Archives for posts with tag: Bronco Mendenhall

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Some say timing is everything, and if it isn’t it certainly remains a pretty big factor.  College Football’s Power Five slate kicks off at 12 p.m. Saturdays with more chaff than wheat while its prime matchups are usually offered up to ABC, CBS, and ESPN in the coveted 3:30 p.m. window.  The late games kick off from 6 to 7:30 p.m., with a prime time showdown and the customary Pac-12 After Dark duel wrapping up the day’s action.  It should be easy to have everybody play at a reasonable time.

Except with dreaded noon eastern games in the Central Time Zone.  This Saturday there are four games involving ranked teams that begin at 11 a.m. local time:  Oklahoma-West Virginia, Wisconsin-Illinois, Auburn-Arkansas and Purdue-Iowa.  Earlier this fall to fit into the ACC Network’s grid, Pitt played Ohio at 11 a.m. EDT.

Last month Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban complained about a 12 p.m. EDT game against Southern Miss, which would kick off at 11 a.m. local time.  Saban was pounced on by some as being elitist, but I completely understand his thinking.  In a sport where empty seats are a pox and the final days of summer can be toasty, late-morning is the last time you want to gather 75,000 people outside in the sun.  On weekends the last thing many want to do is have to be anywhere by 11 a.m.; even though noon is just an hour later it feels a world away from late-morning.  College students waking up and getting anywhere on a Saturday morning by 11?  Right.  And even though college athletics is not always about the actual student athletes, a player’s body-clock can’t benefit from the morning start.

Leagues blame TV; one wants to show as many games to as many people as possible.  But if the SEC and Big Ten have their own networks, can’t they move the 11 a.m. Central games to noon/aka 1 p.m. Eastern?  It’s not like these channels don’t have pregame and highlight shows that could fill those slots.  So your SEC mid-afternoon game kicks off at 4:30 instead of 3:30…or the seven o’clock game starts at eight.  People will still watch–because it’s football.  Unless it’s Rutgers.

 

Alma Mater Update- major gut-check time for the Orange, who need three wins to become bowl-eligible.  First up is 4-2 Pitt, who’s coming off of three straight wins by a combined seven points.   But at least it’s at home–even if it’s on Friday night.  The offensive line that allowed eight sacks against NC State needs to find itself, and Tommy DeVito needs to put up quality yards instead of simply a quantity of yards.  I’m not confident that will happen this year.

 

Maryland ( 3-3, 1-2 Big Ten) vs. Indiana (4-2, 1-2), 3:30 p.m. (Big Ten Network). 

Speaking of early starts, how is this game not beginning at 12?  I thought “Maryland-Indiana” was French for “noon kickoff”.  Both schools suffer from the “Rutgers Inflation Effect”.  The Terps torched the Scarlet Knights by 41 points while the Hoosiers won by 35 against RU.  They’ve each been humbled by Big Ten foes not residing the state of New Jersey, Maryland getting outscored 99-14 while IU’s been pasted 91-41.  Indiana brings the Big Ten’s second-best passing game into College Park Saturday, and the Terps passing defense allows the most yards per game in the conference.  Hoosiers quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (69.5% completion rate) has the necessary counter-punch in running back Stevie Scott III (5.0 yards per carry) to keep opponents honest; sadly he lacks a “IV” on the roster.  Tyrrell Pigrome starts for the second week at quarterback as Josh Jackson’s ankle still isn’t right, and running back Anthony McFarland’s high ankle sprain looks to limit the sparkplug that gained over 1,000 yards last fall further (he notched four yards at Purdue and dropped a pass in the end zone).

Presto’s Pick: Terps tumble, 35-20.

 

Virginia (4-2, 2-1 ACC) vs. Duke (4-2, 2-1), 3:30 p.m. (ACC Network).

Easter may be in springtime, but last Friday the Cavaliers laid a major egg in their 17-9 loss at Miami.  So much for the “Season of Possibilities” (thankfully not trademarked yet). Early issues that won’t go away begin and end with an offensive line that can’t generate a running game (a league-worst 102 yards per game) or protect Bryce Perkins (13 sacks in their last two games).  Duke has already won in the Commonwealth this fall, but after scorching Virginia Tech by 35 they allowed 33 points in a loss at home to Pitt.  Quentin Harris  is also averaging fewer than 10 yards per completion in four of six games this fall;  UVa’s defense leads the ACC in sacks and will need to make him uncomfortable all afternoon.

