Previewing the Virginia football schedule

A look at the Cavaliers’ 2019 opponents before the season begins

2019schedule-webheader

The 2019 college football calendar allows for 14 weeks, rather than 13, meaning an extra week of rest for college football teams.

Courtesy Virginia Athletics

A year after winning the Belk Bowl, the Virginia football team has its sights set on even bigger goals in 2019. Returning much of a defense that finished third in the ACC last year in points allowed per game along with star senior quarterback Bryce Perkins, the Cavaliers are pegged as the favorite to win the ACC Coastal. That said, the road to winning the Coastal — which includes the classic rivalry game against Virginia Tech — will be anything but easy. “Earned, not given” is Virginia’s mantra under Coach Bronco Mendenhall, and it stays true in 2019, regardless of where the media picks the Cavaliers to finish before the season begins.

With the season less than two weeks away, let’s take an early look at Virginia’s opponents in 2019.

Saturday, Aug. 31: at Pittsburgh (Away)

The season starts off with a bang, with the Cavaliers traveling to Heinz Field to take on Pittsburgh. This marks the first time Virginia starts out against an ACC opponent since 2003 — also the last time Virginia beat Virginia Tech. Last year, Pittsburgh dominated the Cavaliers on the ground en route to a 23-13 victory, the Cavaliers’ first loss in a three-game losing streak in the ACC Coastal that led them to fall short in their bid for the division title. The Panthers went on to win the Coastal despite finishing just .500 overall. This year, Pittsburgh will not have the same rushing attack, having lost its two top rushers, Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison — who rushed for a combined 253 yards and 3 touchdowns against Virginia last year — to the NFL. Junior quarterback Kenny Pickett will have a tough task against a strong Virginia linebacking corps and secondary, and Pittsburgh’s loss of star junior defensive end Rashad Weaver — out for the season with a torn ACL — will significantly weaken the Panthers’ front seven. Pittsburgh’s run defense is vulnerable and the Cavaliers’ experienced defense is prepared to take on Pickett and Co. This is arguably Virginia’s most important game of the year, setting the tone for the rest of the season.

Friday, Sept. 6: William and Mary (Home)

After a tough test against Pittsburgh early on, Virginia comes home to face an in-state FCS opponent. William and Mary was inconsistent last year, and the Cavaliers’ talent and experience alone should be enough to overwhelm a Tribe team that finished under .500 last year. Junior quarterback Shon Mitchell, who was William and Mary’s most consistent signal caller last year, is back. The Tribe’s leading rusher, senior running back Albert Funderburke, is also back. The Tribe, however, don’t have enough offensive firepower to match up with the Cavaliers. Former Virginia football Coach Mike London was hired by William and Mary after last season, and it will be interesting to see him back at Scott Stadium.

Saturday, Sept. 14: Florida State (Home)

During his time at Virginia, Mendenhall has never faced Florida State. Despite the Seminoles’ historic success, they finished below .500 last year for the first time since 1976. That said, they had a tough schedule — facing Notre Dame, Clemson and Florida — that their talented roster wasn’t able to overcome. This season, sophomore quarterback James Blackman looks poised to win the quarterback competition, and he has the talent to transform Florida State’s offense. On the defensive end, the Seminoles return an experienced linebacking corps and a talented secondary. Junior defensive tackle Marvin Wilson stands out in an athletic defensive line. While the game doesn’t have Coastal implications, Florida State is traditionally a national powerhouse, and a win at Scott Stadium for the Cavaliers will be a huge momentum-builder. The Seminoles have the talent to play with the best, but Mendenhall’s experienced defense and proven system could frustrate Blackman and Coach Willie Tagart in just his second year with Florida State.

Saturday, Sept. 21: Old Dominion (Home)

After another challenging ACC matchup, Virginia stays at home for more in-state non-conference competition. While Old Dominion doesn’t look like a difficult matchup on paper, the Monarchs upset Virginia Tech last year. Despite that big upset, however, Old Dominion struggled last season, finishing 4-8. The Monarchs lost to Liberty 52-10 year — the same team that Virginia beat 45-24 last year. They also lost their star quarterback Blake LaRussa. While sophomore quarterback Steven Williams and two JUCO transfers offer promise in the competition for that position, the rest of the team is also in rebuilding mode. Virginia’s offense should overwhelm the Monarchs’ defense.

Saturday, Sept. 28: Notre Dame (Away)

Notre Dame was undefeated last year before losing to eventual national champion Clemson in the College Football Playoff Semifinal. The Fighting Irish are a national powerhouse. While they lose standouts at multiple positions — top wide receiver Miles Boykin, top running back Dexter Williams, linebacker Te’von Coney and cornerback Julian Love — the Fighting Irish return senior quarterback Ian Book, who passed for 19 touchdowns last season with a 70.4 percent completion rate. Stopping Book will be key for the Cavaliers to pull off the upset on the road. They have the secondary to do it, and they catch Notre Dame after what should be a tough game on the road against Georgia. A win here would be historic for Virginia football — and not improbable.

