ACC 2013 Spring Football Preview: Virginia Cavaliers

Virginia QB Phillip Simms Won't Be Handed the Starting Job This Spring, Making for an Interesting Early Position Battle

Virginia QB Phillip Sims Won’t Be Handed the Starting Job This Spring, Making for an Interesting Early Position Battle

As the ACC‘s spring practices get under way, we’ll be previewing the big storylines for each of the league’s 14 (15, in this case) teams. Check back on weekdays for what to look out for during your school’s spring practices and spring game.

Team: Virginia Cavaliers

Spring Practice Start Date: March 18

Spring Game Date: April 6

Head coach Mike London felt some heat after a disappointing third season, replacing both his offensive and defensive coordinators in the hopes of sparking a new fire with his players. Now, he’ll need to hope that does the trick for a group returning 14 starters from last season; a decent amount of leadership coming back that should at least give the team a leg up compared to last year’s project (especially on defense). Virginia has also elected to schedule pretty aggressively this year (and for the foreseeable future), meaning progress may end up being tougher to spot in clear sight.

With a strong group of receivers returning, along with leading rusher Kevin Parks and most of the offensive line (four of five), you’d think the Hoos’ offense would be largely settled. Unfortunately, though, that’s not the case. Last year’s quarterback platoon of incumbent starter Michael Rocco and Alabama transfer Phillip Sims led to Rocco leaving the program, yet that doesn’t mean Simms automatically has the job. Junior David Watford‘s been around the program longer, though that may not matter in new O-coordinator Steve Fairchild’s system. As a former quarterback himself, Fairchild’s likely to favor the best arm, meaning Simms’s dual-threat capabilities may not be as important. It’s likely the offense sees some additional pro-style influence from former NC State head coach Tom O’Brien, now an offensive assistant with UVa. This spring will be a telling sign toward the direction the squad takes this fall, but at this point, expect anything — Watford or Simms as the starter, or maybe even both. While there are certainly critics of how London ran a two-passer system last year, I’m unsure whether that’ll deter him from doing so again if the two players are in a close competition.

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2012 ACC Football Season Recap: Virginia Cavaliers

Virginia's 2012 Season Was About as Tumultuous as They Come; But Is There Hope on the Horizon?

Virginia’s 2012 Season Was About as Tumultuous as They Come; But Is There Hope on the Horizon?

Team: Virginia Cavaliers

W-L: 4-8 (2-6)

Postseason: None

Top Offensive Performer: Oday Aboushi, OT

Top Defensive Performer: Steve Greer, LB

Coming off a breakout 2011 season, and another big recruiting class, Mike London’s Virginia team was poised to take the leap in 2012; or so many thought. Rather than progression, what the Hoos saw this past fall was a severe regression. Not only was the team’s win total cut in half when compared to the year before, but a squad that appeared built on continuity was suddenly in a tumultuous state. The Cavaliers’ secondary — as young as expected, took nearly two months to truly get their acts together. The running game, a formidable two-back system, was suddenly as unproductive as they come. And most glaring was the quarterback issue which would shape every narrative for Virginia, from August, all the way through the final, excruciating loss.

One would assume the thought process when bringing in Alabama QB transfer Phillip Sims was that he’d sit this season before taking the reigns in 2013. With returning starter Michael Rocco at the helm, that route seemed to make the most sense — until Sims was granted a waiver allowing him to suit up this season. With a quarterback controversy brewing, Rocco held onto the job, but never quite stopped looking over his shoulder, and the results were mostly hazardous. Thought the UVA passing game would finish a very respectable 37th in the FBS (in terms of yardage), it sorely lacked for efficiency or success. Rocco and Sims combined for 15 interceptions on the season (93rd in the country) and both passers’ accuracy turned out a staggered curve of inconsistency. For each game Rocco would have like the 41-40 upset of Miami (in which he threw for four scores), he’d have another like the 27-7 loss to TCU (126 passing yards, 2 INTs). And with so much riding on quarterback play, the ground game suffered as well. Regularly faced with dire straits, or simply two quarterbacks splitting snaps for the same job, their strong run game was suddenly pass-first. UVA was 98th in the country in both overall carries (417) and yards per game (128.5), and this with two highly skilled backs in Kevin Parks and Perry Jones. While no one would call them a high-flying group in 2011 (23.8 points per game), 2012 was absolutely dreadful from a scoring standpoint (22.8 points per game) — especially without a strong defense to bail them out.

