Three weeks ago, it was brought to Virginia Coach Mike London’s attention that only two ACC Coastal Division teams could reach the conference title game by winning their remaining regular season contests: his Cavaliers and four-time ACC champion Virginia Tech.
“Maybe a couple years from now you talk about winning out and running the table and controlling our own destiny,” London said then. “That’s for teams that have been there and done that.”
Since then, London’s program has ventured into something of a time warp. These are still the Cavaliers who have neither been there nor done that, yet they continue to perform like the team many people in and around the program expected to see not this season, but several years from now. After all, Virginia had lost twice as many games as it had won over the previous three seasons.
On Saturday, the No. 24 Cavaliers will host No. 6 Virginia Tech, an in-state rival the Cavaliers have not conquered since 2003. The winner will have run the figurative table and thus advance to face 18th-ranked Clemson in next Saturday’s ACC championship game.
When asked what he would have said had he been told two years ago that Virginia would be on the brink of playing for a conference title in 2011, Chris Slade, a former Cavaliers linebacker and current sideline reporter for the program’s radio broadcasts, responded: “You’re crazy. You’re on drugs. You been drinking too much. I never in a million years would have thought that.”
But this fall — London’s second at the helm — the Cavaliers (8-3, 5-2 ACC) have rewritten a script laid out not only by their coach, but by nearly every rational follower of the program. Slade said he figured Virginia would go 7-5 at best this season.
The Cavaliers already have snapped nearly every negative trend associated with their program at the season’s outset. They won consecutive ACC games for the first time since 2008. They won in November for the first time in four years. They defeated Florida State in Tallahassee for the first time ever. They are bowl-eligible. They remain in the hunt for a Bowl Championship Series bid on the final Saturday of the regular season.
Said Virginia Athletic Director Craig Littlepage, “Honestly, I would not have been able to make that prediction” in August.
When London took over in December 2009, many observers figured Virginia would be able to revitalize its standing in recruiting circles and compete with Virginia Tech for the state’s top high school talent in short order. That London and his assistants have done so has not been a surprise.
But a win Saturday over the Hokies (10-1, 6-1) — who have won 11 of their past 12 meetings against Virginia — would be astonishing, primarily because of the wide range of ramifications.
According to Richard Morgan, the football coach at Oscar Smith High in Chesapeake, Va., a Virginia triumph over Virginia Tech would enable the Cavaliers to craft a new message to recruits: “See, we have closed the gap. We’re the same as Tech now.”
Conversely, Morgan said, “if Virginia Tech wins the game, they’re going to say: ‘There’s still a difference between us, guys. Come to Virginia Tech and play for the [ACC] championship.’ ”
Beyond recruiting, a Virginia win on Saturday would further its efforts to reverse the prevailing notion that it has been irrelevant in recent years. Cavaliers wide receivers coach Shawn Moore described the game in terms of the possibility of a “program-changing victory.”
One reason the Hokies say they are taking Virginia more seriously this year is the recent play of Virginia sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco, who has thrown seven touchdowns and one interception since being handed the full reins of the offense in late October.
“I’m just going off the past games that we won and knowing that every year they come after us and we come out on top,” Virginia Tech senior safety Eddie Whitley said. “It is different this year for their team because in past years they didn’t really have a quarterback that was that good, but this year they have a quarterback that is playing real good right now, is hot and is real confident.”
Virginia wide receiver Kris Burd said he and the 11 other fifth-year seniors on Virginia’s roster talk often about their class’s legacy and the degree to which Saturday’s game will cement it.
“To get us to an ACC championship game and just go out there and beat Tech, that’s something that hasn’t been done around here in a long time,” Burd said. “It will be something that will be remembered and be just an echoing part of history.”
Even through a narrow-angle lens, defeating the Hokies would be significant for London and his fast-rising program. Under longtime Coach Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech has developed into a perennial national title contender. Since joining the ACC in 2004, the Hokies have won four conference titles and have dominated the Cavaliers on the field. They are the standard by which everything football in the state of Virginia is measured.
So the Cavaliers’ win over then-No. 12 Georgia Tech was nice, and their victories at Miami and at Florida State were impressive, as well.
But, as Morgan said: “For Coach London and his staff, [the Virginia Tech game] is an opportunity to really put a stamp on and solidify: ‘We’ve made it. We’ve arrived. Now let’s go even to the next level.’ ”
Many observers feel there is a measure of legitimacy to Virginia’s numerous accomplishments this season, something that will be driven home should the Cavaliers upset Virginia Tech.
“The win over Florida State made people go, ‘Wow, they’re actually having a surprisingly good year,’ ” said ESPN college football analyst Rod Gilmore, who will call Saturday’s Commonwealth Cup. “If they beat Virginia Tech, that’s the tipping point where folks will go: ‘Wow, [London] has really done a great job. He beat Florida State, Miami, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech with a team that was 4-8 last season?’ He’s in line to get a lot of coach of the year awards if that happens.”
That’s not to say the efforts of London, his staff and his players will be disregarded should Virginia not prevail against the Hokies. Scott Stadium is sold out for the first time in two years, and those fans will watch two ranked in-state Football Bowl Subdivision programs square off, the first time that’s been the case since 2007.
Publicly, London has avoided explicitly stating whether Virginia’s on-field product has developed at a faster rate than he had anticipated. All he’ll allow is that he’s “pleased.”
“What you see as a coach when you watch is guys executing the game plan, and you see that confidence that’s kind of exuding from them,” London said Monday. “It’s a great thing to see that the maturity part starts to catch up to the execution part. Because sometimes it hasn’t always been that way.”
Yanda reported from Charlottesville. Giannotto reported from Blacksburg, Va.