To take a pulse on the state of Virginia’s football program, one only needed to consider the theme that dominated talk among its fan base this week.
There are few giving the Cavaliers much of a chance when they begin the 2014 college football season against No. 7 UCLA on Saturday. Instead, the biggest question on everyone’s mind is how many fans will be on hand at Scott Stadium to witness the action.
Virginia’s administrators figured such marquee games would at least attract big crowds, but even those who created the Cavaliers’ daunting nonconference schedule are conceding it won’t become reality this year.
Season ticket sales have lagged for months and athletic department officials acknowledged this week they expect a crowd in the “mid-40,000s” when the Bruins, a national championship contender, come to Charlottesville. If that holds true, it would be the first time since 1998 — before Scott Stadium’s 2000 expansion to today’s 61,500 capacity — that fewer than 50,000 fans attend the football team’s home opener.
“We understand our performance on the field needs to improve and our record over the last several seasons has turned some fans away,” Virginia Athletic Director Craig Littlepage told the athletic department’s Web site this week. “We’re thankful for the thousands of fans that have made their commitment to Virginia football. Everyone’s support is important to the success of the program, from recruiting to providing a home field advantage for our team.”
Despite last year’s 2-10 record, Virginia remains optimistic about its chances on the field Saturday. Though Mike London called UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley “as good as advertised,” his players aren’t shying away from the challenge.
Quarterback Greyson Lambert, making his first career start, even told reporters “we’ve been going up against guys on our defense every day in practice that are just as good or better” than the Bruins, who also feature linebacker-running back Myles Jack, the Pacific-12 freshman of the year in 2013.
“We get to see where we’re at at an earlier stage,” Lambert said. “If you open up with an FCS or something like that, then you’re getting your feet wet so to speak. We’re diving in from the get go and that’s what makes this schedule fun.”
Here are three more story lines to watch Saturday:
Hundley will begin his hunt for the 2014 Heisman Trophy coming off the best game of his career to end last season. The dual threat accounted for 387 total yards and four touchdowns in a Sun Bowl win over Virginia Tech last December. Cavaliers defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta loves to bring pressured, but Virginia’s defense can’t allow Hundley to get loose in the open field like Marcus Mariota did in Oregon’s 59-10 win at Scott Stadium last year.
Highly touted freshmen Quin Blanding and Andrew Brown, both five-star recruits, make their college debuts for Virginia. Blanding will be in the starting lineup at safety and Brown will be in the rotation at defensive tackle after battling through injuries the entire offseason. Running back Taquan Mizzell, another five-star prospect, is also back healthy again following a freshman campaign derailed by a high ankle sprain. The Cavaliers could use big plays from all three.
London enters a make-or-break season needing to show his bosses the Cavaliers have made progress following last year’s 2-10 campaign. Simply keeping it close with the Bruins, a trendy national title contender, would be a positive step for a program that desperately needs some positive news on the field. Last year, Virginia’s only win over an FBS foe came in its season opener against BYU.
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