The loss was the sixth in the final seven games for Virginia, which started 5-1 with nice wins over Boise State and Duke, but after it was over it capped a season that felt more like a throwback to 2014, the beginning of the end of the Mike London era, than a step forward.
And actually, arguably, that 2014 team was better than this 2017 team. The opener was a narrow loss to then-#7 UCLA, and Week 3 had a win over then-#21 Louisville. Another tight loss to Week 4’s #21 team, BYU, was followed by two wins, over Kent State and Pitt, that had Virginia at 4-2, and though the ‘Hoos finished 1-5 down the stretch, they were only outclassed in one game (at Georgia Tech), and coulda/shoulda won at Duke, at home against UNC and absolutely blew the season finale at Virginia Tech.
This year’s group, after the hot start, laid several eggs – mauled by Boston College at home, handled by Pitt and Louisville, blew a third-quarter lead at Miami, rendered punchless by Virginia Tech, then the bowl debacle.
But, hey, at least there was a bowl for there to be a bowl debacle. London only coached in one bowl, also in Year 2 of his tenure, and his teams were 15-33 in the four seasons after that lone postseason appearance.
The decline was most noticeable in the Rivals recruiting rankings, where London had the 25th-best class in 2011, the year of his lone bowl game, the 27th-best class in 2012 and the 28th-best class in 2013, but after that team finished 2-10, the pipeline dried up. London’s last two classes were 41st (in 2014) and 44th (in 2015), and the class that he handed off to Mendenhall in his staff after being fired in December 2015 was the 61st-best in 2016.
The lack of depth from those last few classes was evident in the second half of the 2017 season. The offensive line, in particular, was a mash of froshes and grad transfers, and quarterback Kurt Benkert played the entire season with his backup being a true freshman, Lindell Stone, who Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae clearly don’t think a lot of, not even giving Stone mop-up duty in the bowl beatdown.
You don’t grow offensive linemen overnight, as should be obvious. Even the best high-school line recruits need a year or two, at the least, to mature physically to the point of being able to contribute at the college level.
Mendenhall and his staff have prioritized the line in recruiting the past couple of years, and I think it’s safe to expect that the line in 2018 will be better, and deeper, than you’ve seen it the past couple of years.
The defense loses three NFL-bound veteran leaders in Quin Blanding, Micah Kiser and Andrew Brown, but there is more talent on that side of the ball coming back that can serve as a foundation for the future.
Mendenhall goes into his third spring needing to settle on a new QB, and it appears out of the gate that JUCO transfer Bryce Perkins has the inside shot at the job. The four-star recruit has two years of eligibility left, and was one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the class of 2016.
Anae prefers a dual-threat QB to run his offense, which runs best with a quarterback who can throw, throw on the run and make defenses stay honest with the ability to keep the ball on read-options.
Stone doesn’t have the mobility to open up the full playbook, and seems to be destined for backup status or transfer.
Improvements on the line, more pages in the playbook seeing the light of day, and the weapons that Virginia has in the backfield and at wideout can be better utilized in 2018.
But it’s still going to be the case that you’re going to have as many questions as answers when it comes to 2018 and beyond.
Does Perkins make the smooth transition from JUCO to Power 5, and what about his injury history? Does the offensive line develop the kind of depth that a Power 5 team needs to have to block for 800-900 snaps over 12 games?
Which guys step up to replace Blanding, Kiser and Brown, and do other guys step up to provide depth on the defensive side of the ball?
Sum it all up, and you might be hard-pressed to see much more out of the 2018 team than we saw out of the 2017 group. Maybe six, maybe seven wins, with a much less competitive schedule offering help there.
The non-conference slate has games with Richmond, Indiana, Ohio and Liberty. At worst, you have to think, you’re 3-1 in those. The ACC has the regular contests in the Coastal, plus Louisville and NC State.
There are three wins there, maybe four, right? Probably so, but the margin for error still isn’t all that great in Year 3.
Basically, you’re playing next year to build toward Year 4, 2019, when if things go the right way, you have Perkins as a second-year starter, and senior, with an experienced line, a veteran defense and another favorable non-conference schedule, with games against William & Mary, ODU and Liberty, plus marquee matchups against Notre Dame and Florida State.
Patience is hard to come by for UVA football fans, I know, but you have to think things are moving in the right direction, or at least hope they are.
Story by Chris Graham