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DOUGHERTY: Breaking down the 2019 football schedule

Cavaliers get a balanced but tough draw in 2019

<p>The Cavaliers have some key matchups early in their 2019 schedule.</p>

The Cavaliers have some key matchups early in their 2019 schedule.

It has been quite some time since the Virginia football team has entered a season with such high expectations. After many years at the cellar of the ACC Coastal, the Cavaliers should now be a favorite to win their division after an 8-5 2018 season that ended with a 28-0 thumping of South Carolina in the Belk Bowl.

The Cavalier faithful got one of their first tastes of the 2019 season on January 16 when the team’s schedule was released by the ACC. At first glance, the top-heavy schedule is unconventional, but it could give the country a quick sense of what to expect from the Cavaliers with some crucial early matchups.

With the schedule already having some people anxiously awaiting the first kickoff, I will break down some takeaways and expectations from the Cavaliers’ 2019 slate.

The opener carries major weight

It’s rare for a team to start the season against a division rival, but the ACC decided to schedule Virginia at the defending Coastal Division champion Pittsburgh for a showdown right out of the gate. The Cavaliers have not taken down the Panthers since 2014, most recently experiencing a disappointing 23-13 home defeat in a game that had key implications for winning the Coastal.

Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi’s run-heavy style of play seems to always give Virginia fits, and more of the same can be expected next year. With the Panthers pounding the ball, it will be an entertaining game for four-star defensive lineman Jowon Briggs to make his Virginia debut after a lot of hype as the jewel of Coach Bronco Mendenhall’s 2019 recruiting class. The matchup will be a huge tone-setter and could have a major hand in deciding the Coastal.

The game will be Virginia’s first season opener on the road since the 2015 season when it lost 34-16 at UCLA.

September is balanced but undoubtedly tough

The ACC continued to give Virginia an unconventional schedule in weeks two through five, flipping the Cavaliers between low-caliber opponents and powerhouses. The Cavaliers host FCS William and Mary, ACC Atlantic opponent Florida State and in-state foe Old Dominion before traveling to 2018 College Football Playoff participant Notre Dame.

Talent level disparities should give Virginia wins against William and Mary and Old Dominion, but it’s hard to know what to expect from the other two matchups. Though historically a great program, Florida State struggled mightily in their first season under Coach Willie Taggart, failing to make a bowl game for the first time in 36 seasons. Even so, the Seminoles have the recruiting power to be a force in the ACC once again, making it hard to predict how the team will fare in an important matchup at Scott Stadium.

The Notre Dame road trip will be Virginia’s toughest of the season on paper, though the Fighting Irish were not as great as their 2018 record shows. Although they took down four ranked opponents en route to an undefeated regular season, a 30-3 beat down at the hands of Clemson exposed the Irish’s lingering flaws. The team ended the season ranked No. 32 in offense and No. 30 in defense among FBS teams.

Starting with senior quarterback Ian Book, the Irish will have the players necessary to rebound as a national contender in 2019, and Notre Dame Stadium is one of the most hostile environments in the country. It will be a national statement if the Cavaliers can garner a win, but it will be incredibly hard to pull off.

October and November are must-win months

Whereas prior years saw Virginia’s schedule back-loaded, the team has mostly winnable games in the final months of the season. The Cavaliers host a Duke team that will likely be trotting out a new quarterback on October 19 before facing a trio of ACC teams with new head coaches in Louisville, North Carolina and Georgia Tech.

Virginia looks like one of the most stable teams in the ACC for the first time in years. Not only has Mendenhall looked the part of an elite coach, but senior quarterback Bryce Perkins returns after a phenomenal debut year in Charlottesville with the potential to be a dark horse Heisman candidate. Thus, there’s little excuse for the Cavaliers not to take care of business against their foes in transition, especially with a conference championship looming.

Virginia Tech could — this time — be the Coastal Division decider

There was a stretch of several weeks in 2018 where there was hype around the the possibility that the annual rivalry tilt between the Cavaliers and Hokies would determine who would play in the ACC Championship, but both teams struggled down the stretch and allowed Pittsburgh to clinch the title. 

In 2019, the Coastal Division looks like it may run through the state of Virginia. 

Injuries and a back-breaking early season loss to Old Dominion derailed a promising 2018 season for Virginia Tech, but the Hokies should be somewhat back to form next year. Junior quarterback Ryan Willis played well down the stretch after being thrown into the starting role, and head coach Justin Fuente has a young defense to mold.

The teams will meet in a high-energy Friday night game at Scott Stadium as Virginia will look to finally break its 15-year losing streak in the rivalry. It will likely be the final game in Charlottesville for Perkins, star senior cornerback Bryce Hall and several other impact players on the Virginia roster, and it will have many ramifications for the postseason, so look for an emotional thriller to cap off the regular season.

With its highest ceiling – and likely morale – in years, the Virginia football team approaches a crucial season to take the next step in building up its once-fractured program. A Coastal Championship and top bowl game could be in the cards if the Cavaliers can start strong through their challenging first five weeks — perhaps by pulling off a tough win against Florida State or Notre Dame.

If the Belk Bowl was any indication, this veteran squad looks hungry to put up a statement season.  


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