A First Glance At Virginia Football’s 2021 Schedule

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The University of Virginia football program’s full 2021 football schedule is out and includes seven home games, five away contests, four games against teams who finished in the top 18 in the 2020 College Football Playoff Rankings, and a road contest against head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s former team.

Perhaps excited at the prospect of (fingers-crossed) playing a normal 2021 college football season, UVA football got creative with the schedule reveal.

And here is a more traditional rundown of the Hoos’ 2021 slate …

2021 Virginia Football Schedule (Home game opponents in all caps and bold.)

Sept. 4 – WILLIAM & MARY
Sept. 11 – ILLINOIS
Sept. 18 – at North Carolina
Sept. 24 – WAKE FOREST (Friday)
Sept. 30 – at Miami (Thursday)
Oct. 9 – at Louisville
Oct. 16 – DUKE
Oct. 23 – GEORGIA TECH
Oct. 30 – at BYU
Nov. 6 – Bye
Nov. 13 – NOTRE DAME
Nov. 20 – at Pitt
Nov. 27 – VIRGINIA TECH

Notre Dame (No. 4), North Carolina (No. 13), Brigham Young (No. 16) and Miami (No. 18) finished in the final College Football Playoff rankings of the 2020 regular season. The Fighting Irish, who joined the ACC for 2020 but will return to football independence in 2021, went 10-2 this past season and was recognized as the fifth-best team in the nation in the final Associated Press Top 25. BYU (11-1, No. 11), UNC (8-4, No. 18) and Miami (8-3, No. 22) concluded 2020 inside the final AP Top 25. All four of those schools and Wake Forest competed in postseason action.

Notre Dame, North Carolina, and Miami have been recognized this offseason as potential top 25 programs to start 2021.

THE COMPETITION: SEPTEMBER

Since Bronco Mendenhall’s first season, Virginia has had a winning record every September since, going 3-1 in 2017, 3-2 in 2018, 4-1 in 2019, 1-0 in 2020. The Hoos have five games once again in the first month of 2021, including three home games and two away contests.

UVA should start 2-0 before a challenging stretch on the road at UNC (UVA has won four-straight versus the Heels, but three of the four wins have been by seven points or less), at home against Wake Forest (UVA is 0-2 against the Demon Deacons in the Mendenhall era, though this will be the first time the teams have met in Charlottesville), and at Miami (UVA is 1-4 versus the Canes in the Mendenhall era). This will be the third straight year in which Virginia has had to face Miami on the road.

Virginia will have back-to-back short weeks in September, with Wake Forest taking place on a Friday followed by Miami on the following Thursday.

– Since the Richmond drubbing in Bronco Mendenhall’s first game as Cavalier head coach, UVA has handled its FCS opponents, most recently Abilene Christian last November. William & Mary is the latest FCS program on the schedule.

The Hoos took care of the Tribe in 2017 and 2019 and should do the same in 2021. An intriguing aspect of this year’s matchup, though, is the fact that William & Mary is scheduled to play a six-game spring football schedule (two games each versus Elon, JMU and Richmond) after its fall season was postponed due to coronavirus. Virginia should still win handily, but it will be interesting to see if William & Mary is sharper to start the fall as a result of the spring football season.

– Following William & Mary, Virginia hosts an Illinois team that has a new head coach in Bret Bielema, who served as head coach at Wisconsin and Arkansas before spending the last three seasons as an assistant in the NFL. The last time the Fighting Illini enjoyed a winning season was 2011. UVA has lost twice to Big 10 competition (Indiana both times) in the Mendenhall era, but Illinois, which is coming off a 2-6 campaign, is very winnable.

– ESPN and Athlon Sports are among the news outlets that have produced “Way Too Early Top 25” lists. UNC is getting early buzz, ranked no. 7 by ESPN and no. 10 by Athlon on their respective lists. The Tar Heels lose talented players at running back and wide receiver but should still feature a dynamic offense led by quarterback Sam Howell. UNC’s defense will be the key to their success. In terms of the Coastal race, UNC has three important divisional games in the first month, opening the season at Virginia Tech, hosting UVA in week three, and traveling to Georgia Tech in week four.

THE COMPETITION: OCTOBER

– After going a perfect 3-0 in October in 2018, Virginia is just 2-6 in the months the past two seasons combined. Four games are on the 2021 schedule, with two home games sandwiched between two road contests.

– A full bye week does not come until November, but Virginia will have extra time to rest/prepare for the October 9 matchup at Louisville with the Miami game taking place on Thursday, September 30. The Hoos have won two of the last three versus Louisville, including a 31-17 decision in Scott Stadium last season, but have yet to defeat the Cardinals at their home since they joined the ACC.