Kippy & Buffy are more than comfortable going with an old standby for Duke week:  the ultimate “bro” school demands a bottle from Breaux Vineyards.  This year it’s the ”
Equation Red”, a blend that is 73% merlot with dashes of Petit Verdot, Chamborcin, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec.  With aromas of “ripe cherry, plum, and chocolate” plus the taste of “juicy fruit, baking spices such as clove and nutmeg” the lingering dusty tannins will go great with some sauteed mushrooms plus Bleu Cheese on toast against the Blue Devils.

Presto’s Pick:  the Cavaliers find the right equation and defeat Duke, 24-20.

 

Virginia Tech (4-2, 1-2 ACC) vs. North Carolina (3-3, 2-1), 3:30 p.m. (ACC Network).

Past is present in Chapel Hill, as Mack Brown returned to the program he led to 69 wins from 1988 to 97 (including consecutive 10-win seasons that wrapped up his tenure).  Behind freshman quarterback Sam Howell (15 touchdowns and 3 interceptions) the Tar Heels began the season with thrilling wins over South Carolina and Miami, before dropping one-possession games to Wake Forest, Appalachian State, and then-No. 1 Clemson.  While a 16-point win at 1-5 Georgia Tech doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, look at the Hokies: they led Rhode Island by seven in the fourth quarter and it was just as close in wins against Furman, Old Dominion and Miami.  Cause for confidence:  VT is 2-0 since going with turnover-free Hendon Hooker at quarterback.  What’s helped the sophomore is the presence of a running game, with Deshawn McClease emerging as the primary ground threat.

Presto’s Pick:  Hokies come up short, 26-20.

 

Navy (4-1, 2-1 AAC) vs. South Florida (3-3, 1-1), 3:30 p.m. (CBS Sports Network).

The Midshipmen are coming off of their first road win in over two years, while the Bulls are .500 at midseason despite returning 15 starters.  The sizzle for the Mids is often its option offense, and quarterback Malcolm Perry is directing an attack that leads the nation in rushing.  But major strides have been made so far this year on defense:  the team leads the AAC in stopping the run as well as fewest yards and points allowed.  USF has had major issues protecting the quarterback (a league-high 24 sacks allowed) as well as moving the chains (second-worst in the conference).

Presto’s Pick: Midshipmen move one step closer to bowl eligibility with a 31-17 win.

 

Georgetown beats Lafayette, James Madison wins at William & Mary, Richmond gets by Yale, Towson beats Bucknell, Morgan State slips to South Carolina State.

Last Week: 5-5.  Overall: 44-19.

 

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

The problem with the mid-September schedule is that while the networks are looking for compelling matchups on a weekly basis, most schools nowadays try to build bowl eligibility insurance by bringing at least one FCS school or lower-tier FBS program to campus (and in a few cases sometimes one of each).  This means early-season matchups between ranked foes are few and far between.  Or in the case of this week, try none.  As in zero.  Blame more than the schedule-stuffers, with teams from Iowa State (Cyclones were taken to triple-overtime by Northern Iowa in week one) to Syracuse (coughed up 650 yards and 63 points at Maryland in week two) failing to live up to the preseason hype.

The Orange will face a top-ranked Clemson team that’s more than angry after almost being upset by SU last year in prime time on ABC.  I’m not saying things could get ugly, but Syracuse has allowed 60+ points to the likes of Wake Forest and Pitt in recent years.  This is Clemson.  FOX presents what used to be a great inter-sectional showdown in Oklahoma-UCLA.  While the Sooners have lived up to their No. 5 ranking, the Bruins have lost to the likes of Cincinnati and San Diego State.  Both with Chip Kelly coaching on the sidelines.  Meanwhile Lincoln Riley appears to be the quarterback whisperer as Jalen Hurts is on fire.  Gus Johnson is probably happy he drew Ohio State-Indiana instead.  At least ESPN will be showing an evening battle of unbeatens in No. 9 Florida facing Kentucky– hold on, the Wildcats are playing in the week’s ready for prime time matchup?  I’m not saying this is the week to go apple-picking or antiquing, but you guys can build major relationship cred without missing much.

