Before the college football season began, many viewed Virginia as the worst team in the conference, picking them to finish either dead last or near the bottom. Even a 4-8 record would have been deemed a success after the type of season they had last year, finishing 2-10 in Virginia Coach Bronco Mendenhall’s inaugural season at the University. However, staying true to the process put in place, Virginia (6-6, 3-5 ACC) exceeded expectations, getting off to a sizzling 5-1 start and eventually clinching a bowl berth for the first time since 2011. Virginia even received votes in the AP Top 25 Poll and the Coaches Poll after their hot start — something unimaginable at the beginning of the season for fans and pundits alike. For a college football program that had been mired in the doldrums of the ACC the past few seasons, and one with few expectations, this season should be thought of as nothing but a success for a program that is looking to be on the rise. Though the season ended on a sour note, with Virginia falling to its in-state rival Virginia Tech 10-0, the Cavaliers have plenty to be proud of. Though this game, and games against Miami and Louisville in preceding weeks, highlighted that Virginia still has ways to go before establishing itself as a program that has arrived, they are definitely better in year two of the Mendenhall era than they were in year one. The fact that Friday’s game against the Hokies most likely didn’t mark an end to their season is something to celebrate. Virginia was able to clinch bowl eligibility this season — something few predicted — and probably still has another football game to play. The Cavaliers also had several quality wins this season, including dominating a very good Boise State team at their stadium 42-23 en route to a stunning upset. This is the same Boise State team that was ranked No. 25 as recently as Week 12 in the College Football Playoff Rankings and finished the season 9-3. However, with quality wins also came missed opportunities. Virginia was unable to take out then-No. 2 Miami last weekend, despite being up 28-14 at one point in the third quarter. The loss was reminiscent of ones to Notre Dame two years ago and Louisville last year — games against some of the top teams in the nation that were winnable, but Virginia could not finish down the stretch. As the program continues to grow and improve, it will be imperative for Mendenhall to make sure his team is able to close these types of games out. If Virginia wants to establish itself as one of the better football programs in the ACC, it will have to pull out victories like these. Despite the successful season, the Cavaliers will be losing some valuable players. This season marked the ends of two stellar Virginia football careers on the defensive side of the ball in senior inside linebacker Micah Kiser and senior free safety Quin Blanding. Both had contemplated leaving Virginia for the NFL after last season’s 2-10 season, but came back to help Mendenhall’s vision of turning this program around come true. Their presence was felt immensely on and off the field, with both having stellar senior campaigns while serving as team leaders that helped guide Virginia to a bowl berth. In addition, senior quarterback Kurt Benkert will also be gone, placing a huge void at the most important position on the field. Benkert was phenomenal this season, setting numerous passing records for Virginia — including becoming the first quarterback in program history to throw for more than 3,000 yards in a season. He finished the regular season with 25 touchdowns and eight interceptions and completed just under 60 percent of his passes. Looking forward, it will be interesting to see who Mendenhall and his staff tab as next season’s starting quarterback. Overall, despite not finishing with a winning record, this season was a huge success. Lackluster expectations did not stop the Cavaliers from showing they were much better than last year, and in the process, improved their win total by four games and probably earned a bowl game they will play next month. A bowl game this season is a wildly successful accomplishment, but Virginia will look to continue to ascend so that they can set their eyes on even greater goals. Rahul Shah is a Sports Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.