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Virginia football surprised in 2018. Could the Hoos dominate in 2019?

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Schedule, recruiting both favor the Cavaliers as the Mendenhall era continues in Charlottesville

NCAA Football: Belk Bowl-South Carolina vs Virginia Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The Virginia Cavaliers finished the 2018 football season with one of the year’s biggest surprises: a 28-0 drubbing of the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Belk Bowl. That win—the surprising eighth for a team picked to finish at the bottom of the ACC Coastal—was quickly followed by news that projected first-round pick Bryce Hall would return for another year at cornerback.

A flurry of good news to end 2018 leads to one inescapable question for UVA fans: what will 2019 hold?

The Hoos return 15 of 22 starters total, including All-ACC performers in quarterback Bryce Perkins and wide receiver/return specialist Joe Reed. In addition, the recruiting class of 2019 is head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s best to date in Charlottesville, and includes his highest-rated recruit: four-star defensive tackle Jowon Briggs of Ohio.

The schedule for 2019 breaks in Virginia’s favor as well. Gone are cross-country trips to USC or Oregon during those programs’ heydays. And a season-opening tilt with (alleged) SEC power Georgia looms, but not until 2020.

Bill Connelly published his year-end S&P+ ratings for all 130 FBS teams after the end of bowl season. UVA ranks 37th, their highest year-end finish in almost a decade.

Using those year-end ratings and the Hoos’ known opponents, the 2019 season looks very promising for fans of the orange and blue. (You can adjust for home and away matchups by adding 2.5 to the home team’s S&P+; for UVA, that yields 9.5 as the home rating, and 4.5 on the road.)

2019 UVA football look-ahead

OPPONENT HOME/AWAY 2018 RECORD 2018 S&P+ 2019 MARGIN
OPPONENT HOME/AWAY 2018 RECORD 2018 S&P+ 2019 MARGIN
ODU Home 4-8 -9.2 18.7
Notre Dame Away 12-1 19.1 -14.6
Liberty Home 6-6 -16 25.5
Louisville Away 2-10 -12.9 17.4
Miami Away 7-6 10.4 -5.9
UNC Away 2-9 -4.5 9
Pitt Away 7-7 1.3 3.2
Duke Home 8-5 3.6 5.9
FSU Home 5-7 -1.5 11
Georgia Tech Home 7-6 -1.4 10.9
Virginia Tech Home 6-7 1.8 7.7

Omitting the game against FCS William & Mary, the 2018 year-end S&P+ ratings would project a 9-2 record against FBS opponents for UVA in 2019. Beating W&M would give the Hoos their second 10-win season in program history, exactly 30 years after the first in 1989.

Most of these results pass at least a first-glance eyeball test. Roughly three-score favorites at home against ODU and Liberty? Two-touchdown road dogs to Notre Dame, and a one-score road loss at Miami? Both seem about right.

But a one-season snapshot can only provide so much info. Florida State had a historically bad season in 2018; by definition, a historically bad season shouldn’t be expected to repeat, and Willie Taggart has shown a proven record of turning floundering programs around. There will also by at least six new head coaches on UVA’s schedule next year (depending on what happens with Brian Kelly being courted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers):

  • William & Mary - Mike London
  • Liberty - Hugh Freeze
  • Louisville - Scott Satterfield
  • Miami - Manny Diaz
  • UNC-Chapel Hill - Mack Brown
  • Georgia Tech - Geoff Collins

One way to gauge a program’s trajectory is to look at its recruiting over a period of years. By looking at three recruiting classes, you can get a sense of the overall talent level of a team—and whether that talent level is likely to increase or decrease.

So how have UVA’s 2019 opponents recruited the past several years, and which way is each one headed?

UVA 2019 opponents recruiting

OPPONENT 2015 Recruiting 2016 Recruiting 2017 Recruiting 2018 Recruiting 2015-17 3yr avg 2016-18 3yr avg
OPPONENT 2015 Recruiting 2016 Recruiting 2017 Recruiting 2018 Recruiting 2015-17 3yr avg 2016-18 3yr avg
ODU 115.65 106.63 99.41 108.27 107.23 104.77
Notre Dame 267.79 249.43 251.32 268.86 256.18 256.54
Liberty 38.13 35.65 40.17 80.33 37.98 52.05
Louisville 201.4 196.02 205.15 213.38 200.86 204.85
Miami 215.49 231.78 248.67 280.87 231.98 253.77
UNC 214.05 204.83 207.81 232.27 208.90 214.97
Pitt 183.18 209.23 202.12 193.19 198.18 201.51
Duke 175.77 204.67 184.46 176.85 188.30 188.66
FSU 287.06 294.83 292.88 265.42 291.59 284.38
Georgia Tech 185.45 167.13 184.4 185.49 178.99 179.01
Virginia Tech 212.07 190.06 217.74 226.01 206.62 211.27
VIRGINIA 179.72 164.95 172.5 178.6 172.39 172.02

The data here is the class score in the 247 Sports Composite. Generally, higher rated recruits mean more points; more points means a better class. (I prefer this method to assessing average stars or average ratings.) The three-year averages discount the impact of incoming freshmen, as their contributions are idiosyncratic at best.

To put this in the context of UVA: the 2015 class included Juan Thornhill and Olamide Zaccheaus, who will depart Charlottesville this offseason; the 2016 class was headlined by Reed, Hasise Dubois, and Jordan Mack (with Bryce Hall the lowest rated member). Phasing out 2015 for 2016 in a three-year rolling average arguably provides the most pessimistic outlook possible in Virginia’s case—it straddles the London-to-Mendenhall transition, with the accompanying rebuild, without phasing in the heralded 2019 class.

As for the opponents? There are a few big jumps or slides, but overall a picture of consistency.

  • Notre Dame’s 2018 class matched its 2015 fairly well, so the Irish should be right about as good next season.
  • Liberty’s jump to FBS brought an influx of talent that should bolster the Flames.
  • Mark Richt’s departure from Coral Gables came after a serious turnaround on the recruiting trail that could pay dividends for Miami.
  • Florida State’s drop-off would be one reason for concern in Tallahassee, but that 2018 class dipped upon Jimbo Fisher bolting for Texas A&M.

If one were to factor in the 2019 recruiting class—and take a rolling four-year snapshot of the approximate talent level in each program—Louisville looks in for a precipitous drop-off, and the Florida State slide comes into more stark relief. UVA’s average would jump up by about five points.

Plenty of unknowns loom between now and September 2019. The transfer market heats up in January and through spring ball. Injuries and all sorts of assorted eligibility weirdness are as much a part of college football as tailgating and disputed titles.

But—for once—there is reason for serious football optimism around Mr. Jefferson’s Grounds.