50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff: The Window Is Open

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Virginia won a bowl game last season.
Bronco Mendenhall has revived the Virginia football program – now can the Hoos sustain it?

The “50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” series worked its way through the preseason wait and wraps up the day before kickoff. Along the way, this series has spotlighted players like Tavares Kelly, Jowon Briggs, Dillon Reinkensmeyer, Hasise Dubois, and more. It visited trends from the first three years of the Bronco Mendenhall era too.

That all sets the stage for football games! The Cavaliers open the season at Pittsburgh on Saturday as the Coastal Division favorites. The 7:30 p.m. kickoff will be carried by the new ACC Network.

The “50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” series concludes with one final entry.

1 – The Window Is Open

Before it even began, the 2018 season took shape as a ‘roots’ year for the Virginia football program under Bronco Mendenhall. As this series noted last August, “varying degrees of success could plant deeper roots for the program and the resurrection project” and “stronger roots grow healthier plants and eventually bear more fruit.”

The 2018 season could not be looked at as a make or break year. After a 2-10 reset button year in Mendenhall’s debut season and a 6-7 bowl appearance finish in year two, the third year needed to show continued growth and progress. Doing that could establish a healthy foundation for future possibilities.

Well, that’s exactly what last year’s club did. The Hoos finished 7-5 after being in contention for the ACC’s Coastal Division title entering November. They followed up the regular season with a resounding 28-0 victory against South Carolina in the Belk Bowl. Along the way, as this series has noted throughout the preseason, the team took a lot of steps forward in things like points scored, big play defense, and more.

The program produced a winning record for the first time since 2011 and won its first bowl game since 2005. The Cavaliers made back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time since 2004 and 2005. They won a road game for the third straight year – remember, when Mendenhall took over, the Hoos were mired in a three-year road losing streak that reached 17 games. UVA finished 4-4 in the ACC to increase the conference win total for the third straight season; that was also the best mark in league play since 2011.

Simply put, the Wahoos firmly planted roots for the program’s future. Now comes the hard part: nurturing the plants to reap a sustained harvest and hopefully bountiful fruits.

Mendenhall has shepherded the program back to greener pastures and shown steady progress through three years. The on-field product has dramatically improved. The Hoos play clean and disciplined football. They’re organized and resilient. They’re competitive with the fight to stay in games. Player development certainly appears to be occurring across the roster.

Outside of games, roster management is setting up each position for yearly performance. Recruiting has improved. The support staff surrounding the program has multiplied. Long-range facilities planning is underway. The athletics department announced changes to enhance the game day experience at Scott Stadium as well. The goal there is clear: to entice more fan support and generate more revenue.

Everything, it seems, is being put into place to try to support that goal of sustainable success. That makes this a critical time for the program. The window is now open on long-term possibilities.

The first of those is reachable right away. The ACC media picked Virginia as its preseason favorite to win the Coastal Division. A glance around the division shows that isn’t a massive hill to climb, though it will be challenging. To win the division, Virginia likely will need to muster its best league finish since 2007 and possibly its best league record since divisions were formed. That’s because history shows that the eventual Coastal winner is usually 6-2 or better. Considering that UVA is the only team on this side of the ACC that’s never played in the conference title game, that would be a huge accomplishment.

With Bryce Perkins returning as a starter, Virginia has one of, if not the best, quarterback in the division. The Hoos have a strong and steadily improving defense led by NFL prospects. They’ve built enough depth and strength gains to hopefully boost special teams. That’s some stability that other Coastal teams simply don’t have.

Beyond the division title race, however, this looks like a critical year to sustain momentum. With the department cultivating possible donors for the master plan and trying to woo people back to Scott Stadium, this year’s team needs to show that the progress isn’t merely the new coach bump that many programs achieve. Al Groh took over a healthier situation and put together a nice five-year window to begin his tenure. Mike London took over a program in decline, but showed progress and got a bowl bid in his first three years too. This year’s team needs to show the George Welsh-led years are possible again where year to year consistency is an expectation, not just a hope. It looks like Mendenhall has the trend line pointing in that direction, but some fans still need to see the proof pudding.

Then there’s one other little matter to take care of. You know what that is. Virginia Tech has won 15 straight games in the in-state rivalry clash. Sustained success, mind you, is possible without removing that thorn in the side. Even winning the division might be. No matter how rosy the garden looks through this window of opportunity otherwise, however, that one glaring weed is enough to ruin the whole outlook.

Virginia fans need that streak to end. If it doesn’t, the window that this coaching staff and these players have worked so hard to pry open eventually could come crashing closed.

After all, the ultimate goal goes beyond consistent seasons. The Cavaliers want to get to double-digit wins for just the second time in their history. The program, like all others at UVA, wants to compete for ACC Championships and beyond. There are debates among fans about the reality of that with reigning National Champion Clemson looming over the conference and the general nature of college football at this level, but that’s the goal.

To do that, program support will need to return at full throttle. That goes from the atmosphere at Scott Stadium to master plan donations and beyond. Fair or not, it may not be possible to get things to that level without first taking care of the rivalry slump.

The window is open. 2019 is a year of opportunity.

50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff
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