The college football season moves way too quickly. Barely more than 48 hours from now, IU's 2009 season (well, hopefully "regular" season) will be half over. IU is half of the way to "conditional" bowl eligibility (the 6-6 kind) and four more wins would all but guarantee a postseason appearance. Here are the current Sagarin ratings of IU's seven remaining opponents, from worst to best, with the game location noted in parentheses:
91. Illinois (home)
85. Northwestern (road)
82. Purdue (home)
69. Virginia (road)
23. Wisconsin (home)
18. Penn State (road)
9. Iowa (road)
This list tells us several things. First, the obvious dividing line on this list is between #69 Virginia and #23 Wisconsin. None of IU's games are particularly easy, but Wisconsin, Penn State, and Iowa look substantially tougher than the other four. IU needs four wins to secure a bowl bid, and IU plays four teams ranked #69 or lower by Sagarin, but plays no other teams currently ranked outside the top 25. In other words, those four games represent IU's best chance for bowl eligibility. And that leads me to my second point, which is that of IU's four most winnable remaining games, three will be played in the next three weeks. IU travels to Virginia Saturday, hosts Illinois on October 17, and travels to Northwestern on Saturday.
So, what about these Virginia Cavaliers?
I provided a brief rundown of the program's history a couple of days ago, but what about this team? If all of IU's wins and all of Virginia's wins were ranked from most impressive to most expected, and all of the teams' losses were ranked from most expected to most unacceptable, Virginia would occupy both extremes. Virginia's win at North Carolina far exceeds the quality of any of IU's win. On the other hand, both of IU's losses, to Michigan and Ohio State, are quite defensible, which is better than can be said of UVa's loss to William & Mary. The Southern Miss loss, while not the end of the world, also is worse than any IU loss. Virginia's third loss was to undefeated and 10th-ranked TCU, but are the Frogs really better than Michigan? In any event, IU is largely unproven, while UVa's record provides conflicting evidence.
Here is Virginia's NCAA team report. Virginia's offense has been very anemic to date. The Cavaliers rank #117 in total offense (of 120 teams!), #110 in rushing offense, #99 in passing offense, #108 in pass efficiency, and #102 in scoring offense. On the defensive side, the Cavaliers rank #31 in total defense, #8 in pass defense, #71 in rushing defense, and #19 in pass efficiency defense. Virginia is averaging an unspeakable 2.4 yards per rush and a less-than-overwhelming 5.7 yards per pass attempt (IU's averages are 3.9 and 6.9, respectively). IU's rushing numbers are very similar to what Virginia gives up per game and per carry. As noted above, the truly excellent aspect of Virginia's team, statistically, is on pass defense, where UVa is limiting its opponents to 4.9 yards per pass play. The stat that should give IU the most hope: Virginia has given up more sacks per game (4.25) than any team in the country. IU, of course, ranks #17 nationally with 2.8 sacks per game.
Still, as I noted, Virginia's 16-3 win at North Carolina far surpasses any of IU's wins. The Cavaliers did it with defense, mostly. Here are the stats for that game. The Cavaliers gained only 254 yards and averaged only 3.6 yards per offensive play, but the defense stifled the Tar Heels. UNC managed only 9 first downs and 174 yards of total offense, and only 2.9 yards per play. It did not hurt that UVa won the turnover battle 3-0. On the other hand, Virginia's pass protection continued to suffer: UNC sacked quarterback Jameel Sewell four times.
Who are the Cavaliers' key players?
Jameel Sewell, quarterback. Sewell led Virginia's 2007 Gator Bowl team, but missed the 2008 season, apparently for disciplinary and/or academic reasons. Sewell was about a 57 percent passer entering the season, but is completing only 51 percent of his passes in 2009. While Sewell is a dual threat quarterback in that he runs a lot, his overall career rushing numbers are less than impressive. Sewell has 291 rushing attempts for his career but is averaging only 2 yards per carry. He has had his moments, including a 10-92 performance against Maryland in 2006 and a 12-64 performance against Pittsburgh last year, but Sewell is no Antwaan Randle El, to be sure. For his career, Sewell has been sacked 71 times in 28 games, including 7 times this season (including 8 times against TCU). This season, Sewell has run 70 times (more than twice as many carries as anyone else on the team) for 88 yards. If you take away the sacks, he is averaging about 4 yards per carry.
Mikell Simpson, running back. Simpson has carried the ball only 33 times but leads UVa with 164 rushing yards and averages 5 yards per carry. Simpson also has caught 12 passes for 82 yards.
Krid Burd, receiver. Burd leads Virginia with 14 receptions and 163 yards.
Tim Smith, receiver. Smith is a true freshman and has caught only 4 passes, but two of them have been four touchdowns and he has a total of 102 receiving yards.
Steve Greer, linebacker. Greer, a freshman, leads Virginia with 31 tackles and 3.5 tackles per loss.
Chris Cook, cornerback. Cook, a senior, leads the team with two interceptions.
This will be an interesting test for both teams. IU won at Kentucky in 1994, but since then, the 2004 upset of Oregon in Eugene is IU's only non-conference road win against a team from one of the six major conferences. The oddsmakers have installed Virginia as a 6.5 to 7 point favorite. On the other hand, IU's strengths, including the pass rush, protecting the quarterback, and IU's post-Eastern Kentucky rushing performance, play directly into Virginia's most glaring weaknesses. It may sound cliche, but both teams need this game and both coaches need this game. On paper, this is the most intriguing matchup of the season so far, and I don't think any outcome--not a Virginia blowout, an IU blowout, or anything in between--could surprise me.