Bronco Mendenhall generated more headlines last Friday than he had in his entire two-year tenure at Virginia.
In an unscheduled appearance in front of the University Board of Visitors, the Cavalier football coach delivered a “State of the Program” speech. But the appearance itself was hardly the most surprising part — instead of praising his team as he had in the past, Mendenhall held nothing back when critiquing his team’s status.
Many sound bites, which have reverberated throughout local media outlets and the Twitterverse alike, arose from Mendenhall’s presentation. Only one-third of Virginia’s roster contains ACC-caliber football. The University has a perception and recent history of not valuing football. Student athletes should not be focused on going to the NFL.
Mendenhall’s most buzzworthy comment, though, was about scheduling.
“I want to play the worst power-five team that we can play,” Mendenhall said, emphasizing the word ‘worst’ as he said it. “That’s what the ACC requires — you have to play one other power-five [team in nonconference play]. “
Many were critical of this statement. For example, my colleague Alec Dougherty noted in a tweet that it would have been “better left unsaid.”
Saying Mendenhall's comment was brutal would be an understatement — I don’t think I’ve ever seen a coach publicly express a lack of confidence in their team to defeat quality opponents. But just because it’s harsh doesn’t mean it’s untrue. Mendenhall is right: For the Cavaliers to rack up wins, they must play bad nonconference teams.
One needs not look further than the Cavaliers’ recent history against power-five teams to understand Mendenhall’s thought process. Last season, against a mediocre Indiana team that finished 5-7, Virginia on its home turf. The season prior, the Cavaliers . And the season before that? You guessed it — another , this time at the hands of then-No. 13 UCLA in Pasadena, Calif.
Virginia has been simply outmatched by power-five teams this decade. The last time the Cavaliers picked up a victory over one, then-President Barack Obama had not been re-elected yet; Vines had yet to come into existence; and South Korean pop star PSY had just released “Gangnam Style” a couple of months prior.
That’s right. The last time Virginia defeated a power-five opponent was on . Then-quarterback Michael Rocco threw a touchdown pass to then-tight end Jake McGee with under two minutes remaining to lift the Cavaliers over Penn State 17-16 in Scott Stadium.
The nonconference struggles extend past power-five teams, too. Between the past two bowl games the Cavaliers had reached — 2017 and 2011, respectively — the team did not clear a .500 nonconference record in a single season.
With Virginia generally scheduling nonconference games as its first four matches, the Cavaliers have essentially started the season at 2-2 or worse for most of this decade. That slow start is not conducive for success.
Mendenhall’s suggestion will help ensure that the Cavaliers head into conference play with some momentum. This past season serves as the perfect example of what victories in nonconference games can do for a team.
Going 3-1, the Cavaliers had already surpassed their paltry 2-10 record from the year prior in the first four games of the season. They then went on to win their first two conference games, putting up consecutive gutsy performances against Duke and North Carolina, respectively.
As previously mentioned, Virginia’s only loss in the first half of last season came against a mediocre-at-best Indiana team. This matchup will take place again this season in week two. Yet, there are far worse — and thereby more beatable — power-five teams than the Hoosiers. Virginia would be better off in the future playing a team like Kansas or Illinois, which finished last season 1-11 and 2-10, respectively.
Though the Cavaliers showed a lot of promise last season, they still have a long way to go before they can be considered a great football team. Mendenhall recognizes this and knows that the most important goal for a growing Virginia program is to garner victories — even if they come against terrible teams.
Ben Tobin is the Managing Editor of The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @TobinBen.