 

Alma Mater Update- guess what?  The Orange may not be a Top 25 team this year.  Last Saturday’s loss at Maryland exposed multiple issues-and if there’s one team you don’t want to know about your glaring weaknesses, it’s Clemson.  As in top-ranked and defending National Champion Clemson.  As in the Tigers SU beat two years ago in the Dome and almost upset last year in Death Valley.  The bigger bummer is my Cuse buddy “Dome Doug” will be making the trip to the game so I won’t be able to watch at the “Orange Room”, the ultimate fan-cave.  Last year I drank all of his son’s root beer as I was loading up for an evening shift.  By the way, Barq’s goes great with blown double-digit second half lead.

 

No. 21 Maryland (2-0) vs. Temple (1-0), noon (CBS Sports Network). 

The Terps are ranked for the first time since joining the Big Ten and have smashed their first two foes to smithereens.  But a Terrapin’s memory is a long one, and the image of a Top 25 team going to Tallahassee in 2013 and getting torched by Florida State 63-0 remains in the back of one’s mind.  So does the school’s recent rough history with the Owls, like last year’s 35-14 loss at home.  Anthony Russo burned the Terrapin secondary for touchdown passes of 36 and 47 yards last fall and threw for 409 yards in the Owls’ Labor Day weekend win over Bucknell.  The key to Maryland’s early start has been third down dominance:  the offense ranks eighth (61%) in FBS at moving the chains while the defense (25%) is 14th best in the nation.  Coach Mike Locksley compares the season to driving cross-country, and that starting 2-0 feels like “arriving in Phoenix without a flat”.  I’m tempted to dive all-in on Glen Campbell references for the season, but his biggest hits were 40-50 years ago.  Also, the second verse in “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” refers to Albuquerque- where Locksley went 2-26 as New Mexico’s head coach.

Presto’s Pick: Terrapins reach Galveston (Oh Galveston!) without further car trouble, 34-19.

 

Virginia Tech (1-1) vs. Furman (1-1), noon (ACC Network). 

Could the Hokies be in trouble?  Their two-touchdown win over Old Dominion didn’t necessarily make one think that this fall’s edition was that much better than the team that needed to schedule a provisional game to make postseason play.  They currently rank last in FBS in turnover margin and have had issues running the ball (3.4 yards per carry after accounting for sacks).  Enter a Furman team that’s ranked 16th in FCS and is averaging 44 points per game.  Darren Grainger threw for 311 yards last week against Georgia State, but the freshman will learn rather quickly that the former Turner Field has nothing on Lane Stadium.  Or so Hokie Nation hopes as they try not to choke on their smoked turkey legs.

Presto’s Picks: Hokies have their hands full but hold on, 36-27.

 

Navy (1-0) vs. East Carolina (1-1), 3:30 p.m. (CBS Sports Network). 

After a week off, the Mids begin American Athletic Conference play looking to end a disturbing trend:  the Midshipmen went 14-3 during their first two AAC campaigns but went 6-10 in conference play the last two autumns.  Their foe can sympathize:  ECU went 4-20 in league play from 2016-18.  Enter former James Madison Coach Mike Houston, and a Pirates team that looked just as awesome in their rout of Gardner-Webb as they looked awful in their blowout loss at NC State.  If that’s comparing apples to oranges, the Mids’ week one win over Holy Cross is a pomegranate.  The game’s in Annapolis, where the current senior class is 13-3 in regular season games.  Did I mention East Carolina is 1-16 on the road since the 2016 season started?

Presto’s Pick:  Midshipmen get it done, 31-20.

 

No. 25 Virginia (2-0, 1-0 ACC) vs. Florida State (1-1), 7:30 p.m. (ACC Network). 

