By now, most of you are probably jonesing for the start of college football season. Fret not — it’s the perfect time to start looking at each of UCLA’s upcoming opponents. Let’s start with the Virginia.
UCLA Bruins vs. Virginia Cavaliers
Saturday, Sept. 5 | Rose Bowl
12:30 p.m. PT, FOX
The skinny: Virginia is not known for a deep, proud football tradition. While the program has been closer to mediocre than truly bad over the last decade, this remains a team that has not won a bowl game since 2005, and one that has not won its conference since 1995.
Can Mike London, a perennial coaching hot-seater, finally notch his second winning season in Charlottesville? The 54-year-old has some very interesting bullet points on his resume, but his recent coaching career hasn’t offered him much to brag about.
London peaked early, debuting as Richmond’s head coach in 2008 by winning 13 games and the FCS Championship. He put the Spiders back in the quarterfinals the following year, after which Virginia poached him to replace Al Groh. He won four games, then broke through in 2011 with eight wins and an appearance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. He won ACC Coach of the Year, and earned a five-year extension.
The Cavaliers haven’t fared well since, slipping back to four, two, and five wins in the last three seasons. They will enter the 2015 campaign with their fourth opening day starting quarterback in as many seasons — one who could determine whether London stays or goes.
Players to watch: This section has to start with Matt Johns, whom UCLA fans will remember as the backup quarterback that briefly resuscitated Virginia in the 2014 season opener. After the Bruin defense scored three touchdowns, two of them on interception returns, Johns subbed in despite never having thrown a single collegiate pass. He quickly threw two touchdowns, cutting the game to single digits before finishing 13 of 22 for 154 yards.
It didn’t signal a major breakout. Johns split time with Grayson Lambert the rest of the way, never doing quite enough to clinch the job. By season’s end, he had completed just under 55 percent of his passes, with 1,109 yards and eight touchdowns to five interceptions. Lambert, a former team captain, completed 59 percent for 1,632 yards, but 10 touchdowns to 11 interceptions.
The upside for this offense is that Johns won’t be out in the cold. The offensive line has seven players who have combined for 68 career starts, so it should at least be an average unit if healthy. In Canaan Severin, Johns has a No. 1 option who is capable of doing things like this. And while Taquan Mizzell has been quiet through two seasons, but still brings five-star potential into his first season as the Wahoos’ lead back.
The outlook is also mixed on defense. Virginia lost defensive end Eli Harold — a third-round draft pick who had seven sacks in 2014 — and three starting linebackers who combined for 18 sacks, but returns some major pieces too. The biggest name is Quin Blanding, who last year became Virginia’s first true freshman to start a season opener at safety since 1976. The ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year is also joined by and senior cornerbacks Maurice Canady — who picked off three passes and broke up 12 more in 2014 — and Demetrious Nicholson, a former all-conference honorable mention who sat most of the last two seasons with turf toe.
Key numbers: Virginia has not averaged more than 3.84 yards per carry as a team since 2011, falling outside the national top-100 in that stat in each of the past three seasons. The Cavaliers had 43 runs of at least 10 yards in 2014. Only 10 teams had fewer. None of them ran the ball more than 390 times except Penn State, which matched the Wahoos’ 451 attempts.
Employing defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s aggressive scheme over the past two seasons, the team has notched 61 sacks and forced 26 fumbles.
On punt and kick return coverage, the Wahoos have mostly swung between average and awful in the last few years. While they were top-25 in limiting opposing kickoff returns (18.8 yards) in 2014, they ranked 89th in that stat in 2013 and 123rd in 2012. On opposing punt returns, they haven’t cracked the top 60 since 2008.
Opponent in GIF form:
UCLA’s 2015 season
Sept. 5 vs. Virginia — 12:30 p.m., FOX
Sept. 12 @ UNLV — 7:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network
Sept. 19 vs. BYU — 7:30 p.m., FOX Sports 1
Sept. 26 @ Arizona
Oct. 3 vs. Arizona State
Oct. 10 — BYE
Oct. 15 @ Stanford — 7:30 p.m., ESPN
Oct. 22 vs. Cal — 6 p.m., ESPN
Oct. 31 vs. Colorado
Nov. 7 @ Oregon State
Nov. 14 vs. Washington State
Nov. 21 @ Utah
Nov. 28 @ USC