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Must-win game for UVA: with emphasis on must

London_1Let me write now as a fan and alum as much as a journalist who has covered UVA football for 20 years. OK, so here goes: as a fan and alum, I want to see Mike London succeed, for lots of reasons.

It’s been said often that he’s a nice, well-spoken guy, and he is, and as such, he fits in well with the UVA mold already so well-represented by the likes of Tony Bennett and Brian O’Connor, the nice, well-spoken guys who have the basketball and baseball programs humming right now.

Two, it’s obvious to me that London is thisclose to getting football turned around. The talent is there; that much was obvious from the effort against then-seventh-ranked UCLA in the opener on Aug. 30, a game that Virginia by all rights should have and would have won without the three second-quarter Bruins defensive TDs.

Even in defeat, though, there was hope. I’d been saying all preseason that the 2014 Cavs were going to be better, but that made me a lone voice crying out in the wilderness. The UCLA game got some people on the bus with me, and the final score in the 45-13 win over Richmond this past weekend added a few more to the manifest, though that game was a lot more competitive than the score would indicate.

They really are close, and when you’re close, you want to see them get over the hump, both because you want your team to do well, but also because hiring a new coach means another few years of mediocrity as the new guy and his staff weed out players who don’t fit their system, get their guys in place, and the rest.

Look how long it took for Bennett to get basketball turned around; he went to an NCAA Tournament in year three, but it was only in year five, last year, that he was playing the way he wanted to play, with his assistants in place, with guys he recruited specifically to play his system, and look at the results.

(O’Connor is a special case; to borrow from former Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips’ assessment of Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll, O’Connor can take his’n and beat your’n, and he can take your’n and beat his’n; he took players that his predecessor couldn’t win with and won with them year one.)

So part of me wants to see London succeed because of him, and part of me wants to see London succeed because of us. A new coach coming in next year, in 2015, isn’t going to be put UVA football in position for any kind of appreciable success until 2018 or 2019 at the earliest. Entering 2014, UVA football has had three winning seasons in the last nine years; make that three for fourteen or three for fifteen, and even I’m not going to care anymore, and I’m one of the relative few who still does care, if you consider the 30,000 empty seats in Scott Stadium for last weekend’s game with Richmond.

Which brings us to this weekend with Louisville. Louisville is good, to state the obvious. Coach Bobby Petrino has won at every stop save his one incomplete season in the NFL, and he’s winning already in his second stop in Louisville, making it clear that he had it going the right week right off the bat, knocking off preseason Coastal Division favorite Miami pretty handily in Week 1.

That said, he doesn’t have as much talent at his disposal as Miami has, and he doesn’t have as much as Virginia has. I’m not basing that on my own subjective view of things, but rather hard, concrete numbers from Rivals, whose recruiting analyses from the last four classes adds up to a big advantage for UVA in terms of pure talent vis-à-vis Louisville.

Of course, Louisville faced a similar disadvantage, if not more pronounced, heading into its game with Miami, and look what happened there, right? Because Petrino, like O’Connor, like Chuck Noll, can beat you with his’n, and beat you with your’n.

Which is all well and good. Bobby Petrino is a good coach who can win football games. Saturday is a chance for Mike London to show that he’s a good coach who can win football games, and it may be his last significant chance to do. I say that because a loss Saturday is devastating in many respects, first and most noticeable being that it drops UVA to 1-2 on the season, and 1-2 at home this season. The 2014 season is front-loaded with home games, with five of the first six at home. The only road game comes next weekend at BYU, which you may have seen won last weekend at Texas, 41-7, and you may remember somehow lost last year in Charlottesville against a team that went on to win a grand total of two games.

BYU might be a tough out for back-to-back Virginia upsets. Anything is possible, but it’s less in the realm of possible, it seems to me, coming off a loss to Louisville and a 1-2 start at home, with a team and program that you’d have to think is reeling at that point.

Get to 1-3, then, after losing to BYU, and all bets are off. Kent State and Pitt at home the next two weeks are eminently winnable, but Virginia lost at home to another MAC school, Ball State, in 2013, and Pitt beat the Cavs in an ugly one in Heinz in 2013.

Lose both, you’re 1-5; split, you’re 2-4. Mike London might not make it past the bye week midseason if either of those scenarios ends up being the case. As much talent is there on the roster, as tough as the schedule is, and as much rope as you want to give a guy facing what London is facing, if there aren’t at least six wins on the ledger at the end of November, he’s not going to be back. The second-half schedule is going to make the brutal first half look like a cakewalk, with just two home games, against North Carolina and Miami, and road games at Florida State, Duke, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.

A 4-2 record at the break is a baseline for where Virginia needs to be to get to six, and even that might not be enough; but 3-3, 2-4, 1-5? Maybe not at 3-3 or 2-4, but at 1-5, we may see a change made during the bye week. As much as people like to say that Virginia is never going to fire a coach midseason, doing so in the doomsday scenario we’re considering here would make sense to give athletics director Craig Littlepage the flexibility to mobilize the program to be in a position to make an offer to a successor as soon after the regular season as possible, both to get the first choice of the available candidates on the market and to make sure that the new guy can be in the best position possible to keep the 2015 recruiting class intact.

That’s a lot of conjecture on something that I hope doesn’t happen. I’m the guy who called upset in the UCLA opener, and dangit, I had it, except for the three UCLA defensive touchdowns. This is more hunch than analysis, but I’m not feeling it heading into this weekend. I see the teams being competitive, but the unsettled quarterback situation, and the porous pass defense against Richmond last week, have me uneasy heading into a game with a team that can throw, can score lots of points, and has a coach who knows how to stomp on an opponent’s throat and has a history of doing so.

The fan in me is still pulling for the big upset. (Louisville is favored by seven at this writing). Mike London can win big football games. He beat Florida State in Tallahassee in 2011, which seems an eternity ago, but it happened, and it wasn’t a fluke. He’s beaten BYU, beaten penn state.

This one on Saturday is the biggest game of his football life. I’ve spent more than 1,300 words here hemming and hawing, but I’ll close out with a bold prediction: lose this weekend, and it’s the beginning of the end of the Mike London era at UVA.

– Column by Chris Graham

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