After a promising back half of the season, Virginia football ended 2023 on a sour note Saturday in a 55-17 loss to Virginia Tech. As the year comes to a close, The Cavalier Daily’s two football beat writers take a holistic look at where the Cavaliers stand and what to expect going into 2024.
What happened in the loss to Virginia Tech?
Xander Tilock: Virginia Tech sophomore quarterback Kyron Drones had his way, passing for 244 yards and three touchdowns while also running for 50 yards and averaging 7.1 yards per carry. He averaged a whopping 24.4 yards per pass and simply decimated a reeling Cavalier defense in every conceivable aspect of play. The defense registered zero sacks on Drones and allowed five touchdowns of 30-plus yards. As assessed in the game preview, containing Drones was a crucial prerequisite to the first Virginia victory in the matchup since 2019. Instead, Drones obliterated the Cavaliers — mainly due to a trio of transfer cornerbacks that struggled throughout the season and did not perform at the level that defensive coordinator John Rudzinski anticipated.
Max Jensen: From start to finish, Virginia Tech was the better football team. You could tell from the jump that this would be a tough game for Virginia to win. Their first four drives resulted in a net total of 17 yards along with a turnover. The Hokies had been good all season, allowing the fourth fewest yards per game in the ACC, and the Cavaliers could not overcome this hurdle. In the same amount of time, the Hokies had already scored 17 points, and the game was practically over before the second half began. If Virginia was going to win this game, they needed to match the intensity that Virginia Tech consistently brings to the Commonwealth Clash. Once the Hokies got out to a first quarter lead — a trend that suggests they will win the game — the tenor of the game was set in favor of the visiting squad.
Should the promising back half of the season hold more weight than the blowout finale?
XT: Absolutely. This is a rebuilding program, and patience is key. Defeating then-No.10 North Carolina on the road is the best win Virginia has had in years, and is justification for giving Coach Tony Elliott another season to demonstrate further progress. The Cavaliers lost five one-possession games in 2023 and were legitimately a handful of plays away from earning a spot at a bowl game. Freshmen standouts offensively such as quarterback Anthony Colandrea and wide receiver Suderian Harrison paired with defensive starters in linebacker Kam Robinson, safety Caleb Hardy and cornerback Dre Walker are developing into program cornerstones. A shellacking from Virginia Tech is certainly a painful setback, but competitive play in most games is more important than poor play in a lackluster finale.
MJ: Yes, the signs of improvement Virginia showed in the back half of the season should absolutely hold more weight than their performance against Virginia Tech. There are tons of positives to take away which should create a sense of excitement next season. Colandrea showed flashes of being a rising star and the defense was much improved from earlier in the season. With that being said, however, for this improvement to culminate in a 38-point Cavalier loss undoubtedly stings. Although the back half of the season should not be forgotten, this performance will make it hard for Virginia fans to remember the fight put up by this team against extremely talented opponents. The Virginia football program has always struggled to compete with its main rival, whether that be from a fan support perspective or on the field, having surrendered at least 29 points in the last five meetings. Elliott has to find a way to make that happen next year.
What are reasonable expectations heading into 2024?
XT: Five or six wins. Enticing options in the Power Five conference coordinator positions will be vying for head coaching spots soon, and Elliott must generate progress to retain his position. Improvement from 2022 to 2023 was shown through close finishes in most games, but the task in 2024 will be turning those close losses into wins. Victories against Richmond and Wake Forest are likely, and contests against Maryland, Coastal Carolina and Boston College should also go Virginia’s way due to a high percentage of opponents’ crucial upperclassmen graduating. A few games on the schedule are toss-ups, but a win versus Pittsburgh is reasonable. Unfortunately, there are road trips against Notre Dame, Clemson and Virginia Tech to overcome in addition to a trio of difficult ACC home games. The only question marks are transfer portal acquisitions and whether or not All-ACC honorees junior safety Jonas Sanker and junior wide receiver Malachi Fields decide to enter the NFL Draft or stay for their senior season, but another couple of wins are certainly within reach for Elliott’s Cavaliers.
MJ: I want to be optimistic and say that getting to a bowl game would be a realistic expectation, but I think that may be a stretch. There is certainly a scenario in which the team gets to six wins next year, but I do think between four and five wins is the most probable outcome. From a recruiting standpoint, Virginia has the 15th ranked 2024 class in the ACC, with only Southern Methodist and Boston College trailing. The hope is that Elliott can hit the transfer portal hard and fill holes. The starting offensive line is clearly a need, and the entirety of the defensive line is graduating, with players like defensive tackle Jahmeer Carter leaving giant holes up front. The good news is that young players like Colandrea, Robinson and Walker will inevitably improve. I am projecting modest improvement from this year with wins against Richmond, Coastal Carolina, Wake Forest and Boston College.