Dr. Strangepicks or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Trust UVA Football

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This week, ESPN asked its writers to each submit a “way too early” post-spring practice top 25. This is a tough task, of course, because while predicting outcomes is already a fool’s errand, it’s also impossible to tell what the premise actually is.

Should it be the top 25 teams on paper today? If so, that’s largely just a reflection of recruiting rankings and last year’s win totals, which doesn’t seem like much fun.

Should it be a guess at who’ll be ranked when the 2019 season ends? That’d have a big impact on a team like Texas A&M, which I think is pretty talented but has a brutal schedule that all but guarantees five losses.

Or perhaps it’s just a mix of teams that look good today with teams we think will be good later, shuffled up just enough to be interesting. That was my approach, which is how I got to this nugget:

No. 20 – Virginia Cavaliers.

Now you might rightfully note here that Virginia has not been ranked in the top 20 since 2007, hasn’t opened the season there since 2004 and hasn’t finished a season there since 1998. These would all be good and factual and probably smart things to consider.

But it’s April, which is no time for being reasonable. Let’s get weird.

So, why do I think Virginia is going to be good this year?

Well, start with this: The Hoos won 8 games last year. Eight. Did you realize that? I’m sure I did, but I’d forgotten because Virginia just doesn’t seem like the type of team that wins eight games in a season without some sort of seismic event occurring that forces you to take notice. But here we are.

What that also means is, Bronco Mendenhall’s approach is working. He’s gone from 2 wins to six to eight. That’s pretty damn impressive for a program that was a wasteland when he arrived. Virginia has more wins in its last two seasons than it had in its previous four combined. Those back-to-back bowl appearances mark the first time the school’s done that since 2005. Here’s a quick list of programs that don’t have 14 wins over the past two years: Florida State, Tennessee, Nebraska, Louisville, Mississippi, UCLA, Georgia Tech, and Texas Tech (whose coach is now an NFL head coach).

Then look at the 2019 schedule. The only huge red flag is the Sept. 28 trip to Notre Dame, but the rest looks manageable. Sure, there’s the annual black hole that is Virginia Tech, but that’s gotta end some time, right? (Right? Hello? Anyone?) And no, we’re not writing off Miami. That’ll be a tough game. But if the Hoos can win the opener at Pittsburgh, there’s a decent chance they’ll be 4-0 heading into that road trip to South Bend, and take just a cursory glance at the schedule and it’s not hard to envision an 8-3 team going into the regular-season finale against Virginia Tech.

But set aside all the guesswork and let’s look at some actual numbers.

Despite winning eight games last year, Virginia was just 1-4 on the road. You might expect most mediocre teams have blatant home/road splits, but this was actually unique. From 2013 through 2017, just 12 teams won zero or one road game but finished with seven or more total wins. Then last year – boom! – five teams did it. Odd.

Look at the list from 2013-17 though. Of those 12 teams, only three regressed in wins the following year. 2018 SMU went from seven to five wins, but that followed a coaching change and some huge departures of talent. 2014 LSU went from 10 wins to eight, but 10 wins is tough to repeat, so it’s not as if the bottom fell out. Plus, in the SEC, losses still count as wins, so there’s no point worrying about that. Then there’s the 2017 Tennessee Volunteers, who saw a five-win decrease in record, but that team was coming off a life championship, so there figured to be a hangover effect.

On the other hand, six of the 12 teams saw at least a two-win improvement the following year, with those tough seasons on the road portending big strides for programs like Penn State and Mississippi State. It makes sense, really. Winning on the road is hard and takes a little practice. Good teams will learn to do it eventually though.

Now let’s take a look at QB play. The mark of Virginia’s struggles for the past decade (and then some) has been at QB, where there’s been zero stability. From 2005 through 2016, 18 different QBs started a game, only Michael Rocco (2012) finished with a passer rating better than 130, and only once did the same QB start Week 1 in consecutive years.

But here’s an interesting comparison for you:

QB A: 66.7% completions, 158.4 passer rating, 8.01 yards/att, 17 TD, 4 TO

QB B: 63.6% completions, 153.5 passer rating, 8.16 yards/att, 19 TD, 3 TO

QB A, you may be surprised to learn, is Virginia’s Bryce Perkins, from Week 8 through the season’s end. And QB B is this year’s Heisman favorite, Trevor Lawrence, over that same span. And those numbers come in spite of the fact that Perkins had 68 fewer drop backs and was sacked eight more times.

Perkins returns this season with a year of experience under his belt, almost certainly a better O-line in front of him, and a schedule that features seven defenses ranked 93rd or worse in efficiency last year (and only Notre Dame and Miami ranked inside the top 30). Perkins could put up some huge numbers in 2019.

Then my favorite way to predict big movers before the season: Regression to the mean. This can be tricky and often used poorly (including by me) but here’s the basic premise: Are there key areas that are often luck driven in which a team looks like an outlier (in one direction or another)?

For UVA, there are some encouraging data here.

For one, Virginia was just 1-3 in games decided by a TD or less last season. That’s not so far outside of the norm to guarantee much progress, but imagine that luck flip-flopped and the Hoos went 3-1 instead. We’d be talking about a 10-3 season. That’d have your attention, right? Essentially, we’d be talking about Virginia the same way we’re talking about Syracuse — an obvious top-20 team.

Another stat worth checking out is Inside 40 production. Did a team perform well overall but struggle to cash in or keep teams out of the end zone? Abnormally high or low rates of success inside the opponent 40, in the red zone or in goal-line situations aren’t often repeatable.

So how’d Virginia do?

112th in goal-to-go TD rate (14% below FBS average)
115th in RZ TD rate (17% below FBS average)

When you’re 1-3 in close games and you don’t cash in on prime TD chances, that’s an obvious area of focus. But what’s even more confounding for Virginia is that typically teams with mobile QBs — as Perkins is — flourish in the red zone. Moreover, UVA led the nation in third/fourth-and-short rushing conversion rate, but for some reason, struggled badly when it came to cashing in at the goal line. It doesn’t add up — which is why you might preduct turn around in 2019.

Now look at personnel, where Virginia returns the bulk of a tremendous secondary, has three rising sophomores who got starting experience on the D-line, and will face seven offenses that ranked 80th or worse in efficiency last season. Meanwhile, did you realize that UVA’s defense ranked 17th nationally last season in S&P+ success rate? It did.

Again, all of this is a little number crunching and a lot of guesswork, and there are still big questions about replacing Juan Thornhill, finding receivers and a tailback to step up, and an offensive line that needed a lot of work. But the lackluster schedule, the obvious areas where improvement should come, and the fact that Bronco Mendenhall can flat out coach all leads me to believe Virginia should probably be the favorite for the ACC Coastal and has a good shot to finish with its best team in a long time.

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