Head Coach: Bronco Mendenhall
2015 Record: 4-8
2015 Bowl: N/A
2016 Returning Starters: 5 Offense, 5 Defense
Odds to win 2017 Championship Game: +300000
Odds to win 2016 ACC Championship: +14000
Regular Season over/under: over 5.5 (+120), under 5.5 (-150)
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Bronco Mendenhall brings his 99-43 record to Virginia, a program that finished 4-8 a year ago and desperately in need of his experience and help. The Cavaliers return some key offensive players, not the least of which are RB Taquan Mizzell and WRs Olamide Zaccheaus and Doni Dowling.
Mizzell led the Cavaliers in rushing last year with 671 yards and he caught for an additional 721 yards. Mendenhall’s up-tempo offense should benefit Mizzell immensely, too. Virginia also has Albert Reid, Daniel Hamm and Jordan Ellis to spread carries around to. Virginia averaged 144.8 yards per game on the ground last year, but that figure should increase with the returned experience in the backfield.
Zaccheaus had a good freshman season with 216 yards and an 8.7 yard per reception average, but there are bigger things in store for him, and he can also rush the ball in sweep sets. He ran for 262 yards last season.
Dowling was sensational during spring and could be the No. 1 option as a pure WR. Mendenhall will have his options, but what is unclear is who will execute them at QB. Matt Johns started last season and is in the mix, but his backup Connor Brewer will have his chance too. East Carolina transfer Kurt Benkert is also an option.
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The Cavaliers will install a 3-4 defense this season after having used a 4-3 previously under Mike London. Mendenhall used a 3-4 at BYU, and his associate head coach Ruffin McNeil is fond of the same set having used it at East Carolina. The defense, still, will need to be mostly rebuilt. It gave up 32.2 points per game last season, while allowing 411.5 yards per game, ranking No. 96 and No. 79, respectively.
The secondary should be the brightest spot. It returns three starters, including FS Quin Blanding. Blending won the ACC Defensive ROY two years ago, and he was the league’s second-leading tackler in 2015.
The Cavaliers need to get better with ball pressure too, having ranked No. 53 in the nation in sacks a year ago. The linebackers are experienced and Andrew Brown and Eli Hanback should be able to generate more pass rushing.
Donte Wilkins is also a strong source of pressure from nose tackle. Micah Kiser is an All-ACC linebacker who led the conference in tackles last season, and he will hold down the middle with Zach Bradshaw and Mark Hall on the outside. Mendenhall is not short of playmakers in his defense, and he will be the one calling the plays on defense, too. It should be interesting to see how much Virginia can improve in one season, because it stands to reason a good bit given Mendenhall’s track record.
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Nick Conte will be entering his senior season as punter, and he averaged 44.7 yards per attempt last season. Ian Frye is gone as placekicker and will be replaced by Dylan Sims, who handled kickoff duties in 2015.
Virginia opens the season Sept. 3 at home against Richmond before traveling to face Oregon in Week 2. ACC play begins Oct. 1 on the road at Duke. The Cavaliers will host North Carolina on Oct. 22.
Mendenhall has the chance to turn Virginia around more than any program in the ACC. There is sufficient talent on the roster for him to work with, and he took BYU to 11 straight bowl games.
Prediction: 7 wins
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