This game with Louisville is, sneakily, much more important than you’d think for Tony Elliott
How about this for hyperbole: Tony Elliott is facing the must-win game of his brief career as a head coach Saturday when UVA hosts Louisville.
Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m prone to making too much of things.
Here’s my case:
Word is, some players are worried that there could be a mass exodus of teammates to the transfer portal after the season out of frustration over how things have been going on the field and in the locker room.
That’s what I’m hearing, and you could say corroboration comes in the form of Elliott telling the media after last week’s 38-17 loss at Duke that he is about to start benching players who make the mistakes that have contributed to the team’s 2-3 start.
He hinted, OK, actually outright said, that there’s been some resistance from the players to adapting to his new way of doing things.
The coach also complained publicly in his weekly presser on Tuesday about some of his players walking, instead of running, to the field for pregame warmups ahead of the loss, saying it showed a lack of enthusiasm.
So, we have a coach saying he’s going to bench guys, doesn’t like their body language, and we have players worried that their teammates are already thinking of bolting.
A loss on Saturday isn’t going to make any of that behind-the-scenes stuff any better.
Then, think about the impact that another loss would have on the fanbase.
An L would drop UVA to 2-4 on the season, with a bye week next week, ahead of a road game on Thursday, Oct. 20 at Georgia Tech.
The next home game is Oct. 29, the first of four straight weeks that the Cavaliers will play at Scott Stadium.
There was an obvious discrepancy between the reported and actual attendance for the first two home games, the wins over Richmond and ODU last month.
The feeling I’m getting from colleagues in the media is that this weekend’s game may actually get over 40,000 real-life fans in attendance, still about two-thirds of the capacity at Scott Stadium, but an improvement over what we’ve seen thus far.
OK, so, factor in a loss on Saturday, just for argument’s sake.
The program has a years-long problem drawing fans as it is.
The best-case for Oct. 29 against Miami is a 3-4 record, and that isn’t even guaranteed – Georgia Tech, after firing head coach Geoff Collins early last week, upset then-#24 Pitt on the road last Saturday, so that one is nothing resembling the gimme that it looked to be back in the summer, on the road, no less.
Lose tomorrow, start that four-game stretch with at best that 3-4 record, and what kind of attendance can we expect in Scott Stadium for that four-game stretch?
The scads of empty seats that we’d see for the stretch wouldn’t be a boost to recruiting, which needs something of a boost – Elliott’s first recruiting class, for the 2023 cycle, is currently ranked 13th out of 14 teams in the ACC.
Empty seats at home games, a possible losing season in Year 1, the head coach expressing his frustration with his players in the media and on the sidelines, a feared mass exodus from the current roster coming to fruition, none of this portends anything in terms of positive expectations heading into Year 2.
Because Year 2 begins with a new starting QB, be that Jay Woolfolk, the backup whose future career path is almost clearly in baseball, not football, someone else in the program, or a transfer.
The offensive line next year continues to be a work-in-progress. There will be losses at wide receiver and in the defensive front seven that will need to be accounted for.
And none of that factors in whoever may end up leaving if there the feared mass exodus materializes.
This seems to foretell Year 2 being more frustrating than Year 1, which gets us to Year 3.
Year 3 is 2024. Virginia Athletics broke ground in June on an $80 million football operations center that is on schedule to open in the spring of 2024.
Year 3 is still early in a new football coach’s tenure to expect much in terms of results – Elliott’s first recruits, in that currently low-rated recruiting class, will still be redshirt freshmen or sophomores, so the key guys on the two-deep will still be largely Bronco Mendenhall guys or transfers.
But if Elliott is looking at back-to-back frustrating – read: losing – seasons in Year 1 and Year 2, you have to think that Year 3 becomes a bellwether year for him, and for AD Carla Williams.
Much as the opening of the John Paul Jones Arena in 2006 put pressure on Dave Leitao, who would be named ACC Coach of the Year in his first season in the new arena, and fired two years later, after going 17-16 in 2007-2008 and 10-18 in 2008-2009, the donors to the $80 million football ops center are going to expect more from Elliott than three straight losing seasons out of the gate.
If Year 3 ends in more frustration, it’s not hard to figure that Elliott, and Williams, who hired him and thus, as the AD, is tethered to him, for good or bad, go into Elliott’s Year 4, in 2025, with their jobs on the line.
That’s a long way out from now, and a lot to put in terms of game pressure for a random Saturday in early October in a matchup of a pair of 2-3 teams.
A win maybe makes the locker room talk about dissension within the ranks at least quiet down heading into the bye week, gives the coaching staff a tiny bit of momentum when they fan out to the high schools in Virginia and elsewhere to try to make connections with coaches and recruits with their eyes on the class of 2023 and beyond, gets fans marginally excited about the stretch of home games beginning later this month.
The best-case scenario from a loss is that things stand still where they are, which isn’t a good place, and it’s entirely possible that things get worse, and head toward spiral.
So, no pressure, but, yeah, it would be nice to get a win.