All posts by David Rayner

Virginia’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Did you ever have one of “those days”? You know, the days that start realizing you are out of toothpaste because you forgot to go to the store the previous day? Usually this is followed by a crushed button on your last pressed shirt, an unexpected rain shower on your walk to a client meeting, a dead car battery before heading home, and a late Uber driver who gets stuck in a traffic jam.

We have all had those days. The cure for those days is sunrise the following morning. A fresh start to the next day with a full tube of toothpaste and new challenges on the horizon.

Virginia had one of “those days” on Saturday against Boston College.

Take a second to consider this stat: At the end of the first quarter, Boston College had amassed 256 yards of total offense against Virginia. That’s right, BC was on pace to have over 1000 yards of total offense. That only happens on one of “those days”.

Everything went wrong for Virginia, including possibly underestimating the ability of their opponent. I was worried about BC for a couple of reasons. First, they are a lot like UVa in that they are not getting world-beating 5-star athletes to build their program. Rather BC head coach Steve Addazio depends on hard work, discipline, and player development to compete against more talented opponents. Second, BC had played a brutal schedule leading up to Saturday’s game in Charlottesville. They had played Notre Dame, Clemson, Virginia Tech, and Louisville, beating Louisville on the road and hanging tough for at least most of the other games. BC was battle tested to say the least and probably looked at the Virginia game as a chance to show what they could do…mission accomplished for BC.

Conversely, Virginia was 5-1, getting its sea-legs, and talk of Virginia football turning the corner was in the air leading up to Saturday. Then, the few fans that were in Scott stadium at the time, watched Virginia lose the coin toss.  Things went down hill from there.

On Boston College’s first drive. Virginia was inches away from a safety on 3rd and long from the BC 5 yard line. Instead of taking a sack & a safety, BC quarterback Anthony Brown scrambled for what would be one of seven 3rd down conversions in the first half. Boston College drove 85 yards for a field goal.

Things broke BC’s way all day. Virginia, not so much. Still in the first quarter, a very good WR block at the edge on a jet sweep took out not one, but two Virginia defenders resulting in a 75 yard TD run. A great block that should have resulted in a 10 yard gain, results in the longest run from scrimmage all year, when it is not your day.

Again on 3rd and long on the ensuing drive, the play clock ran out, hitting 00 on the scoreboard. The officials missed the delay of game call, BC snapped the ball and tossed a 76 yard TD pass on what should have been a 5-yard penalty. BC was ready and played aggressively all day. Virginia was not and did not. When it is not your day, things that have gone well in the past go terribly awry.

What does all of this mean for Virginia football for the rest of the season? It means Virginia has to approach every game as if they are a 13.5 dog. Virginia has to assume they have been overlooked and treated like bottom feeders by the media and their opponents the rest of the way. It means what we all knew before Virginia went on a 4-game winning streak – this is an evolving Virginia team with little margin for error. The fates along with disciplined and inspired play on the field must align for Virginia to win. If one of these is off kilter, Virginia is in trouble. It means that Virginia coaches and players still have a lot of work to do.

What does Saturday’s loss not mean? It does not mean that rest of the season is going to be a complete bust. The schedule is tough the rest of the way, but as we have seen already this season, this team knows how to win. It does not mean that all the progress this season is lost. Last year’s 2-10 team is 5-2 this year. They block better, throw better, and tackle better than last year’s team. None of this goes out the window because they laid an egg against a highly motivated Boston College team.

At the beginning of the season if Virginia fans were magically offered the chance for their ‘Hoos to be 5-2 after 7 games in the season,  do you think anyone would have declined, thinking 6-1 or 7-0 was a more probable outcome? Fans are understandably greedy, however. Success feeds the desire for even greater success. A little perspective after a crummy performance can be a good thing, though not as much fun as winning. The perspective Virginia fans need to appreciate is that 5-2 heading to Pitt next week is a dramatic improvement over last year’s performance as well as this year’s expectations.

Virginia had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day on Saturday. Everyone in the program had a bad day. Players and coaches alike were off their games. For the first time all year Virginia looked disorganized on the sidelines blowing timeouts to get the right players on the field. Players made mistakes in execution and the breaks all went against Virginia.

Like the stock market, the resurrection of Virginia football is not going to be a straight line up and to the right. Virginia will hit bumps in the road and see periodic regression. I remain confident that the trend of the program is correct and heading in the right direction. The key for players, coaches, and fans is to let go of days when everything goes wrong and wait for the sun to rise the next day, looking forward to the next challenge on the horizon…which is Pittsburgh on the road.

Virginia opened a 4.5 point dog, which is exactly what we wanted.

Virginia and North Carolina Both Got What They Deserved

After a hard fought game, Virginia left Chapel Hill with what it deserved – a victory over the struggling, but athletic North Carolina Tar Heels. Virginia snapped a 7-game losing streak to a Carolina team that also got what it deserved on Saturday.

After the NCAA issued the University of North Carolina a “get out of jail free” pass for academic fraud that kept its athletes eligible for almost 20 years while robbing them of any chance for a real education, UNC got what it deserved Saturday as well – a loss and a pot to stew in until the teams meet again next year.

