In some ways, Virginia Coach Al Groh's signature is a lot like his five-year tenure at his alma mater: It begins with a sweeping arch, as if to announce a grand arrival, rises again and then falls sharply.
After leaving the New York Jets to return to Virginia before the 2001 season, Groh assembled back-to-back recruiting classes ranked among the country's best. After a 5-7 record in his first season, the Cavaliers won nine games in 2002 and eight in 2003 and seemed to be blossoming.
But last season, with seven players who would be chosen in April's NFL draft, the Cavaliers lost three of their last four games, including a 37-34 setback to Boise State in the MPC Computers Bowl.
Under Groh, Virginia is 7-11 against opponents ranked in the Associated Press top 25 poll. The Cavaliers haven't beaten a team ranked higher than No. 15 in any of the last four seasons and have lost their last four games against ranked foes.
With the Cavaliers still reeling from a 45-33 loss at Maryland last week, this hardly seems like the time Virginia can give its coach the signature victory he needs.
"We need to win a big game," Virginia tailback Wali Lundy said. "We really, really need to win a big game. I think it would do a lot for this team."
Starting with today's game against No. 18 Boston College at Alumni Stadium and next week's nationally televised home game against No. 4 Florida State, the Cavaliers have two chances to shed their label of an underachieving team that can't beat teams they aren't supposed to beat.
The Cavaliers failed miserably in similar opportunities last season, as a 36-3 loss at then-No. 7 Florida State, a 31-21 loss to No. 18 Miami and a 24-10 loss at No. 11 Virginia Tech knocked them out of the ACC championship race and into another lower-tier bowl game. More alarming was the fact Virginia wasn't very competitive in any of those games.
Under Groh, Virginia has beaten only one ranked team on the road (a 26-24 victory at No. 21 Clemson on Sept. 22, 2001).
"You always want to play the best and beat the best," Cavaliers quarterback Marques Hagans said. "Until you win a game against one of those teams, you can't be considered among the best."
While Groh's future at Virginia has never before seemed so secure -- he signed a new six-year contract shortly before the Sept. 3 opener against Western Michigan that will pay him $1.7 million annually -- the Cavaliers have never seemed so fragile during his tenure.
Three of the team's star players -- leading rusher Lundy, all-American linebacker Ahmad Brooks and left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson -- have been hobbled by injuries. Ferguson, who might be the first offensive tackle taken in April's NFL draft, might not play against the Eagles because of a sprained knee. Brooks, who missed the first three games before playing at Maryland, is still recovering from offseason knee surgery and sprained his ankle against the Terrapins.
Virginia's 3-4 defense -- Groh is one of the few Division I-A coaches who still uses the scheme -- is built around its linebackers, but without a healthy Brooks and Darryl Blackstock, who left early for the NFL draft, the Cavaliers have largely been defenseless.
After the Terrapins handed Virginia one of its worst losses during Groh's tenure, he expressed concerns about his team fragmenting as it reached the most important stretch of its season.
"There's no formula" for preventing it, Groh said. "You just keep your eyes and ears open. In this particular case, I don't think there's any need for due diligence."
Lundy says beating the Eagles, who are in their first season in the ACC, would cure many of the Cavaliers' ailments.
"One of our team goals was, 'Let's go out and win a big game,' " Lundy said. "It's a big challenge that awaits us. We know Boston College is a very good team. You've just got to go win. I think that's all it is. You've got to win a big game to get over the hump."