Friday, Oct. 11: Miami (Away)

Virginia can take the bye week to recover and prepare for a difficult road game against Miami. The Hurricanes will be the Cavaliers’ first Coastal opponent since facing Pittsburgh to open the season. Virginia upset Miami last year at Scott Stadium, and they will likely come in as underdogs again at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami this year — the last time the Cavaliers beat the Hurricanes in Miami was in 2011. That said, Virginia has all the pieces to win again this year. Expect a defensive battle in this matchup between two of the conference’s best defenses. The Cavaliers should frustrate redshirt freshman quarterback Jarren Williams — who recently earned the Hurricanes’ quarterback job. Perkins, however, will also be challenged by one of the best defenses in the nation — especially against the pass. Miami led the country last year in passing yards allowed per game, giving up just 140.8 yards per game. Thus, Virginia’s ground game will be key in beating the Hurricanes.

Saturday, Oct. 19: Duke (Home)

Virginia returns home for a game against Duke, a program against which Mendenhall has had success. The Cavaliers have beat Coach David Cutcliffe’s Blue Devils every season Mendenhall has been at Virginia. Duke returns much of its defense. Junior safety Marquis Waters highlights a secondary group with plenty of depth. Despite this strength, Perkins was able to pick apart the Blue Devils’ defense on the air and on the ground last year, with three touchdowns in Virginia’s win in 2018. On the other side of the ball, dual threat senior quarterback Quentin Harris takes over for first-round draft pick Daniel Jones. Junior Deon Jackson, however — who had 847 yards rushing in 2018 — poses the biggest threat to Virginia’s defense. Despite those stats, Jackson picked up just 17 yards on 11 carries when Duke played Virginia last year. If that happens again, the Cavaliers should be in good position to pick up the critical Coastal win.

Saturday, Oct. 26: Louisville (away)

The Cavaliers get a break from two tough ACC Coastal games in their matchup against the Cardinals, a team Virginia handled at home last year, 27-3. Louisville is entering a rebuilding season under their recently hired coach, Scott Satterfield. The Cardinals face many depth chart questions, the most significant being at quarterback — junior quarterback Jawon Pass and sophomore quarterback Malik Cunningham are both vying for the starting job. Their defense returns many starters. That same defense, however, allowed over 44 points per game last year. Perkins’ offense should have no trouble dismantling Louisville for the second consecutive year.

Saturday, Nov. 2: North Carolina (away)

After Louisville, Virginia returns to ACC Coastal play against North Carolina. The Cavaliers have beaten the Tar Heels the last two seasons, and they have the offensive talent to punish North Carolina’s porous defense again this year. The 2-9 Tar Heels allowed 34.5 points per game last season, and Perkins tore up their defense for 329 yards of total offense and 4 touchdowns last year. There have been some changes in Chapel Hill, however. Coach Mack Brown is back, and the offense has added new talent, especially at the quarterback position. The duo of junior running back Michael Carter and senior running back Antonio Williams should be the biggest challenge for the Cavaliers’ defense, though. The front seven will need a solid game in Chapel Hill, N.C., to propel Virginia to victory.

Saturday, Nov. 9: Georgia Tech (home)

The last two meetings between Virginia and Georgia Tech were decided in the game’s last possession — two years ago, Virginia won, and last year’s game went to Georgia Tech in overtime. This year’s game will be equally crucial in the ACC Coastal race. Georgia Tech, however, will be a drastically different football team. After 11 seasons with Georgia Tech, Coach Paul Johnson retired last year with his triple option offense. Replacing him is Coach Geoff Collins and his fast-paced, pro-style offense. Collins and his team will work hard to make the transition as fast as possible, but growing pains are inevitable. The likely starting quarterback, junior Lucas Johnson, hasn’t even attempted a pass yet in his collegiate career. Moreover, the Yellow Jackets’ defense has lost seven starters. The Cavaliers will need to win this game, and their proven system under Mendenhall should prevail.

Saturday, Nov. 23: Liberty (home)

After another bye week, Virginia stays at home against its third non-conference in-state opponent of the year — Liberty. The Flames, who the Cavaliers beat 45-24 last year, have a new head coach — Hugh Freeze — and return much of what was a strong offense in 2018. Senior quarterback Stephen Calvert passed for over 3,000 yards last year, and senior running back Frankie Hickson rushed for over 1,000 yards last year. The Flames’ defense, however, is suspect. Liberty allowed 36.8 points per game last year and will be no match for Virginia’s high-powered offense.

Friday, Nov. 29: Virginia Tech (home)

In the lead-up to last season, the “Beat Tech” mantra was pushed heavily by Mendenhall and his staff. Despite coming within inches, that did not happen last year. Perkins’ fumble in overtime led to a game-winning field goal for the Hokies, and their win streak over Virginia extended to 15 games. Virginia, however, overcame that crushing loss to end the regular season to win its first bowl game since 2005, and the season ended on a positive note. Virginia set The Standard last year and the Cavaliers know what they must do to play up to it. If they do it, they can beat Virginia Tech and have a serious shot at taking the ACC Coastal title. The Hokies will also be a strong Coastal contender, returning senior quarterback Ryan Willis who passed for 24 touchdowns last season, junior wide receiver Damon Hazelton who led Virginia Tech in receiving yards and a defense that should be improved with more experience and impact grad transfers at multiple positions. This is going to be an instant classic, and Scott Stadium will be packed.

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