UNC coach Larry Fedora was fuming as the clock ticked down to zeros and Virginia lined up in its victory formation. Fedora and the Carolina nation were outraged at a no-call on what they felt was a face mask penalty on a 4th down, game ending sack by Chris Peace. Carolina fans aren’t used to calls not going their way. Ignore the fact that Carolina just as easily could have been called for a block below the waste on the same play or the missed holding call on Eli Hanback the play before. UNC is supposed to get the breaks and get the calls, whether their athletes go to class or not.

When the NCAA acknowledged that Carolina ran an academic charade for 17 years that helped keep its athletes eligible to compete in its revenue sports, but then stated that the academic curriculum of its members is outside the jurisdiction of the NCAA infractions team…you might say Carolina is used to having its way. Maybe Carolina fans should go back and listen to the interviews and read the chronologies laid out by their internal whistle-blowers describing barely literate athletes getting “As” in classes that never met and turning in papers they never wrote before they get too indignant about a no-call that didn’t go their way.

The University of North Carolina, after spending $ 17 million dollars defending its systemic academic fraud, essentially threw the entire university under the proverbial bus by stating that their sham classes were part of the regular curriculum and were available to all students. Wow, the entire university population can take no-show classes? That must be very comforting to the parents of students and to major benefactors of the university.

While UNC was busy throwing its academic integrity out the window to defend its athletic department, Virginia was busy taking care of business on the field, resurrecting its dormant football program. Jordon Ellis in particular, personifies the 2017 Virginia Cavaliers. On Saturday in Chapel Hill, Ellis had his most productive day as a Cavalier. His legendary work ethic was on full display as he consistently ran for yards after contact, always fell forward, and gained needed yards on 3rd and 4th down.

Jordon Ellis embodies what we love about college athletics. He is a humble, hard-working young man who waited his turn and is reaping the rewards along with his teammates. The best news for Ellis and for Virginia fans is that Ellis is a red-shirt junior and Virginia fans can look forward to him grinding out 137 yards against UNC again next year in Scott Stadium.

Virginia played a far from perfect game against the Tar Heels on Saturday, but they made plays when the game was in the balance. That is what good teams do. I was disappointed that the ‘Hoos did not convert UNC turnovers into more points. The Virginia defense broke down twice against talented freshman Michael Carter allowing two long gains that resulted in or set up two Carolina touchdowns. Virginia will need more nearly perfect performances to generate more wins in the second half of the season. Big tests await the Cavaliers, starting Saturday with a home game against a rapidly improving Boston College program that Virginia has never beaten.

If karma is indeed about retributive justice, then maybe UNC just made their first, very small installment to bring the scales back to balance and Virginia a might be reaping the rewards for the hard work of the past two years.

For the first time ever, I think I might pull for the Blue Devils when UNC and Duke play in basketball this season.

Note for this coming Saturday – I realize that no one loves a 12:30 kickoff, but this team is 5-1. Boston College’s series record against UVa is 5-0 and they are coming off a huge win against Louisville. This Virginia has earned a crowd of 45K or more to help them clinch a bowl bid for the first time since 2011. Not loving the kickoff time, but loving this 2017 Wahoo team – Bloodies and Screw Drivers at 10:00 on a beautiful fall morning in C’ville ain’t all bad.

Virginia Football: Do You Believe?

Virginia’s record stands at 4-1 six weeks into the 2017 season. It’s been ten years since Virginia has been 4-1. Four wins doubles last year’s total, and matches the full season win total the year before. The natural question to ask at this point is – do you believe in Virginia football? Long suffering Virginia fans who have had their hearts broken dozens of times over the years probably aren’t there yet. I don’t blame them. I am not sure I’m there yet either. What matters though, is that I think the players are there. They believe and after 5 games it is clear that their faith is not misplaced.

In the second quarter of Saturday’s win against Duke, the Blue Devils had just driven 88 yards down the field for a go-ahead touchdown. It was an impressive drive, as well as a disheartening drive for well conditioned Virginia fans. A passionate, long time Virginia fan in our section noted that lots of teams can put themselves in position to make plays, but good teams make plays when it matters.

He was right on the money. Virginia simply didn’t make the plays needed to halt the Duke offense. Virginia didn’t give up an 88-yard drive because they were out of position, missed coverage rotations, or made mental mistakes. At least 3 times during that drive Virginia was in position to make a drive-killing play, but missed a critical a tackle or failed to blow up a block on the edge. Duke took advantage and scored in impressive fashion.

It was the last time all day Duke scored in impressive fashion.

From that point on Virginia was not only in position to make plays, but they executed on the plays that mattered. An offense which to that point in the game had four 3-and-out series and two picks, scored 3 touchdowns and most importantly ran time off the clock with Virginia leading, when burning the clock was the path to victory. The defense that gave up the 88 yard touchdown drive forced Duke into four 3-and-outs and most importantly stopped Duke on downs to seal the victory for the Wahoos.

Two weeks ago, when Virginia shocked Boise State as a 13 point road-dog, they played very good football for 60 minutes. Against Duke, Virginia had to grind. Virginia didn’t have the A-game against Duke. In years past, this is a recipe for Virginia disaster. Duke is very well coached and always very well prepared under the miracle worker David Cutcliffe. Well prepared teams playing a Virginia team not hitting on all cylinders usually walk away with wins.

Not on Saturday.

There was never any panic on the Virginia sideline. Surprisingly, I didn’t get a sense of impending doom in the stands either. Instead, there was resolve on the sideline and steadily improving execution on the field. As Virginia went deeper into the game, they grew more confident, made more plays, and closed out a win against a Duke team that will certainly be bowl-bound in 2017.

