Nations: All eyes turn to Wahoos

With apologies to the Hokies, the eyes of the state’s college football fans should be looking toward Charlottesville this weekend.

On Saturday at noon, Virginia will kick off its season with arguably the toughest opening opponent the Cavaliers have ever faced when UCLA comes calling at Scott Stadium. The Bruins, coming in as the No. 7 team in the country according to the Associated Press preseason college football poll, return much of an offense that absolutely skewered Virginia Tech in last year’s Sun Bowl for a 42-12 victory.

Led by a Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Brett Hundley, UCLA has the sort of firepower to rival the last Pac-12 team to visit Charlottesville when then-No. 2 Oregon demolished the Cavs 59-10 to completely erase the feel-good vibe of last season’s opening 19-16 win over BYU at Scott Stadium. Virginia came back two weeks later to shut out an overmatched VMI for a 49-0 victory, but nine straight losses followed to end another disappointing 2-10 season under coach Mike London.

The Cavaliers will certainly have their hands full in trying to contain Hundley, who passed for 3,01 yards and 24 touchdowns and ran for another 748 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Hundley is one of eight starters back from an offense that averaged 36.9 points per game last year.

So could Saturday’s game against UCLA be more of the same, with the carnage simply starting a week earlier? Could be, but I don’t think so.

Though not world beaters by any stretch last season, Virginia’s defense did seem to take a step in the right direction — at times, anyway — under first-year coordinator Jon Tenuta. Virginia returns nine starters from last season’s unit, and has more experienced depth right behind them.

Headlining the Cavaliers’ defense is All-America senior safety Anthony Harris, who led the nation with eight interceptions last season. Harris will likely play a pivotal role as Virginia looks to slow the Bruins’ dangerous passing attack with plenty of nickel coverage in the secondary.

The ‘Hoos had major problems with red-zone defense last season, ranking a dismal 11th in the nation in that category. At least minimizing some of those scoring chances is a must for Virginia’s veteran defense because that’s the side of the ball that the Cavaliers are banking on to play well for what is the opportunity of a program-elevating upset.

Comparatively, Virginia’s offense is simply too untested to expect much from on Saturday. True, senior running back Kevin Parks is back after rushing for 1,031 yards last season. But quarterback Greyson Lambert (33 of 75 passing last year for one touchdown and two interceptions) is still unproven, the offensive line still unsettled, and Virginia’s top receiving threat from last year, tight end Jake McGee, now suiting up for the Florida Gators.

Expect Parks to get his fill of carries, and hope that Lambert can mix in a few plays while staying in control as an effective game manager who minimizes mistakes.

There’s plenty of risk here for a poor result for Virginia, but the potential rewards are fantastic for a program in dire need of a signature win. This could be just the right time to catch UCLA, traveling cross-country and playing its own season opener.

Contrast that opportunity to Virginia Tech, which hosts in-state rival William and Mary on Saturday. The Tribe are no pushovers, to be certain, but it’s a game the Hokies expect — and are expected — to win in convincing fashion before they face their own early-season test with a Sept. 6 road trip to Columbus, Ohio, to take on mighty Ohio State.

William and Mary represents one final dress rehearsal that could indeed go horribly wrong, Appalachian State-fashion, before the real excitement begins for Hokies fans.

That excitement should already be at fever-pitch in Charlottesville, for the promise of a new start and the potential of a great day for Virginia football. A loss, even a lopsided one, won’t break the Cavs’ season on Saturday. A win, though, now that could make for something special for long-suffering Virginia fans.

Contact staff writer Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or