The University of Virginia football program will compete for the ACC Championship. Following a 2-10 2016 campaign that included an embarrassing loss to Richmond in Scott Stadium, not many Cavalier fans would have believed this to be true in such a short time. But here we are, one day away from watching the Hoos take on the Clemson Tigers in the 2019 ACC Championship.
Since going 2-10 in Bronco Mendenhall’s first season as UVA head coach, the Cavaliers have gotten tangibly better each season. The Hoos went 6-7 in 2017, earning a bowl berth for the first time since 2011. Virginia finished the 2018 regular season with a winning record (7-5) before thumping South Carolina in the 2018 Belk Bowl, recording an 8-win campaign for the first time since 2011 and capturing a bowl victory for the first time since 2005.
UVA entered the 2019 season with star quarterback Bryce Perkins returning as well as high expectations as the Cavaliers were the preseason media pick to win the ACC Coastal Division. UVA met those expectations despite losing All-American cornerback Bryce Hall and starting safety Brenton Nelson for the season (Hall during week six versus Miami and Nelson after week eight versus Louisville), finishing the regular season with four straight November wins to capture the division title for the first time in school history. The 2019 Cavaliers defeated Virginia Tech for the first time since 2003 and take a 9-3 record into Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte on Saturday (December 7).
There has been plenty of good news for Cavalier fans to celebrate the past two seasons. UVA appears headed in the right direction under Mendenhall, whose goal is to have this program competing for championships on a yearly basis. But this is the first ACC Championship ever for Virginia, which is an almost 30-point underdog to a Clemson program that has become a perennial national title contender under head coach Dabo Swinney.
“If you look at the program they have established over time, the job Coach Swinney has done, as well as their record, I think we’ll just be the next team that will be lumped in the same category as everyone else,” said Mendenhall, referring to UVA’s large underdog status. “The difference simply is that we’ve battled, scrapped and clawed our way to win our side of the division in a program that hasn’t known recent success and is hungry for more. The rest of it will be played out in the game.”
In its first bowl game since 2011, Virginia lost big to Navy in the 2017 Military Bowl. A year later, the Hoos dominated South Carolina, 28-0, to capture the 2018 Belk Bowl. Last season, Virginia entered the month of November in control of its own destiny in the Coastal Division. The Hoos went 0-3 in their final three ACC games, and Pitt would ultimately end up in Charlotte. UVA conquered similar circumstances in 2019, going 4-0 in November.
The Cavaliers have clearly grown; however, Saturday will be UVA’s first opportunity to compete against a national title-caliber team for a conference title. Virginia has faced pressure situations against good teams this season, pulling out close games on the road at Pitt and UNC and against Virginia Tech at home. Clemson, though, is used to the pressure of playing for a national championship. The Tigers captured the championship last season by blowing out Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff semifinal and Alabama in the title game. Beating Virginia on Saturday is essential to the Tigers’ chances of having the opportunity to compete in this year’s College Football Playoff. Clemson (12-0) is third in the latest College Football Playoff standings behind Ohio State and LSU and ahead of Georgia. Meanwhile, UVA is 23rd.
Clemson is led on offense by 6’6” sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who has thrown 16 touchdowns and zero interceptions while completing 76% of his passes the past five games, and ACC Player of the Year Travis Etienne, a complete running back with big-time speed who has rushed for 1,386 yards and 16 touchdowns. Running behind an offensive line that features five 2019 All-ACC players (two first-teamers, two second-teamers, one third-team pick), Etienne has averaged 8.3 yards per carry. He has 289 yards receiving and two scores as well. Lawrence’s top target in the passing game is All-ACC first-team receiver Tee Higgins, who has amassed 900 yards and 10 touchdowns while averaging 20.9 yards per catch.
“I think it’s just not try to do too much, understanding that the defense has to work as a whole,” Virginia outside linebacker Charles Snowden said, discussing how the Cavalier defense can contain a balanced Clemson offense ranked no. 3 in the nation in total offense (541.8 YPG) and no. 4 in the nation in scoring offense (45.3 PPG). “One thing we talk about is doing your 1/11th. I think it’s just doing my 1/11th, but doing it at a higher level than I did all year. I don’t think I need to go out there and try to create a play every play out there. It’s just understanding my job, doing it to the best of my ability, trusting the guys around me that they’ll do theirs, see what happens.”
As good as the Clemson offense is, the defense may be better. The Tigers have allowed double digit points in eight of 12 games. Of those eight, only UNC has scored more than 14 points as the Tar Heels had the Tigers on the ropes in a 21-20 loss in Chapel Hill. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ unit is ranked no. 1 in the nation in scoring defense (10.1 PPG allowed), no. 1 in pass efficiency defense, and no. 1 in first downs allowed (138 all season). Clemson, which boasts eight 2019 All-ACC selections on defense (first through third teams), is no. 2 in the nation in total defense (232.8 YPG) and no. 6 in the nation in turnovers gained (25). Linebacker Isaiah Simmons is the heart and soul as he leads the team in tackles with 84, solo tackles with 53 (second best on the team here is Virginia native Chad Smith with 31), and six sacks. The secondary, led by All-ACC first-team selections Tanner Muse (safety) and A.J. Terrell (cornerback), is outstanding and a terrific compliment to a front that averages 2.92 sacks per game.