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Final 2012 ACC Football Power Rankings

Clemson's Big Upset Over LSU Was One of Several Wins to Help the ACC Save Face This Postseason

Clemson’s Big Upset Over LSU Was One of Several Wins to Help the ACC Save Face This Postseason

Well that was a pleasant surprise now, wasn’t it? After getting knocked around on and off the field all season, the ACC found itself when it counted — the postseason — and (including Pitt & SU) managed a 5-3 slate, it’s first winning bowl record since 2005. If you want to include Louisville (and I sure do, given their big Sugar Bowl win), that brings the league to 6-3, with wins over the SEC (LSU & Florida), Big 12 (West Virginia) and Pac-12 (pre-season no. 1 USC). But sure, keep laughing at this league. They proved themselves and more during this year’s bowl season, and hopefully it’s a building block for even more excellent football.

1. Florida State Seminoles (12-2) (7-1) (LW: 1): Knock FSU for their schedule, their two losses (why are we criticizing a 12-win team again?) or their lack of a chance at a national title this season. But at the end of the day, they’re exactly where they were slated to be. The ‘Noles will be back in that conversation again this decade. It just takes some time, and this — winning both the ACC and the Orange Bowl — was the first step. Jimbo Fisher’s team will need to get past several big losses going forward, most notably Bjoern Werner and EJ Manuel, but the foundation’s there for a bright future.

2. Clemson Tigers (11-2) (7-1) (LW: 2): Despite not making it to a BCS bowl game, I’d say the Tigers’ consolation prize was still well-worth the trouble, no? On a national stage, Clemson beat mighty SEC’s LSU Tigers, and in the process, ended up being part of the most-watched non-BCS college football game in ESPN’s history. Most stunning in Clemson’s 25-24 victory, however, was the oft-maligned defense. Down 11 points heading into the fourth, the Bayou Bengals could’ve just run the clock out throughout the final stanza. Instead, it was Clemson that stayed strong, shutting out LSU and setting up a defining win for the Dabo Swinney era.

3. North Carolina Tar Heels (8-4) (5-3) (LW: 4): It’s tough to look at UNC’s 2012 season without imagining what could’ve been for a squad that seemed to finally turn the corner here in Larry Fedora’s first year. Knocking on the door of a division title for quite some time, the Heels finally put it all together, only to be ineligible for the postseason. So while it’s a disappointment for North Carolina fans to watch an eight-win season get laid to waste, it’s also built this program some street cred. Despite Giovani Bernard‘s departure to the NFL Draft, QB Bryn Renner will stick around for his senior year, meaning this team returns plenty of firepower; most of which this season only served as a preview for.

4. Syracuse Orange (8-5) (LW: 5): As if it was meant to be, Syracuse closed out their time in the Big East — the conference they built — by putting together its most impressive season in a decade. Up against one of the nation’s toughest non-conference schedules, and a top-heavy league to boot, the Orange still managed to win six of their final seven games. The exclamation point, however (on top of a split conference title), was their resounding victory over rival West Virginia in the Pinstripe Bowl. As someone who braved the cold to watch in-person, it was amazing to see this squad’s transformation from the season’s opening-week struggles to the machine-like execution against the Mountaineers.

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ACC Football Goat of the Week, Week 13: EJ Manuel, Florida State

After Accounting for Four Turnovers Against Rival Florida, EJ Manuel is the ACC’s Goat of the Week for Week 13

No one enjoys piling on when things go wrong. But nonetheless, we’ve got to call out the ACC players who were counter-productive in helping their teams grab a victory this weekend. On the bright side for them, they can always get off this list next week. And for their sake, let’s hope they do.

