SHAH: Is a bowl game really a possibility?

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Already tallying three wins this season, there's hope that coach Bronco Mendenhall could lead the Cavaliers to a bowl berth. 

Mariana Fraser | Cavalier Daily

After heading into a season marked with tempered expectations, the Virginia football team has surprised many with its strong 3-1 start to the season. Four weeks into the season, the Cavaliers have already won more games than they did last year, suddenly raising expectations in a season where there weren’t many to begin with. 

The hope was that Coach Bronco Mendenhall could steer Virginia in the right direction. Last season was about implementing his system and culture into Virginia’s program, and this year was about steady improvement. Winning four or five games throughout the entire season would have been classified as an improvement after the way the team played last year. 

However, Virginia has proved a lot of people wrong in the last month, already picking up three wins so far. One of those victories came at Boise State, in a beatdown almost no one expected. The Broncos hadn’t lost a nonconference home game in the regular season since 2001, and Virginia ran them right out their building with a 42-23 shellacking.

However, as the Cavaliers’ bye week settles in, it’s becoming clearer that the expectations surrounding the program are beginning to change. The Cavaliers need to win just three out of their remaining eight games to become eligible for a bowl game. However, this proposition seems a little misguided, with Virginia’s final three opponents being Louisville, Miami and Virginia Tech. All three teams are currently ranked in the AP Top 25 College Football rankings. 

Virginia did play an incredibly competitive home game against the Cardinals last year, before Louisville’s then-sophomore quarterback Lamar Jackson threw a game-winning touchdown with seconds to go in the game to give his team the win. However, this year’s game will be on the road, making it even tougher as Virginia’s defense will again have to go up against Jackson — last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, who is having another strong season. 

The game against Miami will be on the road too, and the Hurricanes has gotten off to a strong 2-0 start. Like always, Virginia will finish off its season against the Hokies, who have given them trouble year after year. Virginia Tech has won the last 13 meetings, with Virginia’s last win against them coming back in 2003. 

Despite the win over Boise State, Virginia is still a largely unproven team. The other two teams they have beaten, William & Mary and Connecticut, consist of an FCS team and a reeling football team, respectively. Barring collapses by those three teams or an unforgettable series of Virginia wins, all three of Virginia’s opponents will be favored in those games. Thus, it’s worth taking a look at the next five games and Virginia’s chances of winning three of those to try and see if they can reach a bowl game for the first time since 2011. 

Following the bye week, Virginia will take on Duke for the Cavaliers’ first ACC matchup of the season. Despite the game being in Charlottesville, the Cavaliers will probably have a tough time knocking them off. The Blue Devils have started the season off on a strong note, winning all four of their games, including wins over Northwestern, Baylor and North Carolina. 

However, it is not unrealistic to think that the Cavaliers can win their following two games against North Carolina and Boston College. The Tar Heels are 1-3 and have suffered a litany of injuries, losing nine scholarship players to season-ending injuries through the first three games of the season — including key players in junior linebacker Andre Smith, senior wide receiver Thomas Jackson and sophomore offensive tackle William Sweet. To make matters worse, North Carolina lost two receivers to injury in last week’s game against Duke — senior Austin Proehl and freshman Rontavius Groves. Both players may miss extended time. Virginia has an opportunity to take advantage of a thin North Carolina roster and steal a game on the road. 

The following week, Virginia should be able to take care of Boston College at home. The Eagles barely beat Northern Illinois in week one, before falling to three straight ACC opponents — Wake Forest, Notre Dame and Clemson — by more than 20 points apiece. 

If the Cavaliers were to beat the Tar Heels and the Eagles, then they would have five wins heading into subsequent matchups against Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech looming. Their best bet would be against Pittsburgh, who lost to Georgia Tech this past weekend. The Panthers are 1-3 and struggling. The team’s rushing attack has taken a hit with the departure of James Conner. The Panther defense and offense have struggled, and the team has lost its last three games by more than two touchdowns each. 

Overall, with the Cavaliers’ final three games against some of the top teams in the nation, the next five weeks will be imperative to Virginia trying to secure six wins and a chance to play a bowl game. Virginia needs three more wins, and although it is a tall order asking a program that’s spent recent years in the doldrums of college football to win three out of five games, it seems not only to be the most likely path to a bowl game, but also one that is certainly possible. The culture Mendenhall has implemented into Virginia’s football program is one that is being embraced by the players, and with evidence that this offense and defense can play at a high level, it’s certainly possible that Cavalier fans will get to watch a bowl game featuring their team this winter. 

Rahul Shah is a Sports Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at r.shah@cavalierdaily.com

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