BLANK: Does Virginia have a scheduling problem?
For the fifth straight year, Virginia will come out of non-conference play without a winning record. While this isn’t surprising for a team that hasn’t made a bowl game in that span, it has spurred conversation that the Cavaliers ought to schedule easier teams this season for the portion of their schedule they control.
No season demonstrates this argument better than the 2015 season. After losing on the road against UCLA, suffering a heartbreaker to Notre Dame and being embarrassed by Boise State, the road to a bowl game proved too difficult for the Cavaliers. However, if you were to replace one or two of those games against ranked teams with ones against a team like Old Dominion, those added wins would leave Virginia with a record that would put it in bowl consideration.
The trend of scheduling what may be too challenging of non-conference opponents has been ongoing. Well-respected schools such as BYU, Texas Christian, Oregon and Penn State all took a turn against Virginia during this span, and the results, for the most part, were not great. While their schedules get a little easier the next two years, the returns of the Fighting Irish and the Cougars — in addition to Big 10 schools in Illinois and Indiana — present significant hurdles on the horizon. On top of this, it has been reported that Virginia will open its 2020 season against SEC powerhouse Georgia.
It stands to reason then that it would behoove Virginia’s bowl aspirations to make their schedule easier going forward. Considering the rapid improvement in the ACC of late, with four teams in the top 15 of the most recent AP poll, and four new coaches trying to turn around programs, it might be nice to have some padding on the schedule, especially if the conference eventually adds a ninth league game, as has been discussed.
Despite all of that, I fundamentally disagree with that argument. Partially based on my memories of being on the hill in Scott Stadium for the first home game last September, I think the Cavaliers should keep scheduling well-known teams. Watching Notre Dame football come to Charlottesville for the first time proved to be an incredibly enjoyable experience. For one of the few times in my experience at Scott Stadium, the fan base seemed laser-focused on every play.
As the teams traded off holding slim leads, scoring on everything from fake field goals to wildcat passes, the energy in the stadium was palpable. No excitement from any of the Virginia football games during my time here compares to the first three-quarters and 14 minutes of that Saturday. While the lasting legacy from that loss may well be the “Sad U.Va. fan” meme that came from it, that type of raw emotion doesn’t come without caring.
Games against other flagship state schools, schools with rival academic profiles or renowned football teams serve to pique fans’ interest in the games, to make them truly care. There’s little doubt scheduling easier games might allow Virginia to seem like a better team when looking back at their record after the season. However, they likely won’t increase fans’ enjoyment of the team while they’re actually playing the games.
In a rebuilding period, when bowl games may not be achievable in any way, there’s no harm in challenging players against top-notch teams, instead of artificially inflating their stats. Regardless, I’m not sure a low-level bowl game should necessarily be the program’s goal to begin with. While it could conceivably help with recruiting, it would do no more good than the national exposure that comes from playing in marquee games.
Virginia’s scheduling hasn’t been dramatically out of line with the rest of the conference either. Even when the Cavaliers faced three ranked opponents last year, their strength of schedule ranking (No. 36) was right in line with other similar schools in the ACC, ranking sixth in difficulty over the last three seasons. While its schedule has been easier this year, ranking as the 12th most difficult in the ACC, Virginia is winless nonetheless. Scheduling only one power conference team didn’t get us the wins Cavalier fans have been searching for.
At the end of the day, it’s the coaches and the players who are going to have to turn the program around. It’s the coaches and the players who are the primary cause for not winning more games the last few seasons, as well. So while I’m in favor of seeing more challenges on Virginia’s schedule, my real hope is that when I tune in to the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game against Georgia in 2020, I’ll be watching a much-improved Virginia football team.