Across the board, when the game was on the line, Virginia made plays. Offense, defense, and a much improved special teams. Lester Coleman averaged 50.8 yards per punt and made a couple of nice plays to avoid special teams disasters. He believes. Olamide Zaccheaus took a flair pass that looked to be a no gainer to the house by reading the defenders and picking the right angle to the end zone. He believes. Freshman linebacker Charles Snowden came in for his first action of the game to relieve a gassed Chris Peace. Snowden recorded a critical 4th quarter sack that killed Duke’s late game rally. Charles Snowden believes.

Virginia travels to Chapel Hill this week for a big game against a talented, but under-performing UNC team. In a refreshing change of heart, I think Virginia can win this game. I have no doubt however, that the Virginia players know they can win this game. They expect to win this game. They believe.

I am starting to as well.

A quick note to add…as mentioned in last week’s column, Virginia is playing well for the first time in 10 years. It was unfortunate that Virginia drew a 12:20 kickoff time against Duke, as any game starting within the noon hour is always less well attended than a 3:30 kick. While the crowd Saturday was @ 6,000 fans larger than the UConn game, it was still under 40,000. As noted before, this team has earned better fan support. The students are the biggest laggards, which is a shame. I hope that a win in Chapel Hill and favorable kickoff time the following week against Boston College will get the student section filled and give this team the support it deserves.

Virginia Posts a Strong Performance in Boise

Is the Virginia football jinx dead? (Gasp!) Thinking such things seems outlandish, risky, and maybe even blasphemous. Serious consideration of such a possibility is premature. However, the thought occurred to me as the final seconds ticked off the clock in Virginia’s improbable 42-23 victory Friday night.

Winning football games is hard. Winning football games against good programs on the road is harder still. Over the past 10 years, Boise State has won 110 games. The Broncos have beaten teams that Virginia only dreams of beating – Oklahoma, TCU, and Virginia Tech among them. I don’t know if this year’s BSU team is up to the usual Broncos’ standard, but I do know that on Friday night, Virginia took a good Boise State program to the woodshed.

Contrary to the Las Vegas betting line of 13 points in favor of the Broncos, I had a good feeling about Virginia’s chances against BSU. In its first 3 games of the ’17 season, Virginia had really cleaned up their play. Turnovers, penalties, and mental errors were way down from what the Virginia faithful had come to expect from the Cavaliers. The turnover trend was positive for Virginia. It seemed like the Cavaliers were on the brink of putting things together for the first time in many years.

My good feelings about Virginia’s chances to win were converted into assured confidence for victory on one critical turn of events in the first half. As any Virginia fan knows, the probability of converting fake punts and on-sides kicks is very low…except against Virginia. In recent years, conversion rates against Virginia for these plays has been the inverse of the rest of the football universe. Virginia football of the past 10 years gives up the trick play. The Virginia team Friday night did not and quickly converted the resultant opportunity into points.

That’s what good teams do. They take advantage of their opponent’s miscues. They make them pay. Virginia’s inability to do this with any consistency the past 10 years is why they have a 10+ year losing streak against Virginia Tech. It is why Virginia has been absent from the bowl picture 8 of the last 9 seasons. Now, for 2 weeks in a row, when Virginia’s opponents have made mistakes, Virginia has capitalized and won in convincing fashion.

Equally encouraging, and also swimming against the traditional Virginia currents, the ‘Hoos never took their foot off the gas against Boise State. Despite a couple of late game blunders after victory was in the bag, Virginia played to win for 60 minutes. Well conditioned Virginia fans, in any game where Virginia leads, start doing the math in their heads when it looks like Virginia might win. How many touchdowns does the opponent need to score divided by the time remaining…and what is the probability of the making the needed scores in the remaining time? No matter how improbable, Virginia fans have a fatalistic feeling anytime a win looks possible. Think Notre Dame. Think Louisville. Think Michigan, Texas, UNC, and a host of others.

Friday against BSU, Virginia was as focused and aggressive in the final minutes of the game as they were at the start. It was clear that Virginia’s players were intent on this win, on making a statement, that they were not going to let this one get away. How refreshing. How encouraging.

Friday’s win was a good win. The challenge now is stringing together multiple good wins to become a good team. Virginia gets an extra week off to rest and prepare before a solid Duke team comes to Charlottesville. This is an important game. It’s at home. It comes off a bye-week. It comes on the heels of 2 strong wins. Good teams win this game. Virginia gets a chance to take another step towards becoming a good team in 2 weeks.

Is the Virginia football jinx dead? Is the curse of Al Groh finally broken? It seems risky to ponder such things. When seeking guidance in life on important questions…investment advice, house purchase decisions, predictions on the fortunes of Virginia football, I find the Magic 8-Ball as good of source of truth as any.

Magic 8-ball, is the Virginia football jinx and the curse of Al Groh dead? “Concentrate and ask again”

Magic 8-ball, is the Virginia football jinx and the curse of Al Groh dead? “Signs point to yes”

Even though the Magic 8-ball said “my reply is no” when I asked if I should sell Sun Microsystems at $ 75/share many years ago, I think it is on the right track now, as is Virginia football.

