Which games are the most important for Virginia to become bowl eligible again?




The ultimate result of the game notwithstanding, the Virginia Cavaliers’ first postseason berth in six years last season marked a major step forward early in the tenure of head coach Bronco Mendenhall. To take over a program in shambles and bring it from a 2-10 record in his first campaign to a 5-1 start and bowl eligibility in his second speaks to the quality of player development and succession planning that he became known for when he was in charge at Brigham Young.

But 2018 is a new season with fresh uncertainty. Even with a much easier schedule than in years past, how can the team perform with the loss to graduation of Kurt Benkert, Micah Kiser and Quin Blanding? Can this young group with a new quarterback parlay last year’s over-achievement into more wins and another Yuletide vacation?

Fortunately for Mendenhall, this is a far more manageable schedule than he saw in his first two campaigns. Rather than the likes of Oregon and Boise State (although the latter of those two games didn’t turn out so badly), the Hoos’ out-of-conference opponents are FCS Richmond, Ohio, and Liberty at home and Indiana on the road. In short, this looks like the most manageable schedule since at least 2009.

But exactly how important are all of these games when it comes to Virginia’s chances of heading back to a bowl game? SB Nation’s Bill Connelly has some handy preseason rankings that could give us a clue. For context, Connelly’s S&P+ ranking places UVA at No. 73.

 
 

Must win

  • vs. FCS Richmond, Sept. 1
  • vs. No. 68 Ohio, Sept. 15
  • vs. No. 115 Liberty, Nov. 10

A loss to any of these teams could cripple the Hoos’ postseason hopes, and not just because they’re far and away their three easiest opponents. If something were to go that badly against either of the latter two teams, it would probably signify that this team is not in shape to go .500. Don’t take that as a knock against Mendenhall’s coaching or his program, because UVA did lose plenty to attrition last year. But their returning pieces are more than serviceable and this should still be a solid, if not particularly great, team. If there’s a rerun of Mendenhall’s Virginia debut against Richmond? Well, basketball season starts on November 6.

Critical toss-ups

Two things to note there. First: the four-week stretch that features UNC, Pitt, and GT along with Liberty is the most important one of the season. Since 2015, UVA has gone 3-6 against those Coastal Division teams. As a program, they haven’t finished above .500 in conference play since 2011 and have done so just twice since 2004. Realistically, need to win at least two of those three ACC games as well as all of the must-win games if they want to cement their bowl hopes, and in doing so, have to find a level of consistency that translates on the field. Which is to say nothing of a road test against Indiana, a team that soundly beat the Cavaliers last year in Charlottesville.

A helpful boost

As daunting as these games might look at first glance, it’s very possible for the Hoos to find one or maybe two wins from this bunch. Mendenhall is 2-0 against Duke as Virginia’s coach, and the Cavaliers have mostly held their own — or better — against Louisville in recent years. The wild card here is NC State, a group coming off a season in which they won six ACC games and the Sun Bowl. Sixth-year Wolfpack head coach Dave Doeren has something good brewing in Raleigh, but the two schools haven’t met since Tom O’Brien’s last year as NC State’s coach in 2012.

Stunning upsets

Both of these would be monumental victories for Mendenhall, and one of them would be a program-defining win. The Cavaliers pushed 10-0 and No. 2 Miami to the brink last season in South Florida, jumping out to a 28-14 lead. They would succumb to a 30-0 run by the Hurricanes to end the game and an offense that suddenly became about as ineffective as the willpower of yours truly to not buy half of the inventory at the UVA bookstore.

Little needs to be said about their recent history against their rivals from Blacksburg except for the numbers: 0 wins in the last 14 years, 1 win in the last 20, and 0-9 at Lane Stadium since 2000. As good of a job as Mendenhall has done with recruiting, development, and marketing over the last 32 months, none of those efforts can come to their full realization until The Streak ends. I hate to say it, but no matter how bad VT looks or how good UVA looks, after 15 years, any win over the Hokies has to be considered one of the biggest upsets in program history.

Anyway, in Connelly’s vast write-up on the Hoos, he envisions a 5-7 record with UVA as the projected winner in just three games — the ones listed in the “Must Win” category above. As for me, I’m predicting a 3-0 start before a reality check that sees the Cavaliers win just one of four to start the ACC slate; let’s go with Duke. A win over North Carolina is slightly more likely than over Pittsburgh, but in any case, the schedule is set up perfectly for the team to earn bowl eligibility against new in-state rival foe Liberty on Nov. 10. After that comes Georgia Tech with a chance to pad their record, or get that sixth win if something happens to have gone haywire earlier on in the season. The regular season finale against Virginia Tech? Hey, if UMB— nope, not going there.