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Preseason football roundtable: Key questions entering the 2019 season

Taking a look ahead as the Cavaliers look to improve on a successful 2018 campaign

<p>Senior quarterback Bryce Perkins figures to be Virginia football's most important player for the 2019 season.&nbsp;</p>

Senior quarterback Bryce Perkins figures to be Virginia football's most important player for the 2019 season. 

Virginia football’s 2019 season is rapidly approaching, and the Cavaliers start off with a critical matchup against ACC Coastal opponent Pittsburgh. The CD sports staff breaks down some key questions for Virginia as the Cavaliers enter the 2019 campaign with high hopes.

What is your record prediction?

Vignesh Mulay, Sports Editor: After finishing with a 7-5 regular season record in 2018, Virginia will need to be at its best to improve its performance. The Cavaliers will likely fall to perennial national power Notre Dame and face massive challenges against Florida State and Miami, assuming the two teams return to their traditional strength. However, the latter half of Virginia’s season is much easier as the team will end the 2019 regular season with six winnable games. With a quickly maturing offense and a well-established defense, Virginia can realistically use a strong late-season run to finish the regular season slate with a 9-3 record. 

Zach Zamoff, Sports Editor: I predict Virginia will finish 8-4. Two of the Cavaliers’ most difficult games are outside the Coastal division, against Florida State at Scott Stadium and against Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. In addition, they have two away games in the Coastal — against Pittsburgh week one and against Miami — that will be undoubtedly tough. Virginia has never defeated the Panthers at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pa., and hasn’t beat the Hurricanes at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., since 2011. Then, the Cavaliers end with a string of Coastal games in which they should be favored, but aren’t cakewalks — especially at North Carolina and home against Duke — before ending with a toss-up against Virginia Tech. I say Virginia drops a couple of tough non-division contests early before ending the season by beating the Hokies and winning the Coastal title.

Caroline Lund, Senior Associate: Coach Bronco Mendenhall has guided Virginia football to back-to-back bowl appearances in his past two years, and will look to do so again in 2019. The Cavaliers are prepared to improve on their 7-5 regular season record and have the potential to finish 9-3 with the return of senior quarterback Bryce Perkins, who ranked third last year in the ACC in total offense. However, with the loss of key players like tailback Jordan Ellis and All-ACC wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus, Virginia’s offense will have to come together around Perkins to be successful. The team will likely fall to Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and North Carolina. Miami, which lost to Virginia in a 16-13 upset in 2018, will also pose a threat.

Akhil Rekulapelli, Senior Associate: After a 7-5 regular season that featured a mid-season upset against then-No.16 Miami finished with devastating overtime losses to Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, Virginia enters the 2019 season having lost key pieces on both offense and defense. On offense, thousand-yard rusher Ellis, and Virginia’s all-time receptions leader Zaccheaus have both found new homes in the NFL. On the other hand, Virginia’s defense — which was 20th in the FBS for total defense — loses two-time All-ACC selection safety Juan Thornhill, cornerback Tim Harris Jr. and third-team All-ACC linebacker Chris Peace. Nonetheless, with the return of preseason All-American senior cornerback Bryce Hall, a mature defensive line and the dangerous Perkins at quarterback, Virginia will surpass the seven-win total of last year’s regular season. The Cavaliers will start off the season with an away win at Pittsburgh and a Jefferson-Eppes Trophy win over still-rebuilding Florida State, but will fall to Notre Dame and Miami in consecutive road games. However, given that this is a team that lost three games by four points or less last season, I think a more seasoned Virginia will have learned from these razor-thin defeats and win out the rest of the season to finish 10-2, setting up a date against Clemson in the ACC Championship and a possible New Years’ Six berth.  

What is the most important game in the schedule for Virginia?

VM: Virginia certainly doesn’t have an easy schedule in 2019 and there are plenty of games that will play important roles. The opener at Pittsburgh will set the tone for the season, a midseason matchup against Miami could be a crucial turning point and the Georgia Tech game may very well decide the ACC Coastal race. However, the most important game for the program and Virginia fans alike will be the Cavaliers’ annual regular season finale against in-state rival Virginia Tech. If it can break its 15-year losing streak and overcome the Hokies, Virginia could not only win the division but also bring joy to thousands at Scott Stadium.

ZZ: Miami is the most pivotal game in the schedule for Virginia. Of course, every game matters for the Cavaliers — Pittsburgh stands out as a tone-setter and Virginia Tech as a crucial rivalry game with division title implications — but the midseason game against the Hurricanes will be the most crucial. Last year, the Cavaliers’ upset victory over Miami started a three-game winning streak that led them to challenge for the Coastal. This year, it will be equally important, with the Cavaliers needing a divisional win out of the bye week. Particularly if the Cavaliers fall short at Pittsburgh week one, the Miami game will be a needed momentum-builder in the division title race.

CL: Virginia’s season opener against Pittsburgh will be a critical game this season. The Panthers will look to defeat the Cavaliers for the fifth consecutive time after a 23-13 win at Scott Stadium in 2018. Pittsburgh, which produced a strong defensive effort in last year’s matchup, will also have the advantage of playing at home this year. The result could make or break the confidence of the Cavaliers and their fans as they continue through a difficult schedule. If Virginia can break its losing streak to Pittsburgh, the team will be poised to cruise through their next few games and carry that momentum into the rest of the season. 