I hope Virginia fans reward their team in 2 weeks by coming to the game, not just the tailgate. This team is vastly improved over last season. In Bronco Mendenhall’s culture of earned not given, this team has earned increased fan support. Let’s do what we can to deliver.

Virginia Takes Care of Business

At this stage of the reclamation project that is Virginia football, I think the highest compliment that for the program in any given week is that they took care of business. On Saturday against the UConn Huskies, Virginia took care of business.

Virginia was the better team on Saturday. They had better athletes, they were better prepared, they had the better coaching staff. For this those who have been following Virginia football since the departure of George Welsh, that is usually a recipe for disaster. Another chapter in the  on-going Virginia Athletics saga “Can you believe we lost to…”

Not so Against UConn. It has been a long time since a game seemed like it was never in doubt from start to finish – in Virginia’s favor. Virginia’s offensive line, which saw personnel changes from last week’s loss to Indiana was effective all day. Kurt Benkert consistently had time to check down to secondary receivers, who were frequently wide open, sometimes well behind the UConn defense. Gone were “the drops” from last week and well-thrown Benkert passes were hauled in for big gains. Jordon Ellis, Olamide Zaccheaus, and Daniel Hamm had seams to run and were often able to get outside of the Huskies’ containment.

Virginia’s defense was not dominant but played outstanding assignment defense. They were in the position to make plays and far more often than not kept the UConn offense off balance and between the 20s. While Micah Kiser had his usual all-American performance (15 tackles & 2 sacks), the most exciting defensive performance came from Brenton Nelson. Formerly a member of the Virginia track team, Nelson looked more like Kenny Easley than Carl Lewis. He had an athletic interception that killed a promising UConn drive and 2 pass break-ups, one of which prevented a UConn touchdown, to go along with 8 tackles. Virginia’s defense often depends on its defensive backs being on islands and playing 1:1 defense. Nelson, Thornhill, Blanding, and Hall showed well all day, allowing Virginia’s front several to focus on controlling the line and penetrating the UConn backfield.

Heck, Saturday was so good for Virginia that kicker AJ Mejia kicked a season-best FG of 28 yards. It is my opinion that it had enough leg to be good from 35 yards. While we are not ready to declare the kicking game effective yet, it has improved and needs to continue that trend if Virginia has any chance to go bowling in 2017.

While Virginia was dominant the entire afternoon, a couple of issues raised their heads that Virginia needs to clean up before they head west to Boise. After 2 weeks of very clean play, Virginia committed 9 penalties for 109 yards. Some of these penalties were classic bonehead mistakes. Two chop-blocks and one very bad targeting penalty accounted for 45 penalty yards and the ejection of Andrew Brown. Virginia was a good enough to get away with these mistakes against UConn. Boise State is likely to make Virginia pay if they commit similar mental errors next week.

Virginia’s kickoff team also needs to improve its performance. Despite a tremendous kickoff coverage hit from former walk-on Ben Hogg that pinned UConn back at their 15-yard line in the 4th quarter, Virginia allowed over 31 yards per kickoff return. Virginia can give up field position against UConn, but you can bet your last dollar that Virginia Tech, Miami, and Louisville, will convert field position advantages into points. Virginia has a very thin margin for error as they rebuild the program. Mistakes like these can turn potential wins into frustrating losses, prolonging the rebuild of the program.

Rolling into week 4 of the ‘17 season, the good news is that Virginia has matched its win total from last year and has a winning record for the first time since 2014. The sobering news is that Virginia is heading into the meat of its schedule. Virginia has some tough contests ahead, starting Friday night in Boise. Call me crazy, and clearly the hope was that Virginia would be 3-0 heading to Boise this week, but I am becoming more optimistic about the game this week and the rest of the season.

Virginia has not been spectacular in their first 3 games, but they have been well prepared. With a few exceptions, Virginia has avoided the self-inflicted wounds that have deflated so many potential wins the past several years. We have the right players on the field at the right time and are making more plays than not. The weaknesses that have plagued Virginia in the early games this season seem to be trending in the right direction.

I hate making predictions because I usually get them wrong. My good friend Nick is much better prognosticator of Virginia fortunes than I am. I usually defer to his predictions. However, I am encouraged by the progression of the program in the first three weeks of the season and I expect Virginia to be very competitive against Boise State this weekend. Okay, I’ll say it. Despite opening as a 13 point dog on the Vegas meeting line, I think Virginia takes care of business again this weekend and comes home with a hard-fought and much-deserved win. I hate making predictions and I hate making bets. At least the prediction won’t cost me any money.

E-mail David at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dmrayner.

Sunny Day, but a Gloomy Loss in Charlottesville

The weather on Saturday was a glorious reminder that Charlottesville is a beautiful place to spend an (almost) early fall afternoon. Tailgating was a delight and the lots around Scott stadium were close to capacity. Revelry was in full swing. Once the game started, the weather was still glorious and the tailgating around Scott stadium was still in full swing. Many of the Virginia faithful chose to continue to enjoy the Charlottesville weather and not let a football game spoil the good tidings of the day. Smart move.

While last week, Virginia won pretty decisively on a gloomy day, this week was the inverse of last. While I am was not overjoyed with the winning performance against William & Mary, I am not ready to throw in the towel on the 2017 season based on this week’s loss.