What’s this?  The Cavaliers are ranked and are favored against the Seminoles?  It’s been a long year the last two weeks in Tallahassee, as FSU needed a missed extra point in overtime to prevail over (gulp) Louisiana-Monroe.  The defense coughs up 40 points and 520 yards per game doesn’t even look that good.  UVa’s pass defense (under 50% completion rate and 157.5 yards per game) will be tested by James Blackman (73% and 304.5) while Cam Akers presents the perfect counter-punch (193 yards rushing last week) on the ground.  These schools actually compete for the “Jefferson-Eppes Trophy”; it’s not the Civil ConFLiCT but just about as relevant over the years as UVa is 3-15 against FSU.

Kippy and Buffy know their history, and that “Eppes” refers to Thomas Jefferson’s grandson Francis Eppes IV, a two-time Mayor of Tallahassee and Trustee at the seminary that would eventually become Florida State.  Nothing says history like tailgating with a bottle of 2013 Jefferson Vineyards Meritage“an oak driven wine with wonderful aromatics. The bright palate shows berry and black pepper flavors, finishing with lingering notes of coffee.”  Coffee is for closers- and in the season of possibilities could that be the Cavaliers?

Presto’s Picks:  Cavs come through, 27-22.

 

Georgetown tops Catholic, Howard falls to Hampton, Towson tumbles to Maine, Richmond loses to Elon, James Madison mauls Morgan State.

Last Week: 8-1. Overall: 14-4.

 

 

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Welcome back everyone, and prepare to enter what has been claimed to be the best regular season in sports (amazing how many one-loss Alabama and Clemson teams make the playoff in a world where “every week matters”).  This year there’s a twist though:  Clemson is ranked first and Alabama is second!  I know, I’ll wait for you to pick yourself off of the floor.  In the current College Football Playoff era, the Tigers and Crimson Tide have combined for nine of the 20 semifinal berths.  And there’s a very good chance they’ll be joined by the two other schools with multiple CFP berths (blue bloods Ohio State and Oklahoma) while the Pac-12 champ pounds sand once again.  But it all starts this weekend.  Yes, you heard me correctly.  Even though No. 8 Florida faced Miami in Orlando last Saturday, this is technically week one.  Fans of the Gators and Hurricanes got to see to underprepared teams combine for five turnovers, 23 penalties and convert a combined 4-for-24 on third down.  Heading into the showdown it was referred to as “Week Zero”, and I wholeheartedly agree.  Bring on the real season.

 

Alma Mater Update- the Orange begin the year ranked for the first time since 1997.  Yes, SU hasn’t been in the Preseason Top 25 since Donovan McNabb was wearing #5.  Naturally they’re opening the season at…Liberty.  I do have friends headed to Lynchburg for the game as the drive is manageable, and I’m wondering if they’re going to follow the trend and bring Spiked Seltzer to the tailgate.  I’m holding my breath.

 

Maryland vs. Howard, noon (Big Ten Network).

The Terps will start a different quarterback in their opener for the fourth straight season, as Virginia Tech transfer Josh Jackson gets the nod. While with the Hokies Jackson started Labor Day weekend wins over ranked foes West Virginia and Florida State.  And he never had a running threat like Anthony McFarland: the sophomore looks to continue the momentum of last November where he posted a pair of 200-yard rushing games.  The Bison counter with third-year starting quarterback Caylin Newton (yes, he’s Cam’s younger brother) and the offensive weapons that led the MEAC in scoring last fall, but they also bring a defense that allowed 34 points per game in 2018.  

Presto’s Pick: Terrapins Triumph, 45-20.

 

Navy vs. Holy Cross, 3:30 p.m (CBS Sports Network). 

The long road back from 3-10 begins with a game against a Patriot League foe. One that was picked to finish second in its conference and ended 2018 with four straight wins.  But the Crusaders lost quarterback Geoff Wade to graduation, and Emmett Clifford (under 10 yards per completion and a 1-3 touchdown to interception ratio) is just the kind of QB the new-look Navy defense wants to confuse pre-snap.  All eyes will be on the arm of Midshipman quarterback Malcolm Perry as the team has been talking all month about throwing the ball more.  It’s one thing to say you’re going to open up the offense, it’s another thing entirely to try to do so in game situations and yet another thing to execute.

Presto’s Pick: Midshipmen crush the Crusaders, 38-14.

 

Virginia Tech at Boston College, 4 p.m (ACC Network).  

