With quarterback Dan Ellis and six defensive players making their first college starts, there doesn't seem to be much of a secret about how the 23rd-ranked Virginia Cavaliers will attempt to defeat North Carolina today, when they open their season with an Atlantic Coast Conference game for the first time in five years.
They'll give the ball to senior running back Thomas Jones.
Jones, a first-team all-ACC selection last season, "is going to be our guy to go to," said Coach George Welsh, who was thinking about more than just today's game in Chapel Hill, N.C. "I think he is ready to do more than he did for us last year."
Many players for Washington area teams are going to have to be ready to do the same, beginning today, as 11th-ranked Virginia Tech and much-awaited redshirt freshman quarterback Michael Vick host James Madison in the Hokies' 1,000th game, 10th-ranked Georgia Tech visits Navy and Howard travels to face Division I-AA's 18th-ranked team, Jackson State.
Jones rushed for an ACC-leading 1,303 yards last season, including 180 against North Carolina. But that game was in Charlottesville, and things have not gone smoothly for the Cavaliers in Chapel Hill this decade. The home team has won every game in this series since Virginia's 24-10 victory in 1990.
Howard begins life with Bobby Townsend as their starting quarterback against a team they defeated, 34-8, last season.
"They'll remember that game," Howard Coach Steve Wilson said. "We know that they'll be ready for us."
Townsend, who succeeds Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference-record setter Ted White, has looked good in preseason practice camp, according to Wilson. And although the Bison would like to get big games from running backs Jermaine Hutchinson and David Johnson to reduce the pressure on Townsend, Wilson said they won't rely solely on the ground game. Last season, Howard rushed for 221 yards vs. Jackson State, but the Tigers recovered to go 7-1 in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
Navy may well be facing its toughest opponent of the season. The Yellow Jackets (10-2 last season) are coming off a Gator Bowl victory over Notre Dame and feature a Heisman Trophy hopeful, quarterback Joe Hamilton, who last year threw for over 2,100 yards and 17 touchdowns, also rushing for four more.
Georgia Tech Coach George O'Leary will be coaching from the press box while serving a one-game suspension handed down by the NCAA in April for making an improper loan to former Yellow Jackets running back C.J. Williams.
But that shouldn't be much of a distraction to Hamilton, whom Midshipmen Coach Charlie Weatherbie compared stylistically to former Navy standout Chris McCoy, although with a better arm. Hamilton also has the benefit of wide receiver Dez White (46 catches, 973 yards, 9 touchdowns) and 6-foot-8, 335-pound tackle Jon Carman (Waldorf).
"What a great opportunity we have to be in the national spotlight," Weatherbie said.
James Madison has a similar opportunity against Virginia Tech, which is enjoying its highest season-opening ranking ever. The Hokies return most of one of the nation's best defenses.
Staff writer Angie Watts and special correspondents Chris Nehls, Jeff Seidel and Rich Scherr contributed to this report.