The Cavalier Daily
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Where does Coach Tony Elliott stand after year two?

Two Cavalier Daily sports writers debate whether the Cavaliers should move on to a new coach

<p>Elliott is 6-16 in two seasons as Virginia's coach.</p>

Elliott is 6-16 in two seasons as Virginia's coach.

After two years with the program, Virginia football Coach Tony Elliott has amassed a 6-16 record, with only three wins in conference play. It should be noted that Elliott has faced perhaps the toughest two seasons of any coach in the United States, with the murder of three teammates scarring the 2022 season and causing the final two games to be canceled. 

Despite facing unimaginable challenges, Elliott and the Cavaliers once again took the field in 2023, and had some promising moments, like the upset of then No. 10 North Carolina. But a blowout loss to Virginia Tech left a bad taste in many fans’ mouths, and three wins in consecutive seasons is inarguably below the standard of the program. With all of this in mind, two senior writers from The Cavalier Daily take stock of where the current head coach stands heading into 2024.

Elliott has shown enough

Connor Lothrop, Senior Writer:

Elliott has shown he is not the man for the Virginia head coaching gig. The former Clemson coordinator has been below expectations in almost every category that exists for a modern major football coach — recruiting, winning and organizational growth. 

Entering year three, Elliott-era recruiting has been a disaster. Under the control of former Coach Bronco Mendenhall — who just took the head coach position at New Mexico — the Cavaliers averaged the 54th best recruiting class in America via 247Sports, signing six total four-star recruits despite the baked-in challenge of recruiting with the University’s high academic standards. Elliott’s classes have averaged 69th place and produced a lone four-star. The team’s talent deficit has always been there, but under Elliott the gap is widening. 

The play on the field has suffered over the past two years as well. After a 2-10 opener to his career, Mendenhall had the team bowl-eligible each of his last five years, providing the Cavaliers their only bowl win in the last 18 years and a vaunted New Year’s Six appearance. Elliott has only beaten three power conference teams in two years — a dreadful Georgia Tech team in 2022, an upset of then No.10 — and now unranked — North Carolina and a win over a Duke squad decimated by injuries. Virginia has lacked finish and discipline, going 4-8 in one score games during Elliott’s tenure  and never ranking better than 100th in penalties per game. 

In addition, questions remained about how Elliott’s play calling style would translate to a less talented squad. When calling the plays at Clemson, Elliott ran a conservative, vanilla offense that worked because it was always the more talented unit. Importing offensive coordinator Des Kitchings to call pro-style plays for the Cavaliers has been a disaster without Clemson’s inherent talent advantage

With Mendenhall, the team had an identity of high-tempo, spread out, explosive football. Bryce Perkins and Brennan Armstrong looked like legitimate NFL prospects in the previous systems. In Mendenhall’s final year, the Cavalier offense was 8th in SP+, a catch-all efficiency metric. In Elliott’s first year, that group immediately receded to 116th in SP+ despite minimal personnel change, leading to Armstrong struggling and transferring. 2023 was only marginally better thanks to the emergence of graduate student and All-American receiver Malik Washington. 

In addition, this is an important time for college athletics in terms of conference realignment. Virginia is at risk of being left out of one of the superconferences due to its ACC affiliation, and poor football play does not help its case. It is irresponsible to continue to let someone as unsuccessful as Elliott run the program when so much of the future is on the line. Colorado fixed their irrelevance problem by hiring Deion Sanders — Colorado was then invited to Big 12 before his first game. Virginia could use a similar, if less flashy, facelift for the future of the program.

In defense of Elliott

Xander Tilock, Senior Writer:

Elliott should get another chance to improve the Cavaliers in 2024. Yes, his squads have struggled, but that upset victory against the Tar Heels is a shimmering glimpse of how he could transform Cavalier football into the program it was decades ago. He has already begun to improve his roster in the offseason, receiving the commitment of Notre Dame transfer wide receiver Chris Tyree — a former consensus top-100 recruit — and freshman stars such as quarterback Anthony Colandrea and linebacker Kam Robinson are actively recruiting for the Cavaliers on social media. Elliott can sustainably rely on the contemporary transfer portal to alleviate recruiting issues, as Washington broke the single-season Virginia receiving record and receptions record in his only season with the team after transferring from Northwestern. 

