Chris Graham: What do the metrics say about UVA football’s chances vs. UCLA?

uva-logo-new2Last week, I wrote a column suggesting that UVA football fans should set their expectations a bit higher than people following a team that went 2-10 a year ago and has gone 18-31 in the last four years probably should, based on a simple metric: adding up the points assigned to the team in the recruiting rankings vis-à-vis its rivals in the ACC.

Based on that metric, and another, a similar analysis of the points assigned to ACC teams by, Virginia should finished anywhere from fourth to sixth in the ACC in 2014, which should translate to seven to nine wins, a vast improvement, obviously, from that 2-10 disaster that was 2013, and several cuts above expectations for 2014, which have the ‘Hoos back in the cellar again.

A key game for a program looking to reverse its fortunes would be the season opener, with the goal being to get things off on the right foot. Unfortunately for Virginia fans, the 2014 opener won’t be easy, to say the least: UCLA, which went 10-3 in 2013, and capped its season with a 42-12 shellacking of UVA rival Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl.

The Bruins are a consensus pick to be a Top 10 team in the walkup to the 2014 season, with coach Jim Mora, 19-8 in two seasons in LA, having turned things around quickly. The turnaround has been evident on the field, see 10-3, but even more so in the recruiting metrics. The 2011 class at UCLA, the last class largely organized under his predecessor, Rick Neuheisel, was ranked seventh in the Pac-12 by Rivals and eighth in the conference by 247Sports, but since Mora took over has vaulted toward the top of the competitive West Coast conference, finishing in the top four in the Pac-12 in each of his three recruiting years, with the 2013 class ranked in the Top 10 nationally.

Which gets us back to our analysis of talent on the field in the opener in Scott Stadium on Aug. 30. How do the two teams stack up?

Well, UCLA has the advantage in aggregate points, with a near-1,200 point edge in overall talent using the Rivals rankings, and a 72-point edge using the 247Sports rankings. Doing some quick math, UCLA has roughly 55 percent of the talent on the field vs. UVA’s 45 points using the Rivals rankings, and a 52 percent-to-48 percent edge using the 247Sports rankings.

So give the edge to the Bruins, but how big an edge? Interesting question. I’m going to be testing out this new way of looking at college football over the course of the 2014 season, so I can’t say with any certainty, but it seems at the outset that a game with two teams within four to 10 percentage points of each other in terms of talent is probably a seven- to 13-point game on a neutral site when it gets played out on the field.

Factor in home-field advantage of three points for Virginia, and this one could get interesting for UVA fans. You’re talking about a one-play game at best, or just outside that range.

Then there has to be a factor for matching up the upperclassmen, the juniors and seniors, where the edge that UCLA has in overall talent withers away. That 2011 class put together largely by Neuheisel, which now forms the nucleus of Mora’s senior class, tracked well behind Virginia’s 2011 class in both the Rivals and 247Sports rankings. When looking, then, at the 2012 classes at both schools along with their 2011 classes, the upperclass half of the two rosters, presumably the better part of your two-deeps, rank about even.

Virginia fans have been looking at the UCLA game for months and thinking blowout loss, on the lines of the twin 59-10 losses to national powers Oregon and Clemson in 2013. But that was a far different Virginia team, younger, inexperienced, and without one more solid class (2014) factoring into the talent base. (For that matter, those were also far different Oregon and Clemson teams, both featuring deeper talent pools in general and deeper upperclass talent pools in particular.)

This 2014 season opener against a team thought by many to be a dark-horse national-title contender will be a different beast entirely. Based on talent, Virginia is in this one.

– Column by Chris Graham

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