CHARLOTTESVILLE — Freshly minted banners dangle outside of Scott Stadium emblazoned with “The Standard,” an updated version of the motto the Virginia football team adopted when Coach Bronco Mendenhall took over three seasons ago.
At that time, players spoke about “The New Standard” during the nascent stages of a rebuild. Over the summer, in the wake of the program’s first bowl triumph since 2005, senior captains Joe Reed and Bryce Hall suggested a tweak.
With Mendenhall’s blessing, the Cavaliers dropped “New” from the team credo. With 14 victories over two years — one more than in the previous four seasons combined — and Virginia entering the 2019 season as the favorite to win the ACC Coastal Division, there’s nothing unfamiliar about winning.
“Last year we were on the outside looking in,” Cavaliers quarterback Bryce Perkins said. “Now teams are looking at Virginia, but we’re not focusing on that just because we know what we [expect] for ourselves. We’re not satisfied even though we may be picked” to win the Coastal.
A different school has won the Coastal in each of the past six years, leaving Virginia as the only program in the division without a title in that time. The Cavaliers’ bid to win their first division championship begins anew Saturday, when they travel to face Pittsburgh in the season opener.
Virginia twice has placed second in the Coastal. Last year the Cavaliers (8-5, 4-4) finished tied for third, won their most games overall since 2011 and secured a bowl berth in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2004 and 2005.
“Last season was last season, and it was great what we did, but at this point we’re working for 2019,” linebacker Charles Snowden said. “So we see that we’re capable of making plays because most of the guys are back, but recognizing that last year was last year and to do that again, we have to work even harder.”
Snowden is coming off the most productive season of his football career, which began later than most: At 6-foot-7, he once focused on basketball and didn’t join his high school football team until his junior year.
Now a 235-pound college junior, he led all players at his position in major college football last year in pass breakups (nine) and passes defended (11), using his considerable reach to deflect balls and block throws from getting beyond the line of scrimmage.
He had 62 tackles, including 7½ for losses, 2½ sacks and a pair of interceptions to go along with one forced fumble and one fumble recovery, underscoring Snowden’s versatility and disruptive presence in Mendenhall’s 3-4 alignment.
“We played a lot of young guys on the front seven,” senior safety Joey Blount said. “That was probably, people thought, the weakest part of our defense, just a lot of injuries, uncertainty with the team in that aspect. But I’ve seen a lot of leadership coming out of that group. I see a lot of people growing from last year.”
Inside linebacker Jordan Mack, a senior, missed four games last year with an ailing shoulder but still finished second on the team in tackles (66) and tied for second in sacks with Snowden.
The Cavaliers ranked 20th nationally last season in yards allowed per game (330.5) and 21st in scoring defense (20.1), although pass rushing specialist Chris Peace, who led the team in sacks, and starting safety Juan Thornhill graduated.
“I think there is the understanding what we did last year, trying to learn from our mistakes, then kind of put that behind us,” said cornerback Bryce Hall, who opted to come back for his senior year instead of entering the NFL draft. “I think the more you kind of dwell on what you did in the past can make you complacent.”
Among the top priorities heading into this season is finding a way to win close games. Three of Virginia’s losses last year came by four points or fewer, including two in a row in overtime to close the regular season.
The most disheartening of those was to Virginia Tech, which extended its winning streak in the series to 15 when Perkins lost a fumble on a botched exchange with running back Jordan Ellis and the Cavaliers trailing, 34-31, during their only overtime possession.
In the previous game, Virginia place kicker Brian Delaney missed a 35-yard field goal attempt in overtime after Georgia Tech’s Wesley Walls booted a 40-yarder on the way to the Yellow Jackets’ 30-27 win at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
“We have as good a chance as anyone on our side of the division to win this league,” Mendenhall said. “I don’t think that’s a stretch to say that. We have a returning quarterback. We have a strong defense. We have a culture of excellence. We have confidence. We have an expectation that that’s what we’re capable of.
“Now doing it is the next part.”