Of the three schools that marked the first exodus of the Big East to the ACC in 2004-05, the Hokies have been the most successful (Miami didn’t even win a Coastal Division title until last year) but for a while BC held its own against the Clemsons and Florida States in the Atlantic Division.  But since finishing first or second in the Atlantic each of their first five years in the league, the Eagles haven’t posted a winning ACC record.  Junior running back AJ Dillon rushed for 96 yards and a touchdown against the Hokies last year.  We’ll see how revamped Virginia Tech’s defense is this year after finishing near the bottom of the conference in 2018.  The road team has won four of the last five games in this series.

Presto’s Pick: Hokies make it happen, 27-17.

 

Virginia at Pitt, 7:30 p.m. (ACC Network).

Could this be the Cavaliers’ year?  The other six Coastal Division schools have each taken turns advancing to the Conference Championship Game since 2013.  Last year’s representative was a Pitt team that reached Charlotte behind 1,000-yard rushers Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall; both are trying to stick with NFL rosters this summer.  The Panthers also have four new starters on their offensive line and a quarterback in junior Kenny Pickett who has plenty of experience but also a very low ceiling.   Cavaliers QB Bryce Perkins is coming off of a spectacular season where he was one of two FBS players to pass for at least 2,600 yards while rushing for 900+.  The other? Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray.

My UVa tailgating pals Kippy & Buffy are back for another exciting season, and just like their team that’s dreaming big in 2019 my favorite couple begins big: a bottle of 2013 Joseph Phelps Insignia. “Focused and fresh, this exceptionally concentrated wine showcases elegant tannin structure and a silky mouthfeel layered with dark fruit, sweet vanilla bean, cracked black pepper and bittersweet chocolate.”  Nothing bittersweet about the season ahead.

Presto’s Pick: Cavaliers are focused, fresh, and find a way to win, 27-20.

 

Georgetown falls at Davidson, Towson tops The Citadel, James Madison makes FCS proud with an upset win at West Virginia, William & Mary wins at Lafayette.

Last Year: 69-44, including a 1-8 week where I should have pulled a George Costanza and went the opposite.

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The distance between Lane Stadium in Blacksburg and Scott Stadium in Charlottesville may stand at 146.2 miles, but the gap between the two programs appears to be closing from what was one a huge chasm.  For the first time since 1997, Virginia (8-5) owned a better record than Virginia Tech (6-7).  Last year it was the Hokies who suffered the embarrassing non-conference stumble.  After dealing with a quarterback carousel for over a decade, it was the Cavaliers who had a stable signal caller situation for the third straight season while the Hokies are the ones who saw a former starter leave via transfer.  UVa’s formerly Swiss cheese defense?  The third stingiest in the ACC while Virginia Tech allowed more than 40 points four times.
But there’s one area where the Hokies still dominate:  fifteen straight wins in the series, including last year’s overtime triumph where Virginia appeared to somehow snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  Fifteen straight wins, meaning most of the kids who were students when UVa last prevailed will be eligible to run for President next year.  Fifteen straight wins, or every time these two schools have played as ACC foes.  Could this year finally be the one where the Cavaliers conquer the Commonwealth?

 

Virginia returns 14 starters from its best team in over a decade; with quarterback Bryce Perkins back to build on a stellar 2018 campaign (65% completion percentage, 2680 yards, with 25 touchdowns and 9 interceptions).  While he won’t have his main running threat (1000-yard rusher Jordan Ellis) or top target (1000-yard receiver Olamide Zaccheaus) he does have a pair of seniors to throw to in Hasise Dubose (52 catches last year) and Joe Reed (a team-high 18.6 yards per reception with 7 touchdown catches). The running game by committee will feature junior P.K. Kier plus sophomores Wayne Taulapapa and Jamari Peacock.  Don’t be surprised if it’s Bryce Perkins (923 yards rushing with 9 touchdowns last year) who emerges as the chairman of the board.
Defense looks to be the strong suit with last season’s defensive line returning intact along with standout linebackers Charles Snowden (61 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2 interceptions in 2018) and Jordan Mack (66 tackles with 2.5 sacks) anchoring the second line of defense.  Senior Bryce Hall continues the recent tradition of outstanding Cavaliers defensive backs (Quin Blanding, Juan Thornhill) and was named All-ACC Preseason First Team.
The Cavaliers kick off the season by visiting Pitt; believe it or not, they played the Panthers last November for the ACC Coastal Division lead. They face Florida State and Notre Dame in September, meaning we could find out if this season represents another step forward for Coach Bronco Mendenhall’s program.  And then there’s that home game the day after Thanksgiving.

