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The Primer: Five questions you’re asking about Virginia Football this preseason

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Bryce Perkins is the most important player in the country.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

After an 8-5 season and with most of the team returning (seven starters on O, eight on D), expectations for the Virginia Cavaliers are high in Charlottesville for the first time in a while. We’ve already looked in on individual units over the past few weeks. Now we’re looking at the season as a whole and answering five BIG questions that will determine the success of the season.

1) Who is your most important player on offense this season?

Bryce Perkins

This is a no brainer. You could argue that Perkins is more important to Virginia’s success this year than any player in the nation. Yes, Clemson, Alabama and a few others have “better” QBs. But those teams are also loaded with top level talent, including four and five star QBs behind the starters. Backup QB Brennan Armstrong (himself a four-star) looked great last year in limited action, but the ceiling for this Virginia team drops significantly if Perkins misses extended time.

2) Who is your most important player on defense this season?

Charles Snowden

This one isn’t as cut and dry as the offense question. Virginia has loads of talent on defense—yes, including Bryce Hall, Eli Hanback and true freshman Jowon Briggs. Virginia’s defense last year ranked 20th nationally, but the pass rush was just ordinary. Chris Peace led the team with 7.5 sacks, but nobody else had more than 2.5.

The loss of two starters in the secondary (and another to injury) means a drop off in performance there is likely. The easiest way to mitigate that is to generate more of a pass rush. Snowden leads all returning Hoos in TFLs and sacks (tied with Jordan Mack) and is just beginning to scratch the surface of his ability. Virginia is going to need a big year from Snowden to stay in the top 20 nationally defensively.

3) What should be the biggest change between last year and this year?

Between this year and last year, there shouldn’t be much change. As mentioned, 15 starters return. One of the biggest issues for Virginia football over the past decade-plus has been a complete lack of continuity. Former head coach Al Groh seemingly had different coordinators year in and year out. Things didn’t get better under former head coach Mike London. Bronco Mendenhall has brought continuity, which is one of the biggest reasons the program has turned around.

A year ago, the offense changed dramatically, due to the switch at QB from Kurt Benkert to Bryce Perkins. The underlying offense didn’t actually change that much. Formations were largely the same. Protection schemes were the same. But the actual play calls changed.

That won’t be the case this year. The offense and defense are going to look very similar to last year. The changes will be more subtle, and not things that casual fans might notice.

With more depth on the DL, there will be more rotation there and fewer sets with only two (or even one) down linemen. With some inexperience in the secondary, there may be more Cover-2 style defensive calls and fewer blitzes.

The biggest change that fans will notice is the absence of both Jordan Ellis and Olamide Zaccheaus. That duo combined for 331 touches out of 857 plays. Of plays in which somebody other than Perkins touched the ball, that duo was involved in over 60%. This year is going to be a team-based approach at both RB and WR, with nobody seeing nearly that workload.

4) What is the most important game on this schedule, and why?

Pittsburgh Panthers

The season opener this year is a tough road game against a team that seems to have Virginia’s number. But Pitt seems to be looking at a down year after losing a ton of talent from last season. If Virginia wins the opener, it’ll excite the fanbase. An ACC Coastal crown would certainly be attainable. Even 10 wins becomes a realistic goal. But if Virginia falls in the opener, everything changes. Fan support (and attendance) will fall off. Winning the division becomes difficult and 10 wins becomes nearly impossible.

5) What is your prediction for W/L record and postseason destination?

9-3, Orange Bowl

The schedule works out well for Virginia, with five home games that the Hoos should win easily (W&M, ODU, Duke, Liberty and GT). UNC and Louisville are road games, but both teams should struggle and Virginia could be favored by double-digits in both. That leaves five games (@Pitt, FSU, @Notre Dame, @Miami, VT) and Virginia needs to win two to reach nine wins on the year. Splitting the home games and winning one of the three road games gets Virginia to nine wins on the season. Again, this shows how important that Pitt game is; by far the easiest of the three road games. A 6-2 ACC record wins the Coastal division. A loss to Clemson in the ACC Championship gets Virginia invited to the Orange Bowl.