– UNC, Wake Forest, Miami, and Louisville make for a difficult ACC stretch to close out the first half of the regular season. UVA begins the second half of the season by hosting Duke and Georgia Tech. Under Mendenhall, Virginia is 5-0 overall against the Blue Devils and 2-0 at home against Georgia Tech. Then comes the contest at BYU, which enjoyed a potential breakout 2020 campaign under Kalani Sitake, who took over as Cougars head coach when Mendenhall left for UVA.

BYU compiled an 11-1 season in 2020. However, the Cougars lose star quarterback Zach Wilson, All-American offensive lineman Brady Christensen, and leading receiver Dax Milne. Neither ESPN nor Athlon have BYU in their early top 25, but Athlon does rank the Cougars among the “next tier” of teams. This game obviously should be an emotional one for Mendenhall and his staff.

THE COMPETITION: NOVEMBER

After going 2-10 in November from 2016-2018, Virginia was a perfect 4-0 in 2019 and 3-1 in 2020 (counting November and December for 2020). The Hoos have played their best football toward the end of the regular season the past two years, and they’ll need to do so again in 2021.

Following a bye the week of November 6, Virginia hosts Notre Dame, which loses most of its offense from 2020 but is still projected as a top 15 team nationally by ESPN (no. 15) and Athlon Sports (no. 10). The Hoos then travel to Pittsburgh on November 20. Virginia lost to the Panthers each the first three years of Mendenhall’s tenure before securing an important season-opening win at Pitt in 2019. The teams did not play last season.

Closing out the season is Virginia Tech. A year after breaking the streak and defeating the Hokies, UVA served up a dud in Blacksburg to conclude a challenging, to say the least, 2020.

UVA Football Trends Heading Into 2021

Home Vs. Road

Virginia has been tough to beat in Scott Stadium the past three seasons, compiling a 17-2 record at home during that span. The Cavaliers were perfect at home in 2018 (7-0) and turned in 5-1 campaigns in both 2018 and 2020. Virginia has recorded a winning home record for four straight seasons.

Strong at home, UVA needs to produce more victories on the road. The Cavaliers have six wins in 26 tries on the road. Virginia has won in Durham twice, Chapel Hill twice, and also defeated Boise State (2017) and Pittsburgh (2019). UVA has accomplished no more than two road wins in a given season in the Mendenhall era. UVA won two road games in 2017, when the Hoos reached a bowl game for the first time since 2013, and in 2019, when the Hoos captured the Coastal Division title and earned a trip to the Orange Bowl.

While the Cavaliers have had their struggles at Miami and at Louisville, the opportunity is there for Virginia to notch its first winning road record under Mendenhall in 2021. The Hoos have a 4-game winning streak against the Tar Heels, including two straight in Chapel Hill, and beat Pitt at Pitt to start 2019, so players in the program have tasted success in those two venues. No question the team will be motivated to give Mendenhall a victory when he returns to Provo.

UVA Against ACC Atlantic Division Opponents

Louisville is Virginia’s cross-divisional rival, so the Hoos take on the Cardinals every year. Virginia then faces a second Atlantic Division opponent each year, and this opponent is rotated.

UVA lost its first three matchups to the ACC Atlantic Division rotating opponents, dropping decisions to Wake Forest in 2016, Boston College in 2017, and NC State in 2018. UVA edged out Florida State in 2019 for its first win against the rotating ACC opponent.

A reshuffled 2020 season pit UVA against four ACC Atlantic Division opponents in addition to Louisville. Clemson, which was on UVA’s original 2020 schedule, remained on the schedule and was joined by NC State, Wake Forest and Boston College. UVA went 1-3 against those teams.

Early Thoughts On The 2021 Schedule

There is an opportunity here for UVA. The stretch of games from week three to week six, as well as the three games in November, are challenging to be sure, but at this point every game appears winnable. Conversely, aside from William & Mary, Duke, and probably Illinois, the Cavaliers could lose any game. Quite simply, it depends on Virginia and the improvement shown from 2020 to 2021. The offense has potential, but can it become consistently productive and take the next step forward in Brennan Armstrong’s second season under center? More importantly in my view is the defense and how much improvement that unit shows in 2021. Pass defense and big plays surrendered are major areas the defense needs to fix.

We will analyze UVA’s team throughout the offseason, but getting back to the schedule, the UNC-Miami-Wake Forest-Louisville stretch is the first big hurdle for the Hoos. UNC should be good. Miami was projected to be top 25 as well before quarterback D’Eriq King’s ACL tear in the Hurricanes’ 2020 bowl game. His health will be important to their success. UVA just hasn’t gotten over the hump against Miami in South Florida. Same with Louisville at Louisville, while Wake Forest at home should be a must-win.

Virginia should do well against Duke and Georgia Tech, and BYU will be an emotional one. It’s good that the Hoos have a bye following that game, I think, and to prepare for Notre Dame on Nov. 13. The Irish, Panthers and Hokies provide a challenging end to the season.

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