With 25 victories and three bowl appearances in as many seasons, it’s safe to say that Al Groh has returned Virginia’s football program to respectability. The Cavaliers were even ranked for much of last season but ultimately fell in a disappointing overtime loss to Fresno State in the MPC Computers Bowl.
Some, including Groh, say Virginia had a successful year. But the question remains: Can Virginia finally win the big game, catapult itself back into the conference’s upper echelon and satisfy the appetite of its rabid alumni fan base?
The ACC’s new divisions certainly won’t make things any easier for the Cavaliers. Their placement in the Coastal division deals Groh’s squad annual battles against league powerhouses Miami and Virginia Tech.
The road to league supremacy will be further complicated this season by the departure of several key players from last season’s 8-4 team. Seven starters from the 2004 squad were drafted into the NFL—a school record. Those players included two All Americans in tight end Heath Miller and tackle Elton Brown, as well as leading rusher Alvin Pearman and leading pass-rusher Darryl Blackstock.
“That’s one of the realities of college football,” Groh told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Guys cycle in and they cycle out. And a lot of these very good players that we had that are [now in NFL camps] were relative unknowns when they started their careers at Virginia.”
The Cavaliers have plenty of young talent primed to step in for the departed standouts. Senior tailback Wali Lundy, who led the ACC in rushing touchdowns as a backup last season, will step into the full-time role this year and should excite the fans with his ability to break tackles and avoid defenders.
A crop of inexperienced but highly-touted wide receivers will step into the lineup and will receive many of the balls thrown Miller’s way last year. Quarterback Marques Hagans should be able to deliver the ball to the young wideouts, as he brings a full year of starting experience to the position. His emergence as one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the league should keep defenses on their toes and open up the rest of the offense.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Cavaliers will be led by a pair of top-tier linebackers in Ahmad Brooks and Kai Parham. Both potential All-Americans sat out spring practice but are healthy now and should thrive in Groh’s 3-4 scheme, which is rare in college football.
The talent on both sides of the ball could be enough for the Cavaliers to overcome the losses to the NFL. Virginia must work on forgetting the end of last season and ignoring the lofty expectations if it expects to succeed this year.
“I feel the same way about every season no matter how it ends,” Groh told the Cavalier Daily. “The next season coming up, I feel as a coach and I feel as a team that we’ve got to prove ourselves all over again.”
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