ACC Goat of the Week, Week 13: EJ Manuel, QB/Florida State

All of the praise about his improved accuracy and decision-making this season? Apparently gone for EJ Manuel after his disastrous performance against Florida this past weekend. Called on as the Noles’ senior leader in their biggest game of the season to-date, Manuel literally dropped the ball, accounting for four turnovers on the day in a disappointing loss. Worst of all, the team’s “hero” had no choice but to own up to his faults immediately following the game, taking all the blame for a disastrous showing. At times, Jimbo Fisher’s been the target of scorn for his play-calling (you can certainly direct some criticism here as well), but it really was Manuel that should take the brunt of it here. When one of the worst games of your career (54.5-percent passing, 182 yards, one score, four turnovers) also happens to be one of your last, it’s just hard to avoid.

Honorable Mention:

Chase Rettig, QB/Boston College (16/45 passing, 123 yards, 3 INT)

Duke Blue Devils defense (allowed 52 points, 646 yards of offense)

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets defense (allowed 42 points, 379 yards of offense in just 20 minutes of possession)

Michael Rocco, QB/Virginia (14/29 passing, 177 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT — game-deciding pick with 3:21 remaining)

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ACC Football 2012 Previews & Predictions: Week 12

DeAndre Hopkins and the Clemson Offense Are Hoping to Avoid a Letdown Versus NC State for the Second Straight Year

For this weekend to be deemed a success, the ACC must simply hope that its favorites pull out victories against in-conference underdogs, while two five-win squads tack on victories out-of-conference to get to bowl eligibility. Unfortunately, even the easiest request has become a tall order in the ACC, a league still mired in extreme parity, parading as mediocrity to outside spectators (or at least that’s my story). Let’s just hope for the best…

Game of the Week

NC State Wolfpack (6-4) (3-3) at Clemson Tigers (9-1) (6-1): Last year, I called this matchup a trap game, but for some reason felt that Clemson’s defense — facing a one-dimensional offense — would be the difference-maker. This time around, the game feels eerily similar. Underachieving Wolfpack squad versus a 9-1 Clemson team that hasn’t been tested in months, and thus, has plenty of room to grow on the defensive side of the ball. But for State, there just isn’t the same sense of urgency as last year — with the team clinching bowl eligibility last week, their backs are not pressed against the wall, nor are they all that inspired to play for their lame-duck coach, Tom O’Brien. I’m convinced this year’s Clemson team is better than the 2011 model, and because it’s a home game, it’s hard not to go with the talented Tigers and their potent offensive attack. Prediction: Clemson 41, NC State 30

The Rest of the Slate (in order of start time):

North Carolina Tar Heels (6-4) (3-3) at Virginia Cavaliers (4-6) (2-4): The South’s Oldest Rivalry is always a fun — if underrated — game and this year’s edition should be no different as both teams are surrounded by more questions than answers. Carolina’s offense showed it’s capable of putting up points in bunches when it rang up 50 last week. But its defense revealed itself as a porous, overrated group still struggling to get a handle on Larry Fedora’s 4-2-5 scheme while giving up 68 points. On offense, the Hoos are no world-beaters, but there’s hope the group has finally hit its stride, with the running game seemingly back on track and Michael Rocco firmly taking the reigns of the passing attack once more. Expect tonight’s matchup to be sloppy and mistake-ridden, with Carolina killing off UVa’s dreams of bowl eligibility by a slim margin. Prediction: UNC 27, Virginia 21

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ACC Football 2012 Power Rankings: Week 12

As Has Been the Case All Season, Florida State and Clemson Remain Atop the ACC Power Rankings

We’re just two weeks from the end, and yet very little has been decided in the ACC. The conference has just four bowl-eligible teams, nine squads possessing between four and six wins, and both divisions remain up in the air. While the Atlantic wraps up this weekend, the Coastal will go down to the final game to decide who gets pummeled to represent the division in the ACC Championship Game. On the bright side, the league is likely to have two teams make BCS bowls for the second straight season.

