Cavalier fans know by now that the Virginia football team was picked to win – yes win – the ACC Coastal Division this season. It’s the highest the Hoos have been selected by the league’s media in the preseason poll since the conference moved to divisions in 2005.
If the media is right, that would give the Coastal Division a new champion for the seventh straight year and make UVA a first-time division champion. Last week, this series looked at whether being the favorite was a good thing. You can read that here.
For this installment, forget favorites, though, what’s it take to win the Coastal? The “50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” series takes a closer look.
48 – What Will It Take?
Honestly, it seems like the conference media might even be rooting for UVA this season just to get that 7 for 7 champions storyline. It fits into the whole Coastal chaos, #GoACC (Twitter chatter) that fans and reporters have enjoyed the last few seasons. Whether that influenced the first-place votes, or not, is unknown.
What is known is that the eventual Coastal Division Champion will have likely have avoided the chaos that social media has loved to trumpet. During the last six years that produced six different champions, the winner has lost two games or fewer in conference play. The average is 6.5 ACC wins against 1.5 losses. Duke (2013), Georgia Tech (2014), Virginia Tech (2016), and Pittsburgh (2018) all finished 6-2. North Carolina finished an unbeaten 8-0 in 2015, while Miami won the division in 2017 at 7-1.
So in recent history, it’s going to take at least a 6-2 ACC record to win the division and make the conference title game against the Atlantic Division winner. In fact, that’s been true for most of the 14 years of Coastal Division competition in the ACC. In 8 of 14 years, the winner posted 7 or 8 victories. Only twice has the winner finished with worse than that 6-2 mark – VT and GT shared first place in 2008 and GT won it outright in 2012 with a 5-3 league record.
What that means for the Cavaliers is that they’ll need to be better – a lot better – than they have been in the conference standings. UVA has produced a winning conference record just twice since the ACC went to divisions. That includes the four bowl years since 2005. The 2007 team finished 6-2 in league play and the 2011 team went 5-3. UVA was 4-4 last season as part of its overall 8-5 mark.
In other words, Virginia’s best season in conference play the last 14 years might not be enough to win the division.
With that in mind, that puts a lot of focus and pressure on the season’s bookend games. The Cavaliers open at Pittsburgh on Saturday, August 31 and close in Charlottesville with the annual rivalry game against Virginia Tech on Friday, Nov. 29. As the ‘Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff’ series noted last summer, those two opponents have given the Hoos more trouble than anyone.
The Cavaliers beat Pitt in 2014, but that’s the only victory since the Panthers came to the ACC in 2013. That gives UVA a 1-5 record in the series. Last year’s 23-13 loss in Charlottesville was essentially a Coastal Division title match. The Wahoos have yet to beat current Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi, though last season’s game was much closer than the first two with Narduzzi and Bronco Mendenhall in charge of the programs. The Panthers cruised 45-31 in 2016 and 31-14 in 2017.
If Virginia comes out of the gates with a loss at Pitt, it won’t be a season-breaker but it will put a lot of added pressure on the next two league games. That’s the home game against Florida State on Sept. 14 and the road game at Miami on Oct. 11. A loss in either one of those to drop to two losses in the league could put Virginia out of the Coastal Division hunt before mid-October, particularly if the second loss is against the Hurricanes. They’re the media’s second-place choice so a two-loss tie (remember, that record or better has been the winner in 12 of 14 years) between the two teams would give the tiebreaker to the head-to-head winner.
Even if UVA lost to Pitt and then ran the table through late November, there’s still the frustrating 15-year losing streak to the Hokies to consider. Virginia has yet to beat Tech as ACC competitors. The skid appeared to be on the doorstep of ending last year in Blacksburg, but a late rally and an overtime fumble sealed the Hoos’ fate for another year. Another loss this season coupled with an opening loss in Pittsburgh could also push UVA out of the division picture if 6-2 is again the expected floor to be the winner, depending on how other teams fare along the way.
One thing looks likely, though. If Virginia loses in the opener at Pittsburgh, in the finale against Virginia Tech, and just one other time in league play, it won’t be the Coastal champion. Losing one of the two plus one other game also might be enough to take the title hopes away. That’s why the bookend games are so important to the title hunt this season.