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It’s now or never for Virginia football — expect the Cavaliers to win

Coach Tony Elliott and his Cavaliers will face a high-stakes season with pivotal contests aplenty

Elliott looks on at his offense during a timeout.
Elliott looks on at his offense during a timeout.

Virginia football is at a crucial crossroads. Coach Tony Elliott has gone a frustrating 6-16 as head coach. His teams have looked solid at times, only to crater to unbelievable lows, as seen in blowout losses to Virginia Tech and Maryland last season. Despite posting only three wins in his second campaign, improvement was slowly demonstrated — namely in a historic victory at then-No.10 North Carolina. Elliott must turn this marginal improvement into significant progress in the win column if he is to keep his job, and if the Cavaliers can win the feasible games, a significant turnaround could be in store.

Elliott’s transfer class has brought some crucial playmakers into the fold, and returning players will have another offseason with the Cavaliers’ system to prepare for game action. With this critical season less than three months away, it has been revealed that Virginia will play its high-stakes season with several games on primetime broadcasts. 

The Cavaliers have only played in a handful of evening contests in Elliott’s tenure but will now play three straight night games to open the 2024 season. The season opener August 31 versus Richmond will be a 6 p.m. kickoff and should hopefully be a comfortable victory against a non-Power Five program.

Virginia then jumps right into ACC action September 7 with a 7 p.m. game at Wake Forest on ESPN2 in what will be a pivotal contest for both teams. A potential 2-0 start would be massive for Elliott and company, but dropping one of the first two games could be deadly considering how difficult the schedule is later in the season.

The Cavaliers then get a second home night game September 14, hosting Maryland on ACC Network at 8 p.m. for a rematch of last year’s ugly defeat. Despite a lopsided final score in 2023, Virginia held a lead for most of the first half. This time, the Cavaliers could capitalize on the fact that the Terrapins have had several key contributors depart for the NFL. Elliott has never defeated a Big Ten team, but if he can somehow lead Virginia to a 3-0 start, a bowl game is a plausible goal for the first time since 2021.

The next three games are also winnable, as the Cavaliers travel to Coastal Carolina before hosting Boston College and Louisville. All three teams have lost significant talent, and Virginia was a handful of mistakes away from defeating the latter two programs in 2023. 

Extremely tough road contests later in the season against Clemson and Notre Dame are almost certainly guaranteed to be losses, and trials against North Carolina and Virginia Tech are always difficult. A game at Pittsburgh and a home fight versus Southern Methodist could go either way, but all the Cavaliers have to do to find success in 2024 is win the “winnable” games. 

However, the 2023 squad was inconsistent and struggled to win the “winnable games.” Virginia conquered the No.10 team in the country and came just a few plays away from beating then-No.11 Louisville, Miami, Boston College and James Madison. But they looked utterly hopeless in a 55-17 loss to the rival Hokies and made backbreaking mistakes in the fourth quarter of several close losses. 

There will be no room for such errors in year three of the Elliott era. The University has made too many significant investments in the football program, such as a new $80 million facility, to put up with a subpar record. Any collegiate athletic program relies on football to generate the largest chunk of finances, and Athletic Director Carla Williams cannot continue to allow disappointing results — as poorly attended games at Scott Stadium hinder the wallets of other programs.

Receiving multiple primetime kickoffs will help increase Virginia’s viewership, but Elliott and his staff must now provide their best product yet. In his third season, there are no points for “almost” winning games. Other Power Five programs have had far less patience with struggling coaches and have made big moves to acquire younger top-dollar prodigies. Michigan State was quick to hire Jonathan Smith, the 2022 PAC-12 Co-Coach of the Year, away from Oregon State and has already brought on several of Smith’s assistants and players through the transfer portal.

Elliott’s position before the Cavaliers was as Dabo Swinney’s offensive coordinator at Clemson, but he has not brought anything close to the level of success that the Tigers have had as one of the best programs in all of college football. Brent Venables, the defensive coordinator during Elliott’s time at Clemson, has already found success as the leader of his own program. Venables joined Oklahoma in 2022 and has led them to consecutive bowl game appearances.

If Virginia fails to make a bowl game, Williams could have serious buyer’s remorse as the best group of supercoaches sign elsewhere. Elliott inherited a bowl-game caliber program but has done very little to establish a standard of winning. Patience is a privilege in contemporary college football — but that privilege is fading quickly.

It is obvious that the Cavaliers are under pressure, but the bigger storyline is how they will adapt. Previously frustrating results aside, the 2024 squad is certainly talented and hungry to make a splash in the ACC, and a bowl game may even be within reach in 2024. Only time will tell, but For Elliott and his staff, the objective is simple — win or die.


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