1. Florida State Seminoles (9-1) (6-1) (LW: 1): FSU’s effort last Thursday night nearly ruined everything for the ACC, but thankfully, that crisis was averted in pulling out a very messy 28-22 victory over Virginia Tech. Despite the fact that the ‘Noles are 9-1, there’s still plenty to criticize here — offensive play-calling, coverage on deep balls and overall decision-making, to name a few. As we addressed yesterday, this a team that got extremely lucky, and they must refocus if they hope to make it to the Orange Bowl. The Seminoles are the most talented team in the conference on both sides of the ball. Now it’s time they started playing like it.

2. Clemson Tigers (9-1) (6-1) (LW: 2): The Tigers look bored out there, and the country appears tired of their lopsided box scores as well — unthinkable in other conferences, but in the ACC, that’s the way it goes. So while they’ve won six straight games, all people focus on is the 26-34 overall record that competition has, instead of the 141 points Clemson outscored those teams by. On both sides of the ball, this is a team that continues to get better and better as the season continues. And even if they’ve only been tested once so far this season, they have a chance to wipe out that narrative completely in two weeks, when they take on South Carolina.

3. Duke Blue Devils (6-4) (3-3) (LW: 5): Duke was off last week, so in the Coastal division, that means you won. But, due to upsets around the division, the Blue Devils do control their own destiny now — a weighty responsibility that has seemingly ruined others before them. So which Duke team show up these last two games: The one that lost to Clemson and FSU by a combined 77 points, or the one that’s 6-2 against all of their other opponents? Like the rest of the Coastal, this team is an enigma, but they may also have the most senior leadership to guide them through this mess.

4. North Carolina Tar Heels (6-4) (3-3) (LW: 3): Every week it seems like the Heels fluctuate between terrific and terrible — there is no middle ground. This past Saturday, UNC somehow managed to inhabit both characterizations at the same time, though. While the defense was putrid in letting up 68 points and 588 yards of offense, their own offense scored 50 points themselves. Quarterback Bryn Renner threw for 350 yards and three scores, while Giovani Bernard tacked another two touchdowns onto his own rising total. But due to an inept defense, this team is far from complete. Allowing 136 points over the last three games is unacceptable, and there’s no solution in sight.

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ACC Football Player of the Week, Week 11: Michael Rocco, Virginia

Virginia QB Michael Rocco is the ACC Player of the Week for Week 11

Each week, we’ll be identifying the best ACC player from that weekend’s games. As always, it’s a completely arbitrary award with no specific criteria beyond the vague concept of “excellence.” No, we don’t take write-ins.

ACC Player of the Week, Week 11: Michael Rocco, QB/Virginia

Considering what a mess this year has been for UVa and Rocco, it’s kind of amazing we’ve arrived here. With the Hoos’ season hanging in the balance, the junior passer finally appeared to step up and own the starting role, leading his team to a thrilling 41-40 victory over Miami on Saturday. After throwing just 38 total passes over the past four weeks, Rocco went 29-of-37 in this one, for 300 yards and four touchdowns. The completions (29), completion percentage (78.4) and touchdown total (four) were all career highs, as were his 18 consecutive completions during the game, but the focus should truly be on the final drive of the game. Down 40-35 with about two-and-a-half minutes remaining, Rocco led a 16-play, 87-yard drive culminating in a Jake McGee touchdown grab with just six seconds left on the clock. Obviously both the team and its quarterback have plenty of work to do if they truly hope to salvage the 2012 season, but this weekend, they took a definitive step in the right direction.

Honorable Mention:

Alec Lemon, WR/Syracuse (9 catches, 176 yards, 2 TD)

Ryan Nassib, QB/Syracuse (15/23 passing, 246 yards, 3 TD)

Rashad Greene, WR/Florida State (6 catches, 125 yards, 2 TD)

Duke Johnson, RB/Miami (368 all-purpose yards, 1 TD, 1 TD pass)

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