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Miami Hurricanes Football 2016 Opponent Preview: Virginia Cavaliers

As part of the dwindling off season, State of the U will preview each game on the Canes' schedule. During the season there will be much more in-depth previews the week before each game, but these will serve to get you ready for what is to come. 

NCAA Football: Virginia at Miami
Nov 7, 2015; Miami Hurricanes defensive back Rayshawn Jenkins tackles Virginia Cavaliers running back Olamide Zaccheaus during the second half at Sun Life Stadium.
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Virginia Cavaliers, despite dismal records these past few seasons, have been a thorn in the side of the Hurricanes. Miami leads the all-time series just 7-6 after exchanging wins and losses from 2012 to 2015. However, coaching changes have struck both the Hurricanes and Virginia Cavaliers this offseason, resulting in entirely new coaching staffs for the upcoming season, and making recent history seem much farther apart. As part of our way-too-early preview of the Miami Hurricanes 2016 football schedule, we'll examine Virginia’s hire of Bronco Mendenhall, preview the Cavaliers for 2016, and offer our thoughts on the matchup.

10/29 at Notre Dame Fighting Irish, 3:30 p.m. ET

11/5 vs. Pittsburgh Panthers, TBA

11/12 at Virginia Cavaliers, TBA

11/19 at N.C. State Wolfpack, TBA

11/26 (regular season finale) vs. Duke Blue Devils, TBA

See the full Miami Hurricanes 2016 football schedule here.

Last Meeting

The Miami Hurricanes narrowly outlasted the Virginia Cavaliers on homecoming night in 2015, winning 27-21 at Sun Life Stadium under interim Head Coach Larry Scott. Only two weeks removed from Al Golden’s firing, and one week removed from the death of Artie Burns’ mother and ‘the return against Duke’, the Hurricanes were still trying to collect themselves, but faced tough sledding against ACC opponents. This Virginia matchup was one of pride for the Canes – it was Miami’s first home game since the Clemson meltdown, and Artie Burns’ first game back after his mother’s passing and Brad Kaaya’s since suffering a concussion, on top of being another battle in the Coastal Division which then featured a close race to Charlotte.

Brad Kaaya came back firing, throwing for 286 yards and two touchdowns. Miami’s defense, while allowing costly completions in the passing game, setting up the Cavaliers for a near-comeback, played better against the run than in earlier games. The game ultimately came down to an onside kick attempt by Virginia with only 35 seconds remaining in the game. The Hurricanes coverage unit swarmed over the ball, and Miami moved into bowl eligibility with its sixth win on the year.

There’s a new sheriff in town

Gone are the days of Mike London at Virginia. Each year there was at least one other ACC coach that joined Al Golden on the hot-seat watch list, and that was Mike London. After the two traded wins for the past three years, now they’re both gone, and in their absence, they’ve been replaced with notable upgrades. The Hurricanes may have won the ACC’s coaching carousel with arguably the most established hire in Mark Richt, but the Cavaliers have upgraded as well, bringing in long time BYU Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall.

During his time at BYU, Mendenhall fielded great teams that were almost always competitive, and competitive above their talent level -- Mendenhall coached the Cougars to 10 or more wins in five of his 10 seasons as head coach. Mendenhall faced challenging conditions at BYU, playing as an independent and recruiting out of a smaller, specialized pool of recruits. At Virginia, Mendenhall loses some of the national spotlight that shines on BYU, but gains the perks of being an Atlantic Coast Conference member, the rich recruiting territory of Virginia and the East Coast, and a refreshed outlook after spending a decade with the Cougars.

Philosophy and Scheme

Under Bronco Mendenhall the Cavaliers look to implement new systems on offense and defense, and both are notably different for Virginia than in previous years.

On offense, Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae inherit a group with experience. Matt Johns returns as the presumed starting quarterback after leading the Cavaliers in 2015. In 2015, Johns passed for 2,810 yards and had a 61.3% completion rating. His knock, however, and it’s quite a big one, was his high ratio of touchdowns to interceptions, 20 touchdowns to 17 interceptions.

At running back, Virginia returns an experienced cast with its top four backs returning, each having over 30 carries last season. Leading the group is Taquan Mizzell, a versatile back who led the team in rush attempts, rush yards and receptions (among all receivers). Following Mizzell are backs Albert Reid and sophomore Olamide Zaccheaus, both of whom rushed for over 250 yards last season, and Zaccheaus showed promise as a receiving threat with 21 receptions for 216 yards as a freshman.

The backs’ receiving ability may be relied upon in 2016. The Cavaliers lost its two best receiving options to graduation this offseason, leaving its leading receivers as running backs Mizzell and Zacheaus, and tight end Evan Butts.

As far as schematic changes go, watch for the Cavaliers to play at a faster pace this upcoming season. Mendenhall and Anae have plenty to mold around with the experience of Johns and versatility of backs Taquan Mizzell and Olamide Zaccheaus. With a lack of proven receivers, Virginia may lean on its rushing attack. Matt Johns is a big body, but not an athletic runner. The read-option is something Mendenhall has used at BYU in the past, but look for Virginia to keep a simple, physical, fast-paced rushing attack in 2016.

On defense is where the most changes await the Cavaliers, and after being a weakness in 2015, changes are welcomed. Bronco Mendenhall has long favored an aggressive 3-4 defense at BYU and that looks to carry over to Virginia. With these changes may come a few growing pains, however.

For the Cavaliers to function properly as a 3-4 defense, they require a large defensive tackle to play nose, bulkier bodies at defensive end, quicker options at the outside linebacker positions, and a few other tweaks. The Cavaliers may not have the personnel just yet, but after a few years of recruiting they can fill any voids.

Heading into the 2016 football season, there are good pieces in place such as linebackers Zach Bradshaw and Micah Kiser filling the inside linebacker roles, and safeties Quin Blanding and Kelvin Rainey. The defensive line and outside linebacker positions, however, where size and speed will play a greater role, will be serious concerns heading into the fall, and may be a weakness for the Cavaliers in 2016.

Our Thoughts

With new coaches in tow, this looks to be an exciting Coastal Division matchup. While we believe that the Cavaliers will improve under Bronco Mendenhall, and will continue to improve in the coming years, we believe that the Hurricanes are further along in their rebuild, and carry a talent advantage over Virginia. The Hurricanes arrive in Charlottesville late in the season and with a possible ACC Championship Game appearance on the line. We expect the Hurricanes to bring home a win, but it’ll be a close one, just as in years past.