While Indiana is no football power, they are losing their moniker as the perpetual doormat of the Big 10. They went to a bowl game last year. Looking at their schedule and their performance to date, they have a decent shot to go bowling this year as well. This was a solid test for Virginia, which it failed, though not as miserably as some might project.

Virginia was well prepared for this game. They were not surprised by any of Indiana’s offensive plays or strategies. Virginia’s defense did not give up big plays throughout the game that exposed an ineffective game plan. Virginia did not commit any turnovers for the second week in a row, though the ‘Hoos had some help from the officials keeping that streak alive. Virginia committed 5 penalties for a paltry 26 yards. Poorly prepared teams turn the ball over and commit stupid penalties. Virginia did none of those on Saturday. The defense was well prepared for the Indiana’s hurry-up offense and made plays early that showed they knew what they were doing against the fast-paced Hoosiers.

For three quarters, the Virginia defense was solid. They are not going to overwhelm anyone with their speed, but they were generally in position to make plays and made the most of the many bad positions into which they were thrust by the offense and special teams.

So where did Virginia go wrong? That would be the offense and special teams.

While special teams was a disaster for the second week in a row with the punt team matching the ineptitude of the field goal unit, the offense was not a disaster, they were just ineffective.

Virginia will not win more than 2 games this season if it cannot improve the field goal execution. No team can succeed if the maximum field goal range is inside the 10 yard line. This is embarrassing for a D1 program. Virginia has the worst kicking team I have ever seen at the college level.

I believe the offense was not bad much as it was just ineffective. Receivers were consistently open all day, and they dropped passes. One notable drop was an easy touchdown early that could could have changed the complexion of the entire game. Other times receivers were open and Kurt Benkert over threw them. In fact, Benkert over threw literally every pass beyond 15 yards notably missing a wide open Andre Levrone for a touchdown.

I blame the eclipse. It is unusual for both receivers and a quarterback to be that off at the same time. It is my feeling that such a condition was an outlier and will not happen again.

What was not an outlier was the poor play of the offensive line. I was concerned last week when Virginia could not manage 100 yards rushing against an enthusiastic but over matched William & Mary front 7. The Virginia line was exposed again with a meager 55 yards rushing against a solid, but not spectacular Indiana front line.

Jordan Ellis does not need much running room to be a very solid runner. However, he needs some room and for most of the day on Saturday he had none. The Virginia O-Line had was pushed around all day. I understand the new players on the line and learning new roles. It is time for the offensive line to step up and deliver.

Kurt Benkert attempted 66 passes Saturday on a day when he was not at his best. Not because that was the game plan, but because it was the only option given the running game was so hopelessly ineffective. Any game where Kurt Benkert throws over 60 times is going to be a Virginia loss. The Virginia O-line has to find itself or Wahoo fans are in for another long season.

The biggest exposure on defense was was that Virginia’s front 7 depth is shallow. That said, Virginia held Indiana 100+ yards under their total against Ohio St. The Virginia defense made some big plays Saturday, but the Virginia offense could not capitalize on presented opportunities. Juan Thornhill made a spectacular interception that gave Virginia the ball inside Indiana territory. Most teams turn this kind of play into points. Virginia went 3-and-out, and the defense was back on the field.

It was clear by the 4th quarter that the defense was gassed. They were consistently put in poor field position throughout the day. Several times they rose to the occasion in the first half and stopped the Indiana attack, but given enough chances over an entire game, even mediocre teams will find ways to score, which Indiana did.

The weather forecast is for another delightful day in Charlottesville next week I quit giving stock-buying advice a long time ago and I am not big on making predictions on college football games. However, I think Virginia’s performance this week against UConn matches the weather and Virginia comes away with a solid win.

When Virginia wins Saturday, they will be a crossroads. Heading off to play Boise St the following week, everyone expects a loss…everyone but me, but then again, I quit making predictions on college football a long time ago, for good reason.

The New Era of College Football: The Haves Trump The Have-Nots

The evolution of college football has created a new reality. Thanks to the college football arms race in facilities, fan support, and money as well as the nascent playoff system, there are two types of college football programs:

  1. Those that have a chance to win a national championship
  2. Those that have no chance to win a national championship

There is no migration between the types of programs. You either have a chance to win it all or you don’t. The rich teams get richer, everyone else treads water or drowns.

While there are two types of college football programs, there are three types of college football fans:

  1. Those fans who correctly recognize that their teams have a chance win a national championship
  2. Those fans who correctly realize their teams have no chance to win a national    championship
  3. Those fans who incorrectly believe their team has a chance to win the national championship, when in reality, they have no chance.

No convinced? Take a look at the following videos:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NVC3UziHeGk and this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZU4NXtu2T5E.

These are, theoretically, facilities for college students. But we all know what these really are. Recruiting tools to draw top athletes to Texas and Texas A&M. These are “in-kind” payments to players who are ostensibly amateur athletes.

I have no doubt that the other programs with a chance to win a national championship have (or will soon have) facilities on par if not better than these. We all know the names of these programs – Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Auburn, Florida, Ohio St, Michigan, Clemson, Florida State, & Oklahoma. You could probably add Oregon, Tennessee, Notre Dame and a small handful of other programs to this list, but that’s it. No other programs have a chance.