Dream Scenario:  Virginia completes an odd streak where all seven Coastal Division schools reached the ACC Championship Game over a seven-year span.  Most importantly, they win the Coastal by beating Virginia Tech.

Nightmare: 2018 proves to be a mirage as early losses at Pitt and Notre Dame plus a rout at home to Florida State set the tone for a 5-7 finish that includes another loss to the Hokies.

 

Virginia Tech will say farewell to longtime Defensive Coordinator Bud Foster this season.  He’s been with the school since 1987 and this will be Foster’s 25th year directing the defense.  In nine of the first ten seasons the Hokies were in the ACC, they ranked first or second in total defense.  In the last five years they’ve finished in the top three just once, and 2018’s unit ranked 11th in the conference and 98th overall.  The ingredients of the collapse were part youth (only three returning starters) and injuries/ineligibility (three projected starters were lost prior to the season).  This fall Foster has nine returning starters, with junior linebacker Rayshard Ashby (105 tackles last year) and junior defensive tackle Jarrod Hewitt leading the way.  Senior rover back Reggie Floyd is the type of playmaker we’ve gotten used to seeing the Hokies secondary; he’s the strong link in the last line of defense.

Junior quarterback Ryan Willis took over for an injured Josh Jackson in the Old Dominion game last fall.  He then showed enough on the field (59% completion percentage, 2716 yards, 24 touchdowns and 9 interceptions) during Jackson’s recovery from the broken leg to convince the former starter to look elsewhere for future snaps (he wound up at Maryland where he’s starting Saturday against Howard).  Unlike his Cavaliers counterpart, Willis doesn’t have the wheels as he rushed for just 354 yards.  But he does have four of his top five receivers from 2018 returning, including junior Damon Hazelton who caught 51 passes for 802 yards and 7 scores last season.  Coach Justin Fuente’s running back by committee will feature 2017’s leading rusher Deshawn McClease.

The season starts on the road at Boston College; the road team has won four of the last five meetings.  Then there’s the revenge game against Old Dominion (the Hokies lost at ODU 49-35 last September).  While they visit Notre Dame in November, there’s nothing to suggest that this won’t be another bowl season in Blacksburg.  There is that season finale in Charlottesville, however.  Could it possibly be a sweet sixteen party as well as successful sendoff for Bud Foster?

Dream Scenario:  the defense proves that 2018 was an isolated incident as they bounce back and rule the Coastal Division with an iron fist.  They might not be able to beat Clemson, but a double-digit win season sends Bud Foster out on a high.

Nightmare Situation:  they can’t stop Boston College running back A.J. Dillon on Labor Day weekend, and that sets the tone for a rough 2019 where they not only lose to UVa for the first time since 2003 but also miss a bowl for the first time since 1992.

Blacksburg and Charlottesville.  Two opposite sides of the college football coin in the Commonwealth.  Virginia Tech is coming off of the school’s ninth 10-win season since it joined the ACC and a league-best sixth division title, while Virginia suffered through its second 10-loss season in four years and has finished higher than third just twice since divisional play began.  And then there’s the thing about how the Cavaliers haven’t beaten the Hokies since their poor country cousin crashed the Atlantic Coast Conference party in 2004.

The contrast between the two programs also goes against recent form:  Virginia returns stability at quarterback while Virginia Tech has question marks surrounding the position this fall.  Yes, you read it here first.  The Cavaliers plan to start the same QB two straight seasons for just the second time in 13 years.  Kurt Benkert threw for 2,552 yards and 21 touchdowns (second-most all-time in school history behind Matt Schaub’s 28 in 2002). The transfer from East Carolina certainly has the arm to compete in the ACC, but coach Bronco Mendenhall says, “(he has) to use the arm that he has but also make the good decisions and not think he has to throw the ball every single play.  Sometimes a scramble and a slide or just throwing the ball away is effective.”  Virginia Tech will start a redshirt freshman in Josh Jackson…who sat and learned last year watching transfer Jerod Evans tear up the ACC.  Coach Justin Fuente used three criteria to determine his quarterback competition: “how many times were you executing what we asked you to do on a consistent basis, to see them protect and value the football, and the third was a little bit of a feel thing-a little bit harder to measure.”  Plan B and C at the position are a pair of players who have yet to take a snap as a Hokie:  junior college transfer A.J. Bush and true freshman Hendon Hooker.