AR: Coming into Charlottesville November 3rd, 1995, Florida State had owned the ACC —  the Seminoles were 29-0 since joining the conference in 1992. However, the then-No. 24 Cavaliers toppled the then-No. 2 Seminoles as three-time first-team All-ACC selection running back Warrick Dunn was stuffed at the goal line, snapping Florida State’s ACC winning streak and national title hopes in the process. This 18th edition of the Jefferson-Eppes Trophy will feature a vastly different storyline — a Virginia team looking to make it to the ACC championship game for the first time in history and a Florida State team under second-year coach Willie Taggart looking to bring the team back to its glory days. It’ll be a battle of a revitalized football program that toiled in mediocrity for years and a program that once reached the apex of the college football world before tumbling down the other side of the mountain. For Virginia to start off its season strong, it requires a win in front of what is expected to be a ferocious home crowd at Scott Stadium, a win that would give the Cavaliers much needed momentum going into a tough mid-season stretch that will feature games against Miami and Notre Dame. 

Who will be the breakout player for the Cavaliers this year?

VM: With Jordan Ellis playing in the NFL, Virginia has big shoes to fill at the running back position. While junior P.K. Kier and sophomore Wayne Taulapapa will be the favorites to be the workhorse back, true freshman Mike Hollins has real potential to be the standout rusher for Virginia. The highly-recruited Hollins is a tremendous athlete with a 4.49 second 40-yard dash time, a 4.2 second 20-yard shuttle time and a 40-inch vertical. The Baton Rouge, La., native is a rare talent with a skillset the Cavaliers currently don’t have in the backfield. Hollins could be an instant game-changer given his explosive ability to blow past defenders and could turn a lot of heads in his first year.

ZZ: While there are many potential breakout players on offense and defense with a strong incoming recruiting class and voids at playmaking positions — notably running back and wide receiver — junior safety Brenton Nelson has the skills and opportunity to break out as a star for Virginia’s defense. Nelson already broke out in some sense, as he was the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2017 and started 12 of 13 games last year. However, he was overshadowed by Juan Thornhill and only recorded 41 tackles and 1 interception in 2018 after recording 64 tackles and 4 interceptions his freshman year. This year will be different, with him and fellow junior safety Joey Blount leading the secondary. Look for Nelson to lead the Cavaliers in interceptions, making plays as a safety and guarding the slot in the nickel package.

CL: Virginia’s highest-rated signee in the 2019 class, freshman defensive lineman Jowon Briggs, has the potential to shine in his first year. The four-star prospect was ranked among the top 300 recruits in the country. Briggs will have to prove himself alongside veteran players, but his size and strength set him apart from most incoming freshmen as he’s 6-foot-2 and already able to squat more than 700 pounds.

AR: With the loss of Perkins’ go-to wide receiver Zaccheaus, senior wideouts Joe Reed and Hasise DuBois will have their work cut out for them. However, given that the two combined for almost 100 receptions and over 1,000 yards last season, Reed and DuBois are ready to step up to the challenge. Most notably, Reed showed his big play ability last season, averaging 18.6 yards per catch while scoring seven touchdowns — one being a five-yard out that turned into a 75 yard touchdown against Virginia Tech. Expect Reed to continue using his speed and elusiveness next year to produce big plays on offense and special teams. 

Coach Bronco Mendenhall came to Virginia to push the Cavaliers to play to a New Standard. Entering his fourth year as coach, and after making bowl games for consecutive years for the first time since 2005, the standard is no longer new for Virginia football. What is The Standard for Virginia football this year?

VM: The expectation for Virginia football in 2019 is simple — contend in and win the ACC Coastal division. At one point in the 2018 season, Virginia was in the driver’s seat with a 4-1 record, but three straight ACC losses ensured the Cavaliers finished in third. Virginia has improved every year since Mendenhall became head coach, and with a combination of returning stars and young talents, the Cavaliers should have their sights set on a division title. 

ZZ: The Standard for Virginia football is playing good, hard and smart football all the time. This is true off the field and on the field, in practice and games. Throughout the season last year, the Cavaliers played up to this standard for long periods in games. The Belk Bowl win brought it all together, as Virginia dominated all facets of the game for both halves. If the Cavaliers play like that this year, they can beat any team, including Notre Dame. They know the Standard. If they play to it, they can beat Virginia Tech and take the Coastal title.

CL: With Mendenhall’s success in his first three seasons, Virginia football is expected to continue to push for greatness in the upcoming season. While the team graduated key secondary players in Thornhill and Harris and offensive cornerstones in wide receiver Zaccheaus and star running back Ellis, there are a handful of incoming players who have promise. The Standard this year is to advance to another bowl game and win a Coastal Division title. To do so, the Cavaliers will have to start scoring more in the red zone and strengthen their run defense. 

AR: Since inheriting a Cavaliers team that only made one bowl game in the previous eight seasons, Mendenhall has improved year after year, reaching a bowl game in the 2017 season and winning a bowl game in the 2018 season. Yet Virgnia still have to accomplish two goals — defeat rival Virginia Tech and win the ACC Coastal. For Mendenhall to fulfill this year’s Standard and achieve those objectives, he must lead a team that can continue its dominance in pass defense while also igniting an offense led by electrifying Heisman dark horse Perkins.