It is not shocking for fans of programs like Virginia, Wake Forest, Duke, Boston College, Vandy, Kansas, and Northwestern that they have zero chance to win a national championship…ever. I think the fans of these programs understand that they will never have facilities like Texas or Texas A&M. They will never compromise their integrity to the extent that the contending programs must to get the numbers of top players needed to compete for a national championship. Fans from these programs and many more like them realize their role in the world of college football. They are fodder for the teams with a chance to win it all. They can have successful seasons and win bowl games, but they will never hoist the national championship trophy. Maybe that’s okay. The point of college, after all, is to educate young minds, not win national championships. College athletics is supposed to be entertaining, so if you recognize your place and revel in reaching the heights of success within the boundaries of your possibilities, college football is a great deal of fun.

What might be shocking to the vast majority of the fans of programs not listed above, is that their teams also have no chance to win a national championship. None, zero, zilch, nada… they just don’t realize it. Many programs fit this description…we can all name these programs with perpetually frustrated fans who mistakenly think they are on the cusp of breaking into the top tier of college programs – Virginia Tech, NC State, UNC, West Virginia, Michigan State, South Carolina, TCU, Baylor, Arizona, Missouri, Maryland, Iowa, Kansas St, and Arkansas among many others, have no chance to win a national championship. Unfortunately, their fans think they do.

Think about how excited fans of these programs are when they land a big-time recruit. A 5-star or high 4-star kid who is a “can’t miss” prospect. There are high-fives all around and dreams of winning the college football playoff. The sad reality is, the teams that have a real chance to win it all, get at least a half a dozen of these players – every year. Not one per year or every other year like the wannabe programs. So the teams with a real chance to win it all have 30 or more can’t-miss players on their teams. The wannabe teams might have 5.

None of this is lost on the best coaches in the industry either. Do you think Nick Saban is going to leave Alabama to coach Northwestern anytime soon? Urban Meyer going to Wake Forest? Which programs have huge donor bases that make space-age locker rooms possible? (hint: it’s not Duke and it’s not Virginia…nor NC State or West Virginia) The best coaches go to the programs with the biggest donor bases that pay the biggest salaries & fund the best facilities, which draw the best talent…and so the cycles continues.

Like gambling in Vegas, the college football game is rigged. Over the course of any season, there will be exciting times when wannabe teams beat the odds and score big upsets. But over the course of a full season (including the playoffs), a single wannabe program cannot beat the system. There are too many 30+ mega-recruit teams out there, getting better every day and one of those teams will win the national championship every time. It’s why house wins over time in Vegas. The swanky trappings of the Bellagio are not there because gamblers go home winners. The odds favor the house, so it always wins. The system favors the top programs, so they will always win.

As we begin the 2017 college football season, we could create a list of 18-20 programs with a chance to win it all. It would be the same list from 2016. The participants in the football championship will be from that list – with no chance for an upstart to crash the party. It’s like the list to get into the VIP section of a popular night club. Not on the list? Not getting in.

The downside of this could be that as more college football fans realize the game is rigged against them, fans will lose interest and the game’s popularity could begin to fade. Then again, Las Vegas doesn’t seem to be losing its steam and state lotteries continue to be wildly popular. Maybe the fans of the wannabe programs understand their fate better than they let on. Maybe they are like the lottery players, thinking that someone is going to win this jackpot, if I buy a ticket it might be me, so every season, misplaced hope springs eternal. Unfortunately, the odds of winning the Powerball are better than their team winning the national championship.

E-mail David at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dmrayner.

Virginia Wins on a Gloomy Day

No matter how gloomy the weather, opening day for Virginia football in 2017 was much better than opening day in 2016. In many ways however, the gray and dreary skies were a fitting metaphor for the way Virginia played on Saturday. Some have suggested that Virginia’s play was conservative and efficient, playing well enough to win without taking too many risks or giving away too many of the new twists in Virginia’s offensive and defensive schemes. Maybe, but I’m not convinced, not a believer yet.

I have said many times, I hate playing William & Mary. The Tribe is always well coached and very well prepared. Win or lose, they always give Virginia a good match. Two of my high school classmates went to play for W&M coach Jimmie Laycock in 1981. While Virginia has gone through 5 head coaches from 1981 to today, Coach Laycock, a coaching legend, is still in Williamsburg, fielding very good teams and giving better skilled opponents fits. I am always relieved to walk away from the William & Mary game with a win. I walked away from this one relieved, but with a lot of questions.

It was puzzling to me that Virginia seemed so lethargic throughout the entire game. They clearly had size and speed advantages, but Virginia could never put the game away. Several drives that could deliver knockout blows to the Tribe started well, however all but the very last faltered at the hand of self-inflicted mistakes.

There are some in a college football world who see Virginia as a “soft” program. The results against a physically smaller, less skilled William & Mary team will do nothing to dispel those opinions.

Before we get too wrapped up in analysis, Virginia won Saturday against an enthusiastic FCS opponent. Last year Virginia did not. This year by definition has started infinitely better.

Virginia showed some flashes of brilliance that ultimately carried the day. Cavalier receivers were impressive and open all day. They ran good routes, found seams in the defense, and made positive yards after the catch. Quarterback Kurt Benkert hit his open receivers, most of the time anyway. Running back Jordan Ellis showed speed, power and little wiggle in his game. If the Virginia O-Line can give Ellis some running room, he has the potential to become the next great Virginia running back. Tim Cook had an impressive game, leading the Cavs in tackles in an emotional return to the football field after a two-year absence.

