Virginia football is on a bye week, so for the first time in a while, a true evaluation of the Cavaliers (1-5, 0-2 ACC) at the midway point of the season can be had. Adding a tally to the win column last Saturday is a massive turning point for Coach Tony Elliot’s struggling squad, but the 2023 season has been a strange mix of frustrating losses, considerable progress and major storylines.
The biggest issue across the entire team is mediocre discipline. Often on crucial third downs, the offensive line surrenders a sack — a common occurrence in the 24-27 loss at Boston College — or some penalty is drawn against Virginia. The most notable example comes in the NC State loss, where the Cavaliers suffered 60 yards of penalties in the last two minutes of the game to give the Wolfpack a much easier field goal attempt.
When it matters most, Elliott’s squad usually comes up short. Until the recent victory, the Cavaliers would fall to shreds in the second half of games and squander opportunities to win. Aside from the opening game, Virginia could have realistically gone 3-2 had it been able to protect a lead, losing to NC State, James Madison and Boston College by a combined six points. In each game, the Cavaliers either held a lead or a tie with less than 10 minutes remaining and multiple opportunities for the offense to score. While rather intangible in the win column, some progress has been shown.
While the fact that the Cavaliers have possessed leads in a difficult game is noteworthy, they have had a double-digit lead against five of their six opponents — surrendering those leads due to an inconsistent offense that averages 9.17 points in the second half of games. In tandem with untimely penalties and interceptions, frustrating mistakes continue to doom the team.
On a positive note, a few standouts are making their cases for both postseason awards and NFL attention. An obvious selection for MVP is graduate student wide receiver Malik Washington, who was recently named to the Biletnikoff Watch List for the nation’s top receiver. Washington has indisputably been the best receiver in the Atlantic Coast Conference and has pushed himself into the conversation to be selected in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft this spring. His incredible statline of 44 receptions for 668 yards and five touchdowns in his first six games leads the conference in every statistic except for touchdowns, where Washington is only one behind Louisville junior wide receiver Jamari Thrash.
Right next to him, junior wide receiver Malachi Fields has been a go-to option. Like Washington, Fields also ranks in the ACC’s top five in receiving yards. Fields has made national highlight reels for his otherworldly catches just before halftime in consecutive games. At 6-foot-4, Fields is highly athletic and could join his teammate at the NFL Draft, or stay at Virginia for another season.
Several other Cavaliers have made highlight plays or have had standout games, but consistency has been a legitimate issue — especially on an offensive line that has been an absolute disaster in blitz protection. Virginia has allowed 21 sacks in its first six games. The putrid protection has had a major impact on quarterback play, as Cavalier signal-callers have had very little time to throw.
While freshman quarterback Anthony Colandrea played very well in place of injured senior quarterback Tony Muskett, Elliott consistently reiterated that Muskett would still be the starter, putting Colandrea in a difficult spot. If Colandrea plays in one more game, he cannot redshirt this season — he would essentially be wasting a year of eligibility. Muskett is now required to play through a painful shoulder injury for the rest of the season or not play at all so that Colandrea can make this year worthwhile. Several tough issues like this have been the calling card of the 2023 campaign. The only question is, what comes next?
Virginia is the only team in the country to play three ranked teams on the road in the next month — a fate that no ranked teams themselves will have to endure. A road date with No. 10 North Carolina awaits after the current bye week, immediately followed by a road game against Miami, who just dropped out of the updated Associated Press Poll after being ranked No. 25. Virginia gets somewhat of a break in the form of a home interlude against Georgia Tech, but the Yellow Jackets just defeated the Hurricanes on the road. The Cavaliers then have to travel to No. 21 Louisville and play host to No. 16 Duke. The final game is a home battle against Virginia Tech. There is a reality in which Virginia loses every remaining game, or an optimistic view would be going 2-4 to finish the year with a 3-9 record.
At the same time, fair expectations must be held. As previously mentioned, the Cavaliers were expected to win roughly three games with how difficult their schedule is — so a 3-9 record is nothing to balk at. It is also important to consider where Athletic Director Carla Williams can no longer justify committing to the current coaching staff. A final record of 2-10 or worse would certainly be grounds for removal. College football is evolving to fit shorter timelines, like Coach Deion Sanders and his seemingly overnight transformation of former PAC-12 bottomfeeder Colorado.
Virginia football has an uphill battle for the rest of this season, but success can still be found. Battling hard against ACC heavyweights or perhaps even earning an upset or two would go a long way toward giving Elliott a few more seasons to turn his program around. The Cavaliers were likely not ever going to truly contend for a bowl game in 2023 — but as seen in the William and Mary game, there are glimpses of hope. Elliott just needs patience as he and his staff continue to address Virginia’s issues and craft the foundations of a winning program.