Not that long ago, a home game against Penn State wouldn’t have been very appealing for Virginia’s football program. Sure, the University would make money by filling Scott Stadium, but the Cavaliers, who averaged just 5.5 victories from 2005-10, would probably not have been much of a match for the ever-potent Nittany Lions.
However, one game down in coach Mike London’s third season in Charlottesville and Virginia is a 10-point favorite to beat visiting Penn State on Saturday. Sure, much of that spread is a reflection of how far the Nittany Lions have fallen in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, but it’s also a sign that the U.Va. football is clearly on the rise.
During the 1990s, under coach George Welsh, Virginia never won fewer than seven games in a season — three times winning nine — and reached a Sugar Bowl and two Peach Bowls. Welsh also nearly forged a draw against much larger archrival Virginia Tech with a 4-6 record against the Hokies during the decade.
However, Welsh, the winningest coach in school history, retired after the 2000 season and U.Va football has never really been the same since. The Cavs finished under .500 in four of their nine seasons under Welsh’s successor, Al Groh, and did so again when London, one of Groh’s assistants for six years, took over in 2010. A Gator Bowl trip in 2007 was the highlight of the decade other than a victory over Virginia Tech in 2003.
But after going 4-8 in London’s debut campaign, U.Va finished 8-5 in 2011, upsetting No. 12 Georgia Tech and No. 23 Florida State before losing to Auburn in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.
Junior quarterback Michael Rocco – one of 10 returning starters — got the Cavs off on the right foot last weekend, completing 25 of 37 passes for 311 yards in a 43-19 rout of Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) member Richmond, London’s former team. Virginia led 16-0 midway through the first quarter and 22-0 before the Spiders scored.
Fortunately for London, Rocco, ace running back Perry Jones, and Virginia’s two All-ACC preseason picks, offensive tackle Oday Aboushi and linebacker Steve Greer, the Cavaliers don’t face conference powerhouses Clemson and Florida State this year.
A victory over Penn State, which lost at home last Saturday to Ohio – not Ohio State – in its first game since the death of revered coach Joe Paterno, would provide a cushion for UVa considering the following two foes are revenge-seeking Georgia Tech and always-tough TCU.
However even if those road trips both end in defeat, the Cavaliers should then put it on cruise control for a month against the likes of Louisiana Tech, lowly Duke, Maryland and Wake Forest. That would leave U.Va at 6-2 heading into the formidable final four games at N.C. State, at home against Miami and North Carolina and at Virginia Tech. A split of those contests and the Cavs would finish the regular season at 8-4, 5-3 in the ACC and heading for a decent bowl game.
Of course, London and Co. don’t intend to settle for such reasonable goals, but considering that Virginia hasn’t gone bowling in consecutive seasons since 2004-05, doing so would be a significant accomplishment and a sign to recruits that the coach has the program firmly headed in the right direction. That’s something that even U.Va President Teresa Sullivan and Rector Helen Dragas, who spent much of June in dramatic conflict, can agree is a good thing for Mr. Jefferson’s University.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin