Contender or pretender: Virginia

If you’re just joining us, this series is categorizing the unranked teams in the ACC as either contenders or pretenders heading into the 2013 season. We’re leaving out Florida State and Clemson because they are the only two teams from the ACC expected to be ranked this preseason. Those rankings automatically qualify them as contenders. The Hoos are up next.

Why they're contenders: Virginia returns a majority of its starters on offense and defense, so the Hoos should be a much more experienced team heading into the season. Though Perry Jones is gone from the running backs, a deep and talented group remains with Kevin Parks, Khalek Shepherd and Clifton Richardson having all played significant minutes in games. Then there is the much-anticipated arrival of five-star running back Taquan Mizzell. The receivers should be better, too, with the top five players from a year ago all returning. Yes, there are questions at quarterback, but there is some major talent on this team. A new coordinator in Steve Fairchild should help them put up more than 396 yards of total offense per game. Defensively, the secondary should turn into an area of strength with four returners. The defensive line has an opportunity to build on some of the progress it made toward the end of last season with Jake Snyder back at one end and Eli Harold set to start on the other side after a promising freshman season.

Why they're pretenders: OK, so I downplayed the quarterback questions in the first category. The Hoos have to pick one starter and go with him instead of playing musical quarterbacks if they want to try to find any semblance of consistency at this position. Easier said than done for sure. David Watford, Phillip Sims and Greyson Lambert are all competing for the starting job. Quarterback questions aside, this offense is not going to function the way it wants without a solid running game. The offensive line was not an area of strength last year. With Jones and Oday Aboushi gone, can the Hoos get back to the production they had on the ground in 2011? Defensively, losing Steve Greer in the middle is a huge blow, considering how sure of a tackler he was for this team throughout the course of his career. The pre-spring depth chart has strongside linebacker Henry Coley moving back to the middle. At least the Hoos will have an experienced player there. But linebacker is definitely a question mark heading into the season. Depth at defensive tackle also is an issue, particularly after the loss of Chris Brathwaite, who is no longer on the team.

Final verdict: I expect the Hoos to be much improved this year, but they remain a pretender. First, there are too many unknowns at quarterback. Second, the schedule is difficult. And third, there has been an overhaul to the entire coaching staff. How will this impact the offense and defense?

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