Virginia made it to a bowl game for the first time since 2007 last year, and though the Cavaliers feature plenty of new pieces, replicating that feat again this season is the only way the 2012 campaign will be viewed as a success.
Coach Mike London has said as much this preseason, noting that for the program to continue to trend positive, Virginia must qualify for consecutive bowl games for the first time since 2004 and 2005.
With that in mind, here’s one beat writer’s view on the Cavaliers’ most important games this season – with an emphasis on how it could affect Virginia’s bowl eligibility.
Virginia vs. Penn State, Sep. 8
This is the year in which the Nittany Lions will be least affected by those crippling NCAA sanctions, and it’s easy to forget Penn State still returns most of the key players from a defense that finished 2011 ranked fifth in the country in scoring defense. Under new Coach Bill O’Brien, nobody is quite sure the Nittany Lions could look like, but an already average offense lost playmakers like running back Silas Redd and wide receiver Justin Brown to transfer over the past month.
Because it’s a home game for Virginia, this appears to be the make-or-break weekend on the Cavaliers’ schedule if they hope to qualify for a bowl, especially because road tests against Georgia Tech and TCU loom the following two weeks.
Virginia at Duke, Oct. 6
Virginia vs. Maryland, Oct. 13
Virginia vs. Wake Forest, Oct. 20
The Cavaliers will likely be the favorite every weekend during this three-game stretch against ACC cellar-dwellers in October, and that’s why it might be the most significant portion of Virginia’s schedule this year. Win all three – coupled with a victory over Penn State, as mentioned above – and a bowl is all but certain. The biggest challenges will be slowing down Duke’s Sean Renfree and Wake Forest’s Tanner Price — experienced quarterbacks who could thrive against the Cavaliers’ revamped secondary.
Virginia vs. North Carolina, Nov. 15
The first Thursday night game at Scott Stadium since 2006 will be a nationally televised showcase for the progress London has made at Virginia. For that reason alone, it’s important to win this one. But if not for a one-year postseason ban this year, North Carolina would be a dark horse candidate to win the ACC’s Coastal Division this year. Quarterback Bryn Renner, running back Gio Bernard and the rest of the Tar Heels will likely view this as a de facto bowl game since it comes during the second-to-last week of the regular season.
Virginia at Georgia Tech, Sep. 15
Virginia at TCU, Sep. 22
Virginia at North Carolina State, Nov. 3
Virginia at Virginia Tech, Nov. 24
On paper, these might be the Cavaliers’ four toughest opponents this season, and they’re all road games. Virginia will be the underdog in every one of them, and winning all four would be even more surprising than the November run the Cavaliers went on a year ago. TCU, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech should all challenge Virginia through the air with talented quarterbacks, and Georgia Tech’s flexbone offense is a bear to prepare for. But win one or two of these games – especially if the Cavaliers go into Blacksburg and end Virginia Tech’s eight-game winning streak in the battle for the Commonwealth Cup – and this season will be viewed as a success.
Virginia vs. Louisiana Tech, Sep. 29
Virginia vs. Miami, Nov. 10
Virginia should win both of these matchups, but they also have the feel of classic letdown games. Louisiana Tech may be in the WAC, but it won seven of its final eight games last year and is favored to win the conference for a second consecutive season. Bulldogs wide receiver Quinton Patton, the WAC preseason player of the year, could present all sorts of issues for Virginia’s defensive backs. Miami is not expected to return to national prominence in Coach Al Golden’s second season, but for the Cavaliers, this game comes just five days before their Thursday night affair with North Carolina.