The annual ACC Football Kickoff event, overshadowed for certain by the conference expansion reboot conversations, wrapped up last week and the media’s predictions for the upcoming season were released Monday morning. Surprise, Clemson is still the favorite!
For Virginia fans, the interest focuses on the Coastal Division and where the media picked the Hoos to finish. The media placed UVA fifth in the division standings behind favorite North Carolina, Miami, Virginia Tech, and Pittsburgh but ahead of Georgia Tech and Duke. The Tar Heels picked up 109 first-place votes, followed by the Hurricanes with 28, the Hokies with 3, the Panthers with 1, the Cavaliers with 2, and the Yellow Jackets with 4. Having first-place votes spread across six of the seven teams probably shouldn’t be surprising in the ACC Coastal Division where the last seven years have produced a division title once each for the seven teams. (Remember, the 2020 season did not feature divisions and UVA is the reigning Coastal champ.) To claim the division, the winning team likely will need to post a 6-2 conference record or better – there have been only two times in 15 seasons that the eventual first place record fell short of that mark (2008 and 2012).
That sets up the next entry in The Sabre’s “50 Thoughts Before Virginia Football Kickoff” summer reading series – Can the Cavaliers beat the media’s preseason prediction?
First, let’s start with some history. The media generally has not favored UVA to finish toward the top of the conference standings during the Bronco Mendenhall era. That’s understandable considering that he inherited a program coming off the so-called ‘lost decade’ of football where losing seasons were the norm. Still, Virginia has managed to finish ahead of those expectations, though ties helped them in the standings to dress it up a bit.
Here is the year by year breakdown and where the Hoos actually finished.
- 2016 – 7th in the Coastal | tied 6th in the Coastal
- 2017 – 7th in the Coastal | tied 4th in the Coastal
- 2018 – 7th in the Coastal | tied 3rd in the Coastal
- 2019 – 1st in the Coastal | 1st in the Coastal
- 2020 – 9th in the ACC | 9th in the ACC
What about the 2021 Wahoos, though? Can they beat the fifth-place tag?
It’s not an unreasonable pick from the media. The teams ahead of the Cavaliers in the standings are either the heavy favorite (UNC) or have a strong track record against Mendenhall’s UVA teams. Miami and VT own a 4-1 marks, while Pitt is 3-1. Three of those four host the Hoos in 2021 with only Tech coming to Charlottesville.
Plus, there are two factors working against the Hoos. One, they don’t have a good ACC road record in the Mendenhall era at 5-15. At least three of those five wins have come at UNC and Pitt, the location of two of this season’s road games in conference play. Second, shaking off images of the defense’s struggles the last 17 games isn’t easy for prognosticators. Virginia allowed 34.6 points per game in the final seven games of 2019 and 29.6 points per game in the shortened 10-game 2020 season.
Considering how many Coastal teams have starting quarterbacks returning this season, that latter number might have caught some media voters’ attention. Three of those returnees ranked in the top 5 in the ACC for passing a year ago. Sam Howell returns at UNC after throwing for 3,586 yards and 30 touchdowns last season. Kenny Pickett is back at Pittsburgh after throwing for 2,408 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2020. D’Eriq King returns at Miami after throwing for 2,573 yards and 22 touchdowns last fall. Each of those players averaged at least 257 passing yards per game last season. UVA also faces Sam Hartman with Wake Forest after he threw for 2,224 yards and 13 touchdowns and Malik Cunningham with Louisville after he threw for 2,617 yards and 20 touchdowns as their Atlantic Division crossover opponents. Those players were sixth and seventh in the ACC in passing yards per game.
The Cavaliers allowed 304.4 passing yards per game to rank 123rd out of 127 teams nationally last fall. They gave up 19 passing touchdowns as well, which tied for 94th nationally.
Whether or not Virginia fares well against those quarterbacks, the Hoos likely will need to post at least a .500 league record to surpass the fifth-place prediction. They did tie for fourth in 2017 at 3-5, but in most years the top half of the division is at least 4-4. To do that, they’ll need to produce a 3-1 mark or better at home with Wake Forest, Duke, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech coming to town in that order and then get a road victory at UNC, Miami, Louisville, or Pitt.
The way the schedule sets up, the Cavaliers will be challenged early in league play. They open at Coastal favorite North Carolina on Saturday, Sept. 18 and then face Wake Forest on a short week with a Friday night home game. UVA then goes to Miami on another short week for a Thursday night game before traveling to Louisville on Saturday, Oct. 9. That stretch will create the early atmosphere for the team. The Hoos then play Duke and Georgia Tech back to back in the middle of October, meaning that 3/4 of their conference schedule will be complete before Halloween.
In other words, Virginia football fans won’t have to wait long to see how their team stacks up in the ACC this season. Time will tell if that’s better than the media predicts or not.
This is part of a summer series counting down to kickoff for the Virginia football team on Sept. 4. Previous articles in the “50 Thoughts Before Virginia Football Kickoff” series can be found here.