P Chris Gould, DE Chris Johnson, DE Chris Long, S Nate Lyles, LB Mark Miller, LB Vince Redd, DE Kwakou Robinson
Projected 2005 Strengths
Few teams in the nation will be able to match Virginia's combination of talent and experience at linebacker, with Brooks, Blackstock and Parham making up 75 percent of the Cavaliers' starting quartet. Toward the end of the season, the Cavs think they found the lock-down cornerback they've long needed in redshirt freshman Philip Brown. They also may have found a punter (Gould) to fill one of the few lingering gaps in the program. Hughes wasn't perfect this fall, but he remains one of the most reliable kickers in the nation. Quality offensive linemen are one of the most precious commodities in college football, and even after attrition the Wahoos think they still have at least four very good ones, assuming a return to good health for 2003 starter Cunningham (back). Miller won the Mackey Award as the top tight end in America, and UVa has continued to stockpile impressive prospects at that position.
Projected 2005 Questions
Where to begin? Considering the improved talent level in Charlottesville, can Al Groh entice all of his key underclassmen Blackstock, Brooks, Ferguson, Miller to hold off the NFL for another year? (All are at least three years removed from high school and thus could turn pro early this spring.) Does anyone in the program Hagans, Christian Olsen, Kevin McCabe, Scott Deke, anyone have the ability to be a big-time quarterback in the ACC? Would Hagans be better off helping as a much-needed receiver and return man? Considering the departures of Yarbrough and Elton Brown, the most dominating force in the ACC trenches over the past two seasons, can UVa possibly sustain the most successful rushing attack in the conference? Are the youngsters really ready at safety, receiver and on the defensive line?
CHART BY: EDITOR DAVE GLENN