There has been some extra holiday magic down in Hooville this season. For the first time ever, thanks to its Thanksgiving weekend defeat of rival Virginia Tech, the Virginia football team is playing for the ACC title this Saturday, December 7. The Cavaliers will face undefeated Clemson in Charlotte, North Carolina, at 7:30 p.m. for the ACC Championship.
There’s more than just some holiday cheer in Charlottesville, as the Cavaliers are elated for the challenge ahead. Virginia is looking for its 10th win of the season with the game this weekend, which would only be the second 10-win season in the program’s history. This shows immense improvement from 2017, when the Cavaliers were on a string of six straight losing seasons. This is only coach Bronco Mendenhall’s fourth season, but his team has managed to go 17-8 over the past two seasons.
“It’s a new step for the program” Mendenhall said. “Our program, there’s a newness to it, an excitement about it, a hungriness that radiates from our team right now and their desire to do really well in this game.”
The most recent bit of magic and hunger came in the Virginia Tech game last weekend. The Cavaliers snapped a 15-year losing streak and defeated the rivals 39-30. That set off a celebration in Charlottesville. But beating the Tigers might take a bit more. Clemson is currently ranked No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings with a perfect 12-0 record. The Tigers are also the reigning National Champion.
Some fans are all too quickly counting the Hoos out, claiming the loss already, but Coach Mendenhall and his team are embracing the chance with enthusiasm.
“I don’t see the word as ‘daunting’,” Mendenhall said of the matchup with Clemson. “I see an amazing opportunity. 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.”
It’s easy to see why pundits might label it a daunting task. The Tigers are entering the game as a 24.5-point favorite, and allowing opponents to score just 10.1 points per game. Clemson has not given up more than 20 points to an opponent all season. Since a close 21-20 win at UNC in late September, the Tigers have been on an incredible tear. They outscored the next seven opponents 353 to 61.
So Clemson clearly has some of the best defense in the country. The Tigers are first in the nation with points allowed. Their offense is wrecking opponents too as you can see from those lopsided totals. In 17 of the past 27 victories, the Tigers have won by 30 points or more. That balance is what makes them so tough to beat.
“I’ve told my team forever, teams win championships,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “That’s what I believe. Defense doesn’t win championships, offense doesn’t win championships, but teams win championships. That’s just what I believe. I don’t buy into anything else.”
Virginia counters with an offense that’s picked up the pace late this season. UVA averages 33.7 points per game on their own and has scored at least 30 points in four consecutive games. The Cavaliers used that offensive momentum to overcome defensive injuries and that led to their first trip to the ACC title game. In other words, they’ve proven this season that truly anything can happen and Swinney is preparing his team accordingly.
“They’re good enough to win the game,” Swinney said. “We got to play championship football. Simple as that. As I tell our guys, we’re not entitled to win, we have to earn it every week, have great respect and humility for the process to get ready for every opponent.”
A similar mindset has taken root in Charlottesville and that’s part of what helped the Hoos make their move to the top of the Coastal Division. That rise has led to this exciting opportunity for the football program.
“Last week did wonders for achievement and moving the needle for our program, hitting new benchmarks and metrics,” said Mendenhall. “Now all that does is qualify us, and that qualification isn’t a gift and it’s not random, it’s something we’ve earned. It’s qualified us and our team has earned the chance now for the next and significantly bigger opportunity and challenge. Those two things are usually synonymous, opportunity and challenge. We’ve framed it as such. It’s a magical opportunity for our program.”