The contrast continues on the defensive side of the ball, where the Hokies look to build off last year’s strong showing (3rd in the ACC against the pass and 4th overall) while the Cavaliers look to plug holes in a unit that allowed the 3rd most points in the conference.  Coach Mendenhall feels last year’s defensive shortcomings were created by inexperience and unfamiliarity with the scheme installed: “I hope that we’re not nearly as volatile.  Usually inexperience leads to volatility–you’ll play a stretch where it looks like good football and then there’ll be some miscues and balls go over your head.”  UVa’s top player on defense remains safety Quin Blanding, who led the team in tackles last fall.  Tech also returns its leading tackler in linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka and returns six other starters, but coach Fuente knows the key will be how well his backups step up:  “the days of only playing defense with 11 guys are just over.  Offenses run too many plays with too many personnel groups–you’ve got to create depth.”

The two teams kick off the 2017 season in contrasting fashion:  Virginia Tech begins the year with a bang by facing #22 West Virginia at Fed Ex Field.  They previously played at the Redskins’ home field in 2004, 2010 and 2012. “There are a lot of Hokie fans up there,” Fuente says, “I think it’s a neat venue for us to play in and we have a quality opponent.  I know it’s given us something to work towards.”  A trip to East Carolina (the Pirates have given the Hokies fits over the last decade) also awaits before they start the ACC slate by visiting defending National Champion Clemson.  Tech also visits preseason Coastal Division favorite Miami.  Virginia begins its year with three straight home games- potentially providing the program momentum entering play against a league that enjoyed a stellar 2016.  “The numbers say a year ago that the ACC was the best conference- by national champion, postseason record and crossover record with other conferences,” Mendenhall adds, “after being in the league one year, I think it’s very strong top to bottom.”  Florida State and Clemson are in the preseason top 5, while Louisville and Miami start the year in the top 20.

The two contrasting Commonwealth roads converge the day after Thanksgiving when Virginia entertains Virginia Tech at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville.

 

Hokie Penthouse– how do you top last year’s 10-4 season?  By winning the ACC this year!  While they lose to Clemson in September, they do run the rest of the conference table and upset Florida State in the Championship Game.  While they might not make the playoff, Virginia Tech is in the conversation.

Hokie Outhouse– an opening night loss to West Virginia at Fed Ex Field sets the tone for a stumbling September that includes a defeat at home to Clemson.  Josh Jackson is no Jerod Evans…and the offense takes its lumps in losses to North Carolina and Miami to fall from Coastal Contention before falling to—gulp!—Virginia.  At least they don’t lose in Blacksburg.

Cavalier Penthouse– a 3-0 start gets everyone a little too excited…and Boise State bursts the bubble to end September.  But Kurt Benkert wins a game or two on his own and the defense isn’t completely dismal.  A bowl bid is secured…and then UVa goes out and beats the Hokies the day after Thanksgiving.  Plenty to be thankful for this year…

Cavalier Outhouse– the offense misses Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell more than they thought and the defense still has issues.  Losses to Indiana and Boise State temper enthusiasm…before the November nightmare of Georgia Tech, Louisville and Miami bury slim postseason hopes.  A rout at home to Virginia Tech remains the cherry on the turkey once again.

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Who the heck is Kurt Benkert?  Frankly, the name sounds made up to me.  But he’s the starting quarterback at Virginia.  The Cavaliers under new head coach Bronco Mendenhall go with the East Carolina transfer at QB, and even though this is a different coaching regime it almost makes sense.  If there was one consistent theme during former coach Mike London’s tenure, it was inconsistent quarterback play (usually followed by the deposed QB transferring out of Charlottesville).  So just as Michael Rocco begat Phillip Sims who begat David Watford who begat Greyson Lambert who begat Matt Johns,  Johns now gives way to the former Pirate.  Truth be told, the quarterback carousel in actually dates back to the Al Groh days as this will be the 11th different starter in 12 season openers.