Athletic Director Carla Williams had multiple options to replace Mendenhall, and her due diligence resulted in committing significant resources to put in writing a six-year contract, indicating her trust in Elliott to be competitive in the ACC even if it does not come until later in the tenure. Elliott’s expensive deal was not created without cause. He was Dabo Swinney’s top assistant at Clemson and occasionally struggled with properly executing plays on offense without a star talent at quarterback like Trevor Lawrence, but ultimately found success more often than not, winning two national championships.. 

“I can tell you this, there is nobody that I believe in more, trust and respect more than Tony Elliott,” Swinney said. “Tony Elliott is special. He’s special. I’m not really concerned with what other people think, to be quite honest with you. I’m here every day.” 

Praise from a coach that has two national championships along with 10 ACC championships on his resume speaks more to Elliott’s potential than a slow start to his tenure with the Cavaliers. 

An absolute gauntlet of a schedule also did Elliot no favors, as multiple sites claimed Virginia had one of the 10 hardest schedules in 2023. And while another loss to the Hokies stings, the Cavaliers are 2-22 against Virginia Tech since 1999. Overcoming a one-sided rivalry is going to take several years to accomplish. Examining the program holistically, Virginia has seen lows much worse than its current state. For their first nine seasons in the ACC, the Cavaliers had a losing record punctuated by a disastrous 28-game losing streak. 

Virginia did not even make its first bowl game appearance until 1984. To say that “three wins in consecutive seasons is inarguably below the standard of the program” is simply false. The Cavaliers have had three wins or less in a season 37 times in program history. It is worth noting that from 1985 to 2000, Virginia was a successful program due to legendary coach George Welsh, but the Cavaliers have failed to make a bowl game in 12 of the last 18 seasons. The fact is that this is not an elite program by any metric. 

When considering potential omission from prominent conference realignment — which is arguably the largest point of potential concern — Elliott’s early struggles are not an issue. The Big Ten and Southeastern Conference both have football bottomfeeders like 3-9 Indiana and 2-10 Vanderbilt — highlighting that the Cavaliers are valuable as a full package. Combining world-class academics with a pair of national championships in women's swimming and diving plus men’s tennis last year is a value add for any conference. Virginia was ranked 4th in the NCAA Director’s Cup, voted on by athletic directors nationwide. Football may be the most important sport to conferences, but it is not by any means a dealbreaker, especially for an athletic department like Virginia’s.

Firing Elliott now after demonstrating progress would just restart another lengthy and painful rebuild. That one four-star recruit he brought on was Robinson, who was just named to the Freshman All-American Team. The recruits he has managed to keep have exceeded expectations, as Colandrea received All-American votes as well. 

In addition, if Elliott was fired, replacement candidates are few and far between for a program that just had consecutive three-win seasons. Five of the nine losses in 2023 were by just one possession, proving Elliott’s squad was legitimately just a handful of plays away from making a bowl game this year — even with crucial defensive backs like graduate Coen King and fifth year Antonio Clary both missing the majority of the season due to injury. 

Elliott will likely need to make a bowl next year for job security, but there are pieces in place to ensure continuity on both sides of the ball. Mainstays like graduate student defensive end Chico Bennett Jr. and senior defensive tackle Jahmeer Carter, for example, both elected to stay with the program in 2024 instead of transferring or going pro. If program stars believe in Elliott, others should as well.

Losing record aside, there can be no doubt that Elliott is an exceptional leader and a true hero, overcoming extreme adversity throughout his life. Even if fans cannot yet believe in Elliott as a coach, they absolutely should believe in him as a man. Elliott is an outstanding representative of the University, and has shown enough on the football side for Virginia to give him another year to show proof of concept. 


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