The first year of the Bronco Mendenhall era at Virginiawas not fun. The Cavaliers went 2-10, 1-7 in the ACC, and closed their season with a 42-point loss to rival Virginia Tech. At that moment, it was hard to be optimistic.
But star linebacker Micah Kiser decided to return to Charlottesville. So did safety Quin Blanding, giving UVA a nice base on defense. Now, after a 4-1 start to the 2017 season, the hiring of a coach from BYUdoesn’t look as odd as it did a few months ago.
On Saturday, Virginia travels to Chapel Hill to play a battered and bruised North Carolina squad. In the South’s Oldest Rivalry, UNC holds a 63-54-4 edge.
Virginia at North Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 14 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Raycom Sports Network
Spread: Virginia -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Passing against Virginia's defense
Against Georgia Tech and Notre Dame, UNC quarterback Chazz Surratt completed just over half of his throws with only one touchdown and two interceptions. There have been many factors leading to Surratt’s decreased productivity, but the problems must get corrected quickly, because the Cavs come in with the 27th-ranked pass defense in the FBS. Virginia's secondary, led by two-time, first-team All-ACC selection safety Quin Blanding, is solid and gets plenty of support from a strong pass rush.
2. Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert
The senior from Cape Coral, Florida, got off to a good start in 2016 before fizzling out down the stretch. Benkert has opened this season on fire as well, and there are no signs of slippage this time around. Olamide Zaccheaus has grabbed 38 Benkert throws resulting in 348 yards, and Doni Dowling and Andre Levrone have big-play capabilities as well. Carolina will most likely have to defend the Virginia passing attack without senior safety Donnie Miles, who was injured in the Notre Dame game.
3. North Carolina's run defense
This has become a common theme in recent years: The Heels can’t stop the run. After giving up 341 yards on the ground to Notre Dame, UNC fell to 122nd in America in rush defense, giving up an average of 242 yards per game. Virginia running back Jordan Ellis is not a player who is a threat to score every time he touches the ball, as he is averaging 4.0 yards per carry and has a long run of 25 yards. But he is dependable and will grind out tough yards. Virginia likes to put the ball in the air with Benkert, but Ellis may have a bigger role this week.
North Carolina's injury situation gets worse at every turn. With starting safety Donnie MIles now doubtful to play, there are even bigger holes on the two-deep. The offense has stagnated due to a lack of playmakers along with an offensive line that has not done its share. Meanwhile, Virginia will enter Kenan Stadium feeling very confident. The Cavaliers need a bit more from the running game, but they can throw the ball and have a suffocating defense that will be a nightmare for a stumbling Carolina offense. At home in a rivalry game, UNC will put up a fight. Over the course of four quarters, however, Virginia will wear the Tar Heels down.
Prediction: Virginia 31, North Carolina 17
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.