Fauber: Virginia faces tough road

The University of Virginia football team is entering its bye week this weekend, so now is as good a time as any to check out just where the Cavaliers stand heading into the second half of the season.

There’s no doubt U.Va. has been one of the early surprises in the Atlantic Coast Conference so far in 2014. Yes, it’s still very early in the college football season, and there are still plenty of conference games left to be played between now and Thanksgiving. But I’m guessing not many would’ve ventured to guess that U.Va. would be leading the Coastal Division heading into its bye. That’s exactly what the Cavaliers are doing.

U.Va. is 2-0 in the conference for the first time since 2009 after dispatching of a ranked Louisville team on Sept. 13 and Pittsburgh last week, putting the Cavaliers in an early tie atop the Coastal standings with Georgia Tech. Again, there’s still a lot of football to be played, but U.Va. has put itself in a position to be right in the thick of what should be a wide open race for the divisional crown.

Winning that Coastal Division title should be a realistic goal for the Cavaliers this season. Why not? U.Va. is 4-2 this season, both losses coming in respectable fashion to ranked opponents in UCLA and BYU (which has lost two straight since beating the ‘Hoos, for what it’s worth). I believe there are such things as good losses, particularly for rebuilding teams such as U.Va., and those were two good losses that showed the Cavaliers are capable of playing with some of the better competition in the NCAA.

If the Cavaliers are going to make a run at that elusive division title, however, they will have to navigate a difficult second half loaded with challenging road trips.

In an odd bit of scheduling, U.Va. was granted five home games in their first six contests, the lone road game being the trip to Provo, Utah, to take on BYU on Sept. 20. As a result, the Cavaliers will play four of their final six games — all of which are conference games — away from Charlottesville, and each one of those games are sure to present a daunting task.

That challenge starts next weekend when the Cavaliers travel to Duke to face a Blue Devils team that is currently 4-1. U.Va. then returns home the following week to take on a struggling North Carolina squad before back-to-back road trips to No. 22 Georgia Tech (5-0) and No. 1 Florida State (5-0). The Cavaliers finish up the regular season with a home game against Miami (3-3) before traveling to Blacksburg to take on rival Virginia Tech (4-2).

Simple enough, right?

The bright side is that U.Va. has already played three ranked opponents this season, so perhaps there’s some cause for wishful thinking that those experiences can translate into some success in hostile environments against tough ACC competition.

I do think U.Va.’s defense is good enough to keep them in most football games, and that unit has been a major reason for the Cavaliers’ success this season. The numbers aren’t jaw-dropping — the Wahoos are a middle-of-the-pack defense in terms of statistics — but they’ve been opportunistic. U.Va. has 19 takeaways this season, which have led directly to 72 points (for comparison’s sake, the Cavaliers forced 21 turnovers last season, which led to just 13 points).

U.Va.’s offense will have to improve if the Cavaliers hope to have any shot at reaching the ACC Championship game, especially with the defense having the tough task of slowing down the offenses of Florida State, Georgia Tech and several others in the second half of the season.

The running game has shown improvement over the last several games on the legs of running back Kevin Parks, who has carried 104 times for 427 yards and three touchdowns.

Still, the Cavaliers rank 79th in the country in total offense (397.7 yards per game), and the fact that U.Va. is still unsettled at quarterback is a cause for concern. Neither Greyson Lambert nor Matt Johns have been bad for U.Va. this season, but they also haven’t been very good. We’ve all seen how similar situations worked out for U.Va. in the past, so the ideal situation would be for one of those quarterbacks to take hold of that starting job and keep it.

Ultimately, however, the Cavaliers’ success down the stretch could rest on the shoulders of head coach Mike London and his staff. London has cooled off some of the heat surrounding his future with the program with the Cavaliers’ strong start, and it will be interesting to see if the coaching staff can maintain that level of success as the schedule gets tougher in the second half.

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or bfauber@nvdaily.com