Benkert actually won the East Carolina starting job in 2015 before a knee injury ended his season…after throwing 10 passes the season before.  New coach Bronco Mendenhall told the Washington Post, “Kurt has been the one that has consistently — and can continue to be — consistent in terms of moving our team forward regardless the type and caliber of opponent we play. He’s a good decision-maker with a strong arm, and he has natural leadership skills.” Benkert will have weapons at his disposal–beginning with runningback Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell, who led the Cavaliers in rushing and receiving last fall.  Former Maryland runningback Albert Reid averaged 5.5 yards per carry while getting limited work (only one game of 10 carries or more).  Olamide Zaccheaus was equally effective last year as a runner (7.9 yards per carry) and receiver (his 50-yard TD catch helped UVa beat Duke).  It’ll be interesting to see how he’ll be employed this fall.

Defensively last year’s unit ranked 96th in points allowed and had problems getting to the passer.  Switching to the 3-4 may not only be Mendenhall’s preference, but it works with a defensive line that returns no starters.  The fact that linebacker Micah Kiser led the ACC in tackles last year is encouraging;  the junior was also the team’s best pass rusher (7.5 sacks) and will be expected to bear the build on last year’s breakthrough season.  The fact that free safety Quin Blanding was second in the league in stops is not encouraging–because if a defensive back is making that many tackles it means the other team has been able to consistently get by the first two layers of defense.

This year’s schedule is the one that former coach Mike London wishes he had the last few years.  Yes, they swap out ranked Pac-12 foes by visiting #24 Oregon instead of traveling to #13 UCLA.  And they exchange pesky William & Mary from the CAA for pesky Richmond.  But Boise State and Notre Dame have been replaced by the likes of UConn and Central Michigan.  The  Cavaliers still play in the Coastal Division (in other words, the non-Clemson/Florida State half of the league) and have ACC crossover games with Wake Forest (winnable) and Louisville (maybe not so winnable).  The scenario exists where they could once again be 5-6 heading into Thanksgiving weekend’s game with Virginia Tech.  Gulp–the only thing more consistent than quarterback inconsistency over the last decade has been the Cavaliers’ inability to beat the Hokies.

Best Case– Kurt Benkert winds up being the answer.  After taking 3 of 4 non-conference games…the Cavaliers beat Duke and Wake Forest to move into postseason contention before shocking Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.  A bowl appearance is nice…but beating the Hokies?! Priceless.

Worst Case– the Cavaliers collapse against FCS foe Richmond on opening day…and finish 2-10 with another disappointing loss to Virginia Tech.  Benkert and last year’s starting quarterback Matt Johns both transfer…guaranteeing there will be a 12th new QB in 13 years next fall.

 

The first priority of coach DJ Durkin and Bronco Mendenhall have been taken care of…for now.  Maryland and Virginia both name their starting quarterbacks.  How long their newly tabbed first stringers remain first stringers will go a long way towards how successful the first season will be in College Park and Charlottesville.

Maryland names Perry Hills the team’s starting quarterback ten days before the 2016 season begins.  Hills was competing with fellow fifth-year senior Caleb Rowe for the first string nod;  both saw extensive action last season.  Hills played in 8 games last year, completing 50% of his passes for 1001 yards and 8 touchdowns with 13 interceptions.

The Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School product was thrust into the starting role as a true freshman when CJ Brown went down with a torn ACL.  Before suffering a torn ACL of his own against NC State, Hills led the Terrapins to a 4-2 record while completing 57% of his passes for 1336 yards and 8 touchdowns with 7 interceptions.

Maryland begins he 2016 season September 3rd when they host Howard.

 

Virginia taps transfer Kurt Benkert as its #1 QB .  The junior was named the starter last year at East Carolina before a knee injury ended his 2015 season before the opener.  Benkert saw action in three games in 2014, completing 8 of 10 passes for the Pirates.

The Cavaliers kick off their campaign September 3rd when they entertain Richmond.