Since arriving at Virginia, Bronco Mendenhall often has been careful with his words. He intentionally chooses language to show a program rebuild in progress, not one that is complete. The UVA football team is building and developing, not fully built and developed. The message there is clear. There is work to be done.
With that said, the Cavaliers have worked themselves back into the national rankings for the second straight season and they’ve set the stage for a significant opportunity this weekend. The Saturday night game with Florida State, in fact, might be one of the most important games of the Mendenhall era to date. Maybe not for the reason you think, though. Yes, it’s a home game where a win would help keep UVA’s Coastal Division title hopes on schedule, but this feels like an important game for big picture reasons beyond that.
To borrow from Mendenhall’s work in progress language, Virginia fans are renewing their faith in the program. It is not yet renewed.
Don’t mistake faith for support in this case. Cavalier fans have shown growing support for the program as the wins have started to increase. Four out of the last six home games last season drew more than 40,000 in attendance. Four of the last five games at Scott Stadium, starting with Miami a year ago, have edged above 41,000 in fact. Each game in the sequence has been a bigger crowd than the one before with the exception of the Liberty game in November. Miami saw 42,393 in attendance followed two weeks later by 43,128 for UNC. A rainy night for Pitt came next, the only game in the last six below 40K, and that led into 41,485 for Liberty and the 2018 season finale.
Fast forward to last weekend where attendance was announced at 45,250 for William & Mary. That included a student turnout of 10,027, the highest figure at Scott Stadium in 11 years. It also represented the second highest attendance number since Mendenhall’s debut. The Cavaliers drew 49,270 in his first game against Richmond and 48,609 for the Virginia Tech game in 2017.
That brings us to the doorstep of this Saturday night’s game with Florida State. Limited tickets remain per Virginia. The school is pushing to try to set a student attendance record of 12,000 with bonus points in the student ticketing system and t-shirts. The Hoos likely will be entering Scott Stadium with more than 50,000 fans watching for the first time since 2015 when 53,777 were at the VT finale and 58,200 were in the house for Notre Dame in a near upset. There’s at least the possibility that the Cavaliers could flirt with a crowd of 60,000 or more for the first time since the 2008 opener against Southern California when 64,947 was the listed attendance.
“I have a picture right outside of my office that shows Scott Stadium completely full. I’m looking at it now,” Mendenhall told reporters early in his tenure. “I can’t see an empty seat. The grass hill is completely full. I aspire for this community in this state to want and be connected with our program at that level again. And I know it’s earned.”
So it appears that type of support is growing. Faith where that support lasts and expands takes longer to earn, though, as Mendenhall indicated.
Faith is defined as complete trust or confidence in something. In the case of a sports fan, faith comes when you trust that your team is going to show up each week with a consistent effort and a style of play that provides a good chance of winning every time. Fans are renewing their faithful feelings for Virginia football thanks to Mendenhall’s rejuvenation effort. Back-to-back bowl games and a Belk Bowl win helped. The win on the road at Pittsburgh sparked this year’s 2-0 start for the first time in his tenure. Handling William & Mary with a lopsided score showed progress too.
Full faith on a widespread fan scale, however, comes with time and performances in front of bigger crowds in bigger games. The most invested probably have moved toward that faith marker already, but those that have been waiting to see progress, those that are still in ‘show me’ mode, those that simply haven’t been following the rebuilding process closely, and those that are more casual fans all need attention-grabbing results. UVA fans are once bitten and at least four score shy when it comes to these situations for the football program this century.
That’s where Saturday’s opportunity is critical.
Mendenhall’s Richmond debut remains the largest crowd in his tenure to date but that’s about to change. This likely will be largest crowd to see a home game in years. And, as a bonus, it’s against a name brand college football power in Florida State, a program that has a National Championship to its credit this decade. That, simply, is a massive opportunity to get a win that would help establish the type of trust that earns long-term faith from a larger group of fans. It’s the type of victory that could foster belief that what feels like the George Welsh years and sustainable success again is real.
As programs try to climb the ladder, chances for more progress and success materialize. Sometimes, like this week, that comes with a national ranking attached to it. The Hoos are ranked in the Associated Press top 25 for the second straight season as they entered the poll at No. 25 this week. This is not a stage that the program has handled well previously, though much of the data predates Mendenhall’s time.
Virginia is 1-7 in its last eight games as a ranked team with the last win coming in 2007 at Miami. UVA’s last two times in the polls resulted in a loss the following week, including last year’s November setback against Pitt. You have to go all the way back to 2005 to find the last time the program won multiple games as a ranked team.
With only one chance for a ranked win so far in Mendenhall’s time, there have been other barometer games along the way. Those results have been mixed, but trending in the right direction. The debut in front of the aforementioned 49K fans was a 37-20 loss to Richmond that foreshadowed the 2-10 record that 2016 produced. That game alone reduced faith among many fans. UNC that season was the only other home game to crack 40,000 in attendance and UVA lost by 21 and 20 points respectively to the Tar Heels and Miami in the other games with some sort of crowd on hand.
The 2017 season showed progress with a 6-6 regular season record and the first bowl bid in six years. The Hoos came out of the gates 5-1 that year, which included a good win at Boise State, but that came on the road on a Friday night. That set up the first shot at bowl eligibility under Mendenhall on Homecomings weekend. Scott Stadium’s attendance that day was 39,216 and Virginia got blasted 41-10. Another chance to build faith and interest became a lopsided loss. UVA reversed the result two weeks later with a 40-36 victory against Georgia Tech in front of 38,448 Scott Stadium fans and secured the bowl bid. Still, the year ended with six losses in the last seven games. The final two chances to grow fan faith resulted in a 10-0 loss to Virginia Tech at home in front of the second biggest crowd to date in the Mendenhall era and a bowl blowout at the hands of Navy.
Virginia took even more positive steps last season. The Hoos finished 8-5 and they showed well in some key games to grow fan faith. They won the opener against Richmond to compare to the loss two years before. They upset then No. 16 Miami at Scott Stadium in front of 42,393 fans for the first win against a ranked team since 2014. They won in front of 43K+ against North Carolina. Ditto for 41K+ against Liberty. Plus, they smoked South Carolina in Charlotte with 48,263 neutral site fans on hand. All of that is why there’s growing faith that Mendenhall’s rebuild is for real. The counter points to end the year were the loss to Pittsburgh (only 36,256 were there) at home as soon as they earned the national ranking and another loss to VT on the road. Virginia dropped three of its last five games.
All of that serves as the background for how this week’s Florida State game became the next barometer game. It’s a game with a national ranking attached. It’s a game with the first 2-0 record of the four-year window attached. It’s a game with growing hype and high attendance expected. It’s a game that could set up a ranked showdown in a nationally televised game in a couple of weeks at Notre Dame.
No question, a win could renew some faith from more fans. A loss would test the stability of the recent surge in interest. The national ranking would vanish. Chances at the Coastal Division title would take a hit. And, perhaps most importantly, the latest high profile opportunity would feel like Lucy yanking the football away again.
In that context, it might be one of the most important games of the Mendenhall era to date.