Perhaps the best outcome from Saturday, supporting the first opening day win since 2013, was the fact that Virginia did not commit any turnovers. The last time that happened was against Maryland, also in 2013. Virginia is going to have many games this year where they do not have the best talent on the field or the deepest bench on the sidelines. If they are going to win, Virginia will have to take care of the ball. Saturday was a nice step in that direction.

There were also problems on Saturday that raise questions in the minds of the Virginia faithful.

Virginia managed just 93 rushing yards against a smaller William & Mary front 7 that last year yielded 200+ rushing yards/game. The Virginia offensive line rarely imposed its will on an overmatched defense. The Virginia offensive line gave up 9 tackles for loss. Many were big losses. By contrast, Virginia managed only 3 tackles for loss. The Virginia O-Line is a work in progress. It had better make a lot of progress in a hurry if Virginia expects to post a respectable record in 2017.

The Virginia field goal team is still on par with a mediocre high school program. UVa’s PATs were not gimmes and the lone field goal attempt was reminiscent of last year’s field goal kicking circus. If Virginia cannot reliably kick field goals outside of the 20 yard-line, they we will lose games in ’17 as a result, without question.

Virginia failed a put much pressure on William & Mary quarterback Tommy McKee. When he was flushed from the pocket, he scrambled for positive yardage and made big first downs. It was disheartening to watch Virginia’s defense struggle to pressure an undersized FCS line. Even more disconcerting was that Andrew Brown had zero tackles. He was sometimes double teamed, but sometime not. Brown laying a goose egg has to go down as one of the biggest surprises of the game.

Virginia won on Saturday, that’s undeniably good. They were not dominant by any measure. That’s not so good. Conservative and efficient? Maybe. Not as improved as we all hoped? Maybe. We will see on Saturday when a much-improved Indiana team comes to Charlottesville.

I hope for a brisk, sunny day as a fitting metaphor for improved play by the Wahoos.

E-mail David at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dmrayner.

Virginia Football – Let’s Try This One More Time

The pre-season might be the best time of year for many college football programs. It certainly was for Virginia football last year. Standing ovations for new head coach Bronco Mendenhall making an appearance at JPJ, followed by bullish statements about bowl games. Graduate transfers infusing talent into a program that clearly had holes to fill. Late summer ’16 was awash with optimism. Then the Richmond Spiders came to town and washed all expectations for a return to football respectability down the drain as Virginia suffered the first of its 10 losses for the season.

Here we are again. Late summer. The joy of pre-season excitement is in the air. I am hearing lots of optimistic football chatter among the Virginia faithful once more. Virginia hasn’t had a punt blocked in months, hasn’t given up a 4th & long since the Louisville game, and its record stands at a level 0-0. Is this the zenith of the ’17 football season for the Cavaliers? Maybe, but then again, maybe not.

A lot has changed since the start of the ill-fated 2016 campaign:

Virginia has added experienced graduate transfer talent across the offensive line bringing much needed depth to an area of persistent weakness for the Wahoos.

Virginia has jettisoned teams like UCLA and Oregon from the schedule. While Virginia has one last debt to pay in its non-sensical scheduling over the past several years with an away game at Boise State, it is both prudent and hopeful to see teams like UConn, Indiana, & William & Mary on the schedule…where Virginia has a fighting chance for a win. Mercifully the ACC scheduling gods kept both Clemson and Florida State off the Virginia slate in 2017.

Virginia has 2 pre-season all-Americans on defense in Quinn Blanding and Micah Kiser as well as a potential early-round NFL pick in Andrew Brown.

The health of the team is good with few summer-camp injuries.

The staff has another year under their belts and a better understanding of the talent on hand. Comments from the staff indicate that they are making adjustments to both offensive and defensive schemes that leverage the skills of the team and cover deficiencies where they exist.

Virginia has experience across the offensive line, in the receiver corps, and at QB. The defense returns a mix of seasoned veterans and red-shirt freshmen ready to make their mark on Virginia football.

Anyone ready to book their bowl season travel plans yet?

In the words of Lee Corso ‘Not so fast!”

While it is great to have a stable of returning upperclassmen on the team, let’s not forget that those upperclassmen went 2-10 last year. Bronco’s recruiting class was ranked 57th nationally according to Rivals. The football tide is rising in the ACC and the biggest question for Cavalier fans is can Virginia keep up with the pace?

It is certainly possible that Virginia will post a respectable season in ’17. It is not completely ridiculous to think that Virginia could make a bowl game for the first time since 2011. However (you knew that was coming) Virginia needs some good luck.

The Cavaliers are woefully thin at many positions, most notably at quarterback. If Kurt Benkert gets hurt, guess how many combined snaps the backup quarterbacks have played at the college level? The unfortunate answer for those hoping to spend the holidays in Shreveport at the Independence Bowl, is zero. Making the quarterback depth chart more frightening is the fact that Virginia’s offensive line play has not been stellar the past few years. While the expectations are high for improvement in the trenches, if Kurt Benkert is running for his life the first few Saturdays in September, the Virginia season could come unravelled in a hurry.

Maybe the biggest asset in the Virginia arsenal this year is the simple fact that if any program in the country is over due for a little good luck, it’s Virginia. So Virginia fans, cross you fingers, go dig up that old rabbit’s foot, and look for some 4-leaf clovers. Virginia can put up a respectable season this year, but the fates are going to have to smile on the Cavaliers.

