I think this is obligatory or something for bloggers, so this is the post in which we look back at our Virginia football season preview and see how things have gone from there. In other words, is Virginia closer to the best or worst case that I presented back in August?
The fact that the season is half over for Virginia is both scary and sadly welcome. Losing to Duke has a way of making it eminently clear that you're not going bowling, and that the rest of the games are going to be a constant struggle. If Virginia can win the next two, I might find a way to convince myself that they can scratch and claw their way to six wins, but it's not going to be easy.
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The ever-so-rosy Virginia season previews are here for offense and here for defense, for reference's sake. Each position group will be rated a 1-10 scale for expectations and also for health. On the expectations scale, 3 is basically "the worst case came true" and 8 is basically "the best case came true"; ratings above or below that mean I wasn't imaginative enough.
The only reason "expectations" aren't a 3 is because the worst-case scenario involved Phillip Sims floundering around with limited knowledge of the playbook. If he keeps just tossing it deep when he could be getting easy first downs, it'll be the same thing and we'll downgrade at the end of the season.
Otherwise, this is what I wrote for the worst-case scenario: "Rocco falters against tough defenses brought to bear by Penn State, Georgia Tech, and TCU in September, and a full-on firestorm, complete with grenades and napalm, erupts on message boards, demanding Sims take over." Tell me that hasn't come perfectly true.
Health is downgraded a notch since Sims has been a little nicked up, and Rocco had to finish the Duke game. Likely enough it won't be a long term thing.
Everyone's been healthy except for Tim Smith, whose absence has been felt. But the expectations - woof. No one said anything about every single one of these guys getting the drops. We've seen tantalizing flashes, but when you have people suggesting it's possible the quarterbacks don't trust any of the WRs, it's bad. This group has got to figure something out, pronto.
Anyone who told you they saw Jake McGee coming is lying. Yes, he's gotten some really good reviews out of practice. No, not like that. And credit should be given to the blocking, which has mostly been excellent - McGee actually isn't much of a blocker, but Paul Freedman has been very, very good.
Missing Clifton Richardson hasn't been a good thing, but it's given Khalek Shepherd a chance to shine a little bit. In the preview, I flat-out said the only thing that could stop these guys is a bad offensive line, and what do you know? Bad offensive line. But when actually given their chances, the group hasn't let us down - mostly. I would've liked to see better running out of Perry Jones, who's been a little too dancey. But he's been his usual productive self in the passing game, second on the team with 22 catches. And I've really liked what I've seen out of Kevin Parks, who's been running with a purpose and a half.
The worst-case here was that the fullback role basically disappeared, and it hasn't. That said, yuck. Other than some part-time contributions from Zach Swanson, there is no passing game. The presence of a fullback hasn't helped the run game. I already mentioned Billy Skrobacz's brain fart against Duke, and that play hasn't really been unique. I don't think this position group is a major reason why the offense has been so sputtery, but there haven't been any contributions, either.
Yup, worst-case here. I should probably go even less, because Morgan Moses has shown us exactly why he's not protecting the blind side. Slow footwork has caused him to get beat far too often. The inside of the line has been just the problem we all feared. No need to go in depth here; we simply must get better play from the guards and center.
Losing Billy Schautz has probably hurt in ways we don't really see; that said, Ausar Walcott has done a good job in his absence, probably better than expected. Walcott brings a decent pass rush and has been a pleasant surprise in his all-around diagnosis of the game. Relative to expectations, I think you have to grade out the defensive line fairly well. Now, there's been hardly any pass rush, but we didn't expect much of one, and they have been getting there at times. Not in time to get any sacks, but at least they've banged up a few quarterbacks. Could they be better against the run? Absolutely. Is the lack of a consistent pass rush hurting the defense? Absolutely. But if we expected the team to go 7-5, the defensive line is generally holding up their end of the bargain.
I wish I could say the same for the Virginia linebackers. I put some hefty expectations on them in the preseason; I haven't seen it. Laroy Reynolds has been playing too - hmm, I don't want say emotionally, but he's been all over the place, and not in a good way. He's been prone to flying in one direction and getting to the wrong place quickly. Instinctively, but those kind of instincts in the animal kingdom will get you evolutionarily selected out of the gene pool, and you can even see that on the field, where, D.J. Hill opened some eyes while playing in relief of Reynolds while Reynolds healed up a hand injury.
Meanwhile, it really looks like Steve Greer has hit his ceiling. He continues to lead the team in tackles and is on pace for 110, which is excellent. But his limitations have been on display, too; he doesn't have the sideline-to-sideline ability you'd like to see in an elite MLB. Henry Coley has been decent, but not, like, amazing or anything.
This is why you gotta remember we're grading against expectations here, not on a raw scale. Has the secondary been just as good as the linebackers? Heeeellll no. We've been fortunate not to see the federal disaster zone that was well within the range of possibilities. Tre Nicholson has been a solid cover man, and Drequan Hoskey and Maurice Canady have had their moments, too. That said, they've also had a few issues. The truth is, sometimes they look darn good and sometimes they look crummy. They're freshmen and sophomores; we can deal with this.
The safeties have been worse. But that's to be expected too; cornerback can be more about raw skill than safety. Safety requires experience, period, and we don't have it. That said, it hasn't killed us. Much. The safeties have run the wrong way at times, and that is bad, yes. It's resulted in touchdowns, yes. But I think they've been good enough that you can say the future looks bright for them. Just, we have to get through the present first.
So - the rest of the season? Well, I've been calling it "over," but Virginia losing to Duke will do that to you. In truth there is a small sliver of sunshine left. But Virginia has to win the next two. It will be over otherwise. But suppose we do. Then you're looking at a 4-4 record and the need to win two of the next four. Which is really two of the next three since if we go into Blacksburg needing to win to get bowl-eligible, it ain't happening. Those three are at NC State and at home against Miami and UNC. All three of those teams are better than we are. But they also are either completely sucky or completely unbeatable; we'll need more data on them to really get any kind of idea how beatable they are. Let's just get through the next two weeks; it's the whole season.