As summer speeds through July, it’s the time of year when the major conferences get together for preseason football media events and the ACC Football Kickoff is no exception. The league held a two-day media session in Charlotte this week with Virginia and the Coastal Division schools meeting with reporters Thursday.
The Cavaliers made one thing clear during their session: they’re not shying away from expectations. Virginia went 8-5 last season with a Belk Bowl win against South Carolina to top off the season. With Bryce Perkins back at quarterback and Bryce Hall back at corner to anchor each side of the ball and plenty of experience around the field elsewhere, UVA has been a trendy pick in preseason polls and predictions this offseason. Some prognosticators even think that the Hoos could win the ACC’s Coastal Division. That would round out a string of years where each different team in the division won it in consecutive years: Duke (2013), Georgia Tech (2014), UNC (2015), Virginia Tech (2016), Miami (2017), and Pittsburgh (2018).
Such lofty predictions are fine with the Cavaliers.
“Yeah, I mean, we know what we have on our team. We definitely have the talent and we definitely have the mindset, too,” Perkins said. “It’s going to be a factor of how hard in late season, late games in the season, how competitive and ferocious we take the field in those games. That’s going to determine the factor. Not only that, but closing out games. We have to become a team of great finishing ability. Just keep that in the back of the mind.”
“We have as good a chance as anyone on our side of the division to win this league,” UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that. We have a returning quarterback. We have a strong defense. We have a culture of excellence. We have confidence. We have an expectation that that’s what we’re capable of. Now, doing that is the next part. So we’re optimistic, we’re excited, but also acknowledge the challenge. As you said, it hasn’t been done for a while for UVA. That would make it that much more gratifying if we are the team to be able to do that.”
The Hoos came close to breaking through that barrier last season, but the honor went to Pitt instead. UVA lost a head-to-head meeting with the Panthers that was a de facto division title game. That started a slide at the end of the regular season that saw the Cavaliers lose three out of four games.
That included back-to-back overtime losses on the road against the two Techs. Virginia fell 30-27 in Atlanta and less than a week later saw a heartbreaker slip away 34-31 in Blacksburg. The Hoos have put those two difficult losses behind them along with the success of 8 wins and the program’s first bowl victory since 2005.
The goal now is to learn from last season and try to improve on it.
“I think any time we’re in this league, we want to win a championship. So I don’t think you ever go into a season not aiming for that as your goal,” Hall said. “With that in mind, you know, I think there is understanding what we did last year, trying to learn from our mistakes, then kind of put that behind us. I think the more you kind of dwell on what you did in the past can make you complacent moving forward. With that in mind, we know what we’re capable of doing. Now we’re trying to be even better than we were a year ago.”
One thing the Cavaliers tried to carry forward from last season, however, was the mindset it adopted between the Virginia Tech loss and the season-ending shutout, 28-0, of South Carolina. Perkins said the team managed to turn the bitter taste of the rivalry loss into fuel for the game in Charlotte.
UVA’s quarterback said he has seen a similar tenacity in spring and summer workouts.
“I mean, I think the Virginia Tech loss was a great thing for our team … going into the South Carolina game because it kind of set the mindset about practice, how practice should be,” Perkins said. “Coming off a loss, the only thing that is going to make you feel better is the next week and a win. How we practiced for three weeks, three or so weeks leading up to that game, was still just mad, just mad, just ferocious. Looking after the South Carolina game, we have to make sure we know what it takes to perform at that level. Let’s not have it take a loss for us to get back to that level of competitiveness. We should start how we should. Definitely you can see if you come to our summer workouts we definitely have been training like that all summer.”
Of course, at this time of year, hope springs eternal and every team professes to have a laser focus on the season ahead. In that sense, embracing the expectations is normal. Like the Hoos said themselves, every team in a conference has the goal of winning its championship.
The Cavaliers, however, are also aware that meeting the challenges head on with mere words isn’t enough. They made ‘Beat Tech’ a rallying cry a year ago and then saw that game get away in painful fashion in overtime. In order to get to the top of the Coastal Division and snap the losing streak against Virginia Tech, it’s going to take performance on the field.
The Hoos are comfortable with that. It fits their whole ‘earned not given’ culture to prove it on the field.
“Certainly it’s the goal. Any time you’re part of a conference, the goal is to win the conference championship,” Mendenhall said. “That’s some of the value added of being in a conference, is to win the conference championship. Yes, it would be nice for us to clean up this nice little package of now us being the seventh team, the seventh different team to win the Coastal. It doesn’t always work like that. That will happen when we earn it, when we play well enough for that to happen. A year ago two overtime losses prevented that from happening. Those overtime losses weren’t accidental; we were outplayed and we didn’t execute in the critical moments. But we did apply those learnings, we worked relentlessly and shut out an SEC opponent that was another indication of our capability.”