“They’re great at causing havoc, getting pressure,” UVA senior quarterback and captain Bryce Perkins said. “One way or another, they’ll blitz this side and then they’ll blitz this side. It’s always making teams uncomfortable, making quarterbacks uncomfortable in the backfield, turnovers like that. They do a great job of causing havoc. We’re going to have to come in prepared and ready for it. This week is going to be definitely important as far as game planning and film watching to make sure we’re in the best situation to handle different and various types of pressures that they bring.”
Fueled by Perkins and his dual-threat capabilities as well as an improving line, UVA’s offense came through in a major way the final month of the regular season. Virginia’s offense averaged 39.75 points per game in November. The Hoos are a perfect 21-21 in red zone scoring opportunities in that span, scoring 15 touchdowns and six field goals. The defense has been opportunistic instead of the dominant unit it was early in the season, helping the Hoos achieve two major goals with the win over Virginia Tech last Friday.
Win or lose, Mendenhall and his players are excited for the opportunity on Saturday. Because win or lose, this is another significant step forward in a growing program.
“I see an amazing opportunity,” Mendenhall said. “The brutal fact acknowledgment, everyone else will draw that, come to their own conclusions that way. I see an amazing chance for my team, my coaches and my staff to try as hard as we can try to learn, grow, development and compete. That’s what we intend to do.”
1. Keep It Close
Clemson hasn’t had to make pressure-packed plays in the fourth quarter since the North Carolina game on September 28. The Heels led by seven points twice in the game before Clemson went ahead, 21-14, with over nine minutes remaining in the fourth. UNC scored a touchdown with over a minute remaining but missed the 2-point conversion to lose the game by one. In order to beat the Tigers the Hoos will need to stay within two scores and make a move in the second half. Make Clemson play pressure football late. Additionally, if there is a weakness on this Clemson team it is at placekicker, as BT Potter has missed three of his last seven field goals and is 10-of-17 on the year. I’ll take Brian Delaney if this game comes down to a field goal.
2. Stay Resilient
Resiliency has been one of the hallmarks of this Virginia team, which has fought through major losses in the secondary, the lack of a running game to complement Bryce Perkins, and offensive line struggles to achieve two major season goals. UVA will need to stay poised and stay resilient against a high-powered Clemson team. The Hoos can’t buckle if they get down by more than one or two scores. Keep fighting, and hopefully good things will happen if UVA is within striking distance late.
3. Create Havoc
Virginia forced two turnovers in the final five minutes against Virginia Tech, resulting in nine points and a 39-30 win. Overall, the Hoos forced three turnovers and had six sacks against Tech. Four of those sacks and one turnover – Mandy Alonso’s forced fumble that Eli Hanback recovered for a touchdown to seal the win – came in the final 1:23.
Virginia’s defense has had its ups and downs the latter half of the season. They’ll need to play like they did in the final quarter against Virginia Tech – getting sacks and forcing turnovers – for Virginia to have a chance tomorrow. The Cavaliers will probably need multiple turnovers and capitalize on those opportunities with touchdowns.
Sabre Editor Kris Wright
For the first time ever, the Virginia football team is playing in the ACC Championship Game. Good news Hoos! The bad news? Clemson is the opponent waiting for the showdown in Charlotte. The Tigers are undefeated, the reigning National Champion, and have outscored their last seven opponents 353 to 61. So, yeah.
If UVA is going to pull off a massive upset per the oddsmakers, a few things are going to have to happen. 1. Bryce Perkins is going to have to play well on the big stage again. 2. The Hoos are going to have to steal some possessions, both to lower Clemson’s potential point total and to potentially keep up on the scoreboard. That could mean +2 in the turnover category or some sort of onsides kick or fake packages on special teams. We’ve heard Coach Mendenhall mention the need for an extra possession during certain matchups earlier in his tenure and this one fits that mold. 3. There will have to be some bend don’t break moments on defense. The Tigers are explosive and can put points on the board in a hurry and we’ve seen UVA’s defense give up some big plays against Louisville, UNC, VT, and so on since the injury bug hit. The Hoos will need to limit some of that. 4. Finally, Virginia will need to show some tendency busters on offense. I don’t think the Cavaliers can just line up, run their bread-and-butter looks snap after snap and expect to have consistent offensive success. They’ll need to mix it up to try to get Clemson off balance.
Do all of that and the Hoos might end up in the conversation for an upset. And then, they’ll have to win a close game in the big moment against a team looking for its third National Championship in four years and a team that won’t blink in that scenario. That’s a lot to ask frankly and I don’t see the depth or the experience needed to pull it off. UVA hangs around for a little bit, but won’t have enough for the title. CLEMSON 52, VIRGINIA 24. Season to date: 9-3.
Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne
Virginia football has enjoyed a wonderful ride in November, checking off two major goals in the process – winning the Commonwealth Cup and capturing the Coastal Division title for the first time ever. Clemson is a different animal than any other team the Hoos have faced this season, though. The Tigers are simply dominant on both sides of the ball and appear to be peaking at the right time of the season. In all likelihood Virginia won’t be able to overcome the Tigers vaunted offense and suffocating defense, but the experience, much like the 2017 Military Bowl and last season’s Coastal Division race in November, will prove beneficial for the Hoos’ rising program. CLEMSON 49, VIRGINIA 24. Season to date: 8-4.