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A deep dive into Virginia football’s 2021 schedule

How do the Cavaliers match up against their opponents?

<p>Virginia looks to improve on last year's 5-5 performance, which ended in a frustrating loss to Virginia Tech.</p>

Virginia looks to improve on last year's 5-5 performance, which ended in a frustrating loss to Virginia Tech.

The calendar is turning to September, students are back on Grounds and the Bodo’s line is out the door. That can only mean one thing in Charlottesville — Virginia football is back. Fans and athletes alike are ecstatic about the 2021 season, especially after a disjointed and mostly energy-free 2020. But there is a question still to be answered — which teams have the displeasure of lining up against the Cavaliers? Let’s take a closer look at Virginia football’s 2021 schedule.

Home vs. William & Mary, Sept. 4

The Cavaliers open their slate with a traditional in-state rival, albeit one from the FCS ranks. Additionally, former Virginia head coach Mike London is now the coach of the Tribe, which adds yet another wrinkle to the matchup. Overall, though, this should not be too hard of a game for the Cavaliers, and I expect to see some future stars get reps in the second half of a blowout.

Home vs. Illinois, Sept. 11

The Fighting Illini have the distinction of being the only team to have played a game at the time this article was written, beating Nebraska 30-22 in an exciting win for first-year Coach Bret Bielema. Illinois plays a heavy man defense, however, which is something dual-threat quarterbacks like Brennan Armstrong can exploit with their legs. This may be a tougher game than initially expected, but the Cavaliers should still pull out the win.

Away at North Carolina, Sept. 18

Virginia has had the Tar Heels’ number as of late, winning four straight matchups in football, and the Cavaliers look to continue that trend in this September matchup. Junior quarterback Sam Howell returns for North Carolina as one of the top passers in the country, but the rest of the offense loses a lot of firepower, as both top running backs and four of the top six receivers are no longer on the team. Although reasonable minds might predict the home Tar Heels to defeat Virginia, I see this as much more of a tossup than people may realize.

Home vs. Wake Forest, Sept. 24

Demon Deacons Coach Dave Clawson has done very well building Wake Forest into a perennial bowl team, since it is traditionally very hard to win in Winston-Salem. Wake Forest also has an outstanding wide receiver in Jaquarii Roberson, who was named to the First Team All-ACC in the preseason poll. By this point in the season, however, the Cavaliers have likely either figured out their struggles in the defensive backfield or not, so Roberson may be able to be kept in check.

Away at Miami, Sept. 30

The Cavaliers unfortunately have to travel to Coral Gables for the third straight time due to scheduling inconsistencies caused by COVID-19, and, in combination with the second short week in a row, it could be a recipe for disaster for Virginia. The Hurricanes return star senior quarterback D’Eriq King, and it seems that perhaps this is the year for coach Manny Diaz’s team to break through. Virginia will have to play their best to avoid a loss at Hard Rock Stadium.

Away at Louisville, Oct. 9

Last year, in a 31-17 victory, Virginia was able to keep Cardinal quarterback Malik Cunningham in check through the air but struggled with rushing defense, as Cunningham burst through for nearly 200 yards. Expect a much similar story this season as Cunningham returns, but Louisville loses its top two receivers. If the matchup plays out at all like it did last season, I would expect the Cavaliers to come home with a win.

Home vs. Duke, Oct. 16

The Blue Devils travel to Charlottesville for Virginia’s homecoming game, likely having had a rough season up to this point. Duke previously lost two of their best defensive players to the NFL and is also breaking in a new quarterback after Chase Brice transferred to Appalachian State. The Cavaliers are both more experienced and more talented than the Blue Devils at almost every position, so it is reasonable to expect the alumni to enjoy a big Virginia win.

Home vs. Georgia Tech, Oct. 23

Georgia Tech, while not having much in the way of recent success, may be primed for a jump in coach Geoff Collins’ third season at the helm. Sophomore running back Jahmyr Gibbs has been giving teams fits during his time in the ACC, and it should be no different this year. Expect the Cavaliers to have a significant edge on offense, but the front seven of the Virginia defense will need to play well to avoid getting run over by the Yellow Jackets.

Away at BYU, Oct. 30

In another homecoming, this time for Virginia Coach Bronco Mendenhall, the Cavaliers travel to Provo to take on BYU, one of the darlings of last season. The Cougars lost a lot of production, however, starting with their former quarterback Zach Wilson, who was taken in the first round of the NFL Draft. This game is a difficult one to predict, as no one knows what BYU will look like, but I believe Virginia’s experience will be the tipping point to bring the Cavaliers a big win.

Home vs. Notre Dame, Nov. 13

After a bye week, Virginia faces the second biggest game in the schedule when the Fighting Irish come to town. Notre Dame also loses its quarterback from last year, but seems to be moving right along with Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan now in the fold. The Fighting Irish did lose four starting offensive lineman, though, so it could be the Cavaliers’ defensive front’s time to shine, attacking Coan and putting the offense off schedule. Notre Dame will almost undoubtedly be ranked higher than Virginia coming into the matchup, but perhaps the Cavaliers will be able to work some Scott Stadium magic on a November Saturday.

Away at Pitt, Nov. 20

Kenny Pickett returns as Pitt’s starting quarterback for what seems like the ninth season as he leads the Panthers to what should be a classic Pat Narduzzi team. Expect the game-control offense of Pitt to slow things down, making the matchup a defensive slog. However, Pitt lost many of its top defensive linemen, and with the Cavaliers’ offensive line being as strong as it is, this could be the game for the running attack to break out for Virginia.

Home vs. Virginia Tech, Nov. 27

Finally, the game everyone has been waiting for. Virginia Tech returns to Charlottesville with the Commonwealth Cup in tow, ready to battle it out with the Cavaliers in the biggest game of the year. The Hokies lose star running back Khalil Herbert, but quarterback Braxton Burmeister returns to lead an offense that should be very similar to the one the Cavaliers saw last year in a loss. Frankly, Virginia had multiple opportunities to make the 2020 game much closer than it ended up being, but mistakes killed all the momentum. With all of Charlottesville behind the Cavaliers, this would be the time to flip the script on the rivalry and take back the Cup.

Predictions

I see this Virginia team that has a relatively tight window of realistic outcomes. I would be shocked if the Cavaliers were worse than 6-6, but also pleasantly surprised if they went better than 9-3. I settled on Virginia finishing with an 8-4 record, with losses to Miami, Notre Dame and two of Wake Forest, North Carolina, Pitt and Louisville — although I can’t say who they would lose to out of those four. Virginia will have a good team this year, and as a true fan, I cannot help to think that the Cavaliers’ last regular season game ends with a win over the school down in Blacksburg.

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