MESSIER: Looking ahead to the season’s second half
The last half of the college football season provides the opportunity for a team to redefine itself. Some previously successful teams fall apart — they lose their rankings and hopes of a playoff bid. Some struggling teams simply continue to struggle, but some make unprecedented strides to a bowl game. At 2-4 (1-1 ACC), Virginia is facing its second half of the season, and it has the chance to redefine the 2016 season.
In the first six games, coach Bronco Mendenhall’s football team picked up wins against Central Michigan in Charlottesville and Duke at Wallace Wade Stadium — showing for the first time since 2012 that Virginia is capable of winning on the road.
However, the Cavaliers missed out on key opportunities. What should have been a victory against FCS opponent Richmond set the team back to 0-1 to kick off the season. Just two weeks later, Virginia let one slip away against Connecticut, 13-10. Last week, Pittsburgh visited Scott Stadium for Homecomings, and came out with a sound victory, 45-31.
Now, the Cavaliers are facing the second half of their schedule, and they are looking at a daunting task. Virginia’s final six ACC opponents are all above .500. The Cavaliers’ next six games are split evenly between home and road games. Virginia will face No. 22 North Carolina and No. 7 Louisville at Scott Stadium, then travel to Winston Salem to face Wake Forest. The Cavaliers will return to Charlottesville to take on Miami for their final home contest of the season, before heading back out on the road to face Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.
None of Virginia’s next six games can be considered easy wins — the second half of the season doesn’t bode well for the Cavaliers.
Mendenhall, who has never failed to make a bowl in his career as a head coach, will lead Virginia on its uphill climb through the remainder of the season. He currently holds an 11-season bowl appearance streak, which he accomplished at BYU.
Despite his success, Mendenhall is no stranger to being in this position. In 2010, BYU began their season 2-5. It was before mid-season when Mendenhall fired defensive coordinator Jaime Hill and took on the duties of defensive coordinator himself — a role that he currently serves in at Virginia. After the coaching change, the Cougars went onto win five of their last six games to earn an 7-6 record overall, including winning their bowl game against UTEP.
Granted, Mendenhall’s 2010 season came after he had already coached the Cougars for five years and had the chance to fully develop his own program. But perhaps what is most impressive about Mendenhall was what he did with the team in just his first year.
Mendenhall took over in 2005 from former head coach Gary Crowton, who had just finished his third consecutive losing season. In Mendenhall’s first year at the helm, BYU finished its regular season with a 6-6 record, securing their bowl bid in their second-to-last regular season game against Wyoming. Although the Cougars lost their bowl game against California, it was the first time they had reached a bowl since 2001.
There are some interesting parallels between Mendenhall’s take over of the BYU football program and where the Virginia football program stands today. While the Cougars were coming off of their third consecutive losing season in 2005, the Cavaliers are coming off their fourth consecutive losing season in 2016. Similarly, BYU had gone three seasons without reaching a bowl game, while Virginia has now suffered through four.
In order for the Cavaliers to make a bowl game at this point, they will have to win at least one game on the road, which is no easy order. Furthermore, Virginia will have to take down at least two of the ACC’s division championship contenders — North Carolina sits atop the Coastal Division and Virginia Tech sits in third, while Louisville comes in at second in the Atlantic Division.
The Cavaliers’ best chance for a win could come against Georgia Tech, which has yet to win an ACC contest and sits at 0-3 in conference play. Miami comes in just one step ahead of the Yellow Jackets in the Coastal Division at 1-2 in conference play. Add in a win over Wake Forest, and Virginia is in business if it can take down a couple of its stronger ACC opponents — and the Cavaliers’ best chance to get a head start would be with a win over North Carolina Saturday.
Now, I’m not saying that Mendenhall will lead the Cavaliers to win at least four of their next six games and secure a bowl game. Building a program takes time, but there’s nothing wrong with a little optimism.
What I am saying is that Mendenhall has experience with a rocky start to the season and was able to prove himself at BYU. So, don’t lose all hope yet, Cavalier fans. You never know what can happen in the last half of football season.