PITTSBURGH – Virginia was picked to finish last in the Atlantic Coast Coastal division in each of the previous five seasons, but a surprising 2018 campaign, the development of quarterback Bryce Perkins and a stacked defense has the Cavaliers the favorite to win the division this season. However, a stern test right of the gate awaits in the opener Saturday when Virginia visits defending division champ Pittsburgh.
TV: 7:30 p.m. ACC Network. LINE: Virginia -2.5
"We've still got to go out there in our first game and play, and we've got to go every game after that and just keep playing," Perkins told the media. "(Preseason praise is) nice, but at the end of the day, if we don't compete and play how we have to, it doesn't matter what anybody else thinks, because expectations don't play on the field. We do." Perkins, who is on the preseason watch lists for the Maxwell and Davey O'Brien Award, was one of two players in the nation last season with at least 2,600 passing yards and 900 rushing yards, joining Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray of Oklahoma. If Pitt is to defend the title, it will need better play from quarterback Kenny Pickett, who averaged just 6.4 yards per attempt last season and threw for more than 200 yards only once. The Panthers have won four straight in the series, including a 23-13 decision in Virginia last season when Darrin Hall ran for 229 yards and had TD runs of 75 and 41 yards.
ABOUT VIRGINIA (2019: 8-5)
The offense averaged 28.5 points last season - most since 2004 - and 385 yards - most since 397 in 2012 - but must replace running back Jordan Ellis (1,026 yards, 10 touchdowns) and receiver Olamide Zaccheaus (93 receptions, 1,058 yards); junior PK Kier (82 yards) and Hasise Dubois (52 catches) are the top returning run and catch threats. Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall inherited a team that surrendered 32.2 points and 412 yards per game in 2015, but he has eight starters returning to a team that yielded just 20.1 points - 21st in FBS - and 331 yards per game. Charles Snowden, a 6-7 junior linebacker, had 7.5 tackles for loss, intercepted two passes and led FBS linebackers with nine pass breakups and 11 passes defended, while senior cornerback Bryce Hall, a second-team All-American last season, tied for the nation's lead with 24 passes defended.
ABOUT PITTSBURGH (2019: 7-7)
Pickett, who will take orders from new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple this season, completed 58.1 percent of his passes but his 180 completions were good for only 1,969 yards, and he was 4-of-16 for eight yards in the ACC Championship game against Clemson. "I've become a lot stronger mentally when it comes to handling adversity and knowing how to bounce back and rallying the team and getting behind our teammates," Pickett told reporters about what he learned. "I think my leadership has taken the next step in that way." The Panthers will have to replace 1,000-yard rushers Qadree Ollison and Hall, but explosive senior receiver-returner Maurice Ffrench (two rush TD, six TD receptions, two kick TD) returns for a team that averaged just 25.6 points and 370 yards and ranked 121st in FBS in passing yards.
1. This is the first time since the ACC went to two divisions in 2005 that the Cavaliers have been the media's preseason pick to win the division. Prior to divisions, Virginia was the media's choice to win the league title in 1990 - finishing tied for second.
2. Pitt junior DE Rashad Weaver (team-leading 6.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss in 2018), named preseason All-ACC by no fewer than three different publications, will miss the 2019 season due to a torn ACL.
3. The Cavaliers finish 12th in FBS in team passing efficiency defense (107.63), 16th in passing yards allowed per game (183) and 20th in total yards (330.5).
PREDICTION: Virginia 24, Pittsburgh 16