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E-mail David at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dmrayner.

Photo: Wikipedia

Virginia Fans are Divided on Bronco Heading into Season 2

The start of fall football practice is just over a month away. It is no secret that Bronco Mendenhall has many hurdles to clear before Virginia football gets back to a winning groove. He has a new challenge this year. One of his own making. After one season, the Virginia fan base is split on the wisdom of bringing Bronco and his band of assistants to Charlottesville.

Posting a 2-10 record in his first season has many Virginia fans concerned. Opening the season with a convincing 17-point loss to University of Richmond took a lot of the optimistic winds out of Bronco’s sails. The team’s performances in the following weeks did little to build confidence in the direction of the program. The rotten cherry on the soured sundae was a thumping at the hands of Virginia Tech when Bronco deployed a ridiculous QB rotation that ended in utterly predictable failure.

The recruiting season has not brought tidings of joy to hardcore Virginia fans who spend the football off-season analyzing the whims of 18-year old high school footballers. While Bronco is filling his 2018 recruiting class at a brisk pace, the reality is that Bronco is bringing a different breed of cat to the program.

A standard measure of a recruit’s talent is always the “offer list”. Who else wanted a recruit to play for them? Over the Groh and London years Virginia landed many recruits with impressive offer lists. Fans were often giddy when Georgia, Penn State, USC, and Florida were vying for kids who decided to come play for Virginia. Unfortunately, those kids didn’t win that many games wearing the orange & blue.

A look at the offer lists of the 2018 recruiting class has many Virginia fans concerned. Bronco’s recent commits have offer lists that include Bucknell, Penn, Yale, and Cornell. Others have offers from Wake Forest, Vandy, and Boston College. Still others boast offers from Bowling Green St, Akron, and Florida Atlantic. Let’s recognize the obvious: Bronco is not recruiting the same kids as college football’s blue bloods…or even college football’s light-blue bloods. It sounds like his guys might do well as contestants on “Jeopardy”, but can they beat Clemson & Miami? Heck, can they beat Richmond & UConn?

The Virginia fan base is split into two camps: those who believe in Bronco and his system. They look at his past performance. His BYU recruiting classes were littered with castoffs from Southern Cal, UCLA, and Oregon. Bronco won a lot of games with those players. Many of them went on to play in the NFL.  Virginia’s “system” fans are convinced that Bronco’ can succeed in similar fashion at Virginia.

There is evidence to support this position. Jim Harbaugh was a “system” coach at Stanford. Harbaugh came to Stanford after a 1-11 season in 2006. The talent pool at Stanford was not deep when Harbaugh arrived. Rivals ranked Stanford’s 2004-2008 recruiting classes in the middle of the pack at best:

2004 57th

2005 41st

2006 54th

2007 51st

2008 50th

Yet in 2007, Harbaugh improved Stanford’s record to 4-8. He went 5-7 in 2008, 8-5 in 2009, and then reached his zenith at Stanford with a 12-1 season in 2010. Think about the redshirt juniors and seniors that led the 2009 & 2010 teams. They were kids from the middling recruiting classes that averaged 50.6 in national recruiting rankings. I recognize that one of those recruits in the 50.6 ranked classes was Andrew Luck. Got it. He’s a stud. However, his supporting cast on offense and defense was made up of “system guys” who developed during the years at Stanford and thrived in the Harbaugh system.

The system fans believe in Bronco. They believe in player development and past performance as a predictor of future success. I get the “system” fans’ argument. There have been several successful programs that back their stance. Paul Johnson at Ga. Tech is the consummate system coach. Ga. Tech has won a lot of football games while Virginia has floundered the past 10 years. I want to believe the system fans. I want to be optimistic, until I hear from the “athletes” crowd.

The opposing camp of Virginia fans feels that Bronco is doomed for failure at worst and mediocrity at best. As noted in an earlier column, it is not hard to conclude that Virginia simply does not have the athletes to compete and win in the rising tide of ACC football. Pick a team, any team from the George Welsh era and compare those players (their recruiting rank and NFL potential) with the players Virginia has on the roster now and more importantly with the players Bronco is bringing to the program. These fans will tell you, with great passion, that we can have the best system and player development on the planet, but unless you have the horses that can run with Clemson and Florida State, Virginia is going to be a perpetual bottom tier program.

Last season’s performance combined with Bronco’s recruiting strategy has created this fissure in the Virginia fan base. The gotta-have-the-athletes crowd is biding their time with Bronco, waiting for him to flame out with his players that belong in the Ivy League or the Patriot League. The System fans ask for patience and pray for at least 5 wins this season.

Only time will tell which position is correct. I tend to think that Bronco’s system has done very well in the past and deserves more time. I think it can succeed at Virginia, but I worry about a low ceiling for success and settling for 6 wins a year as the measure of a successful program. I also worry that if the system breaks down, we don’t have any one fast enough to run down the next Deshawn Watson or Lamar Jackson. It’s hard to consistently “out-system” the thoroughbreds coming to play at other programs in the ACC.

My bigger concern is that Virginia football needs all the help it can get returning to respectability. One of the assets Virginia needs is an optimistic and enthusiastic fan base. I am worried that a divided fan base likely spends more time in the West Lot than in the stands, which is not good for anyone, except the bourbon distillers.

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E-mail David at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dmrayner.