What’s at stake for UVA football on Saturday vs. #7 UCLA

London_1We’ll have a sense of UVA football coach Mike London’s job security somewhere around 3:15 p.m. Eastern on Saturday.

The ‘Hoos enter their opener with seventh-ranked UCLA as 21-point ‘dogs, with the response to the early line a bit surprising in that it was at 22 earlier in the week. But that said, few expect an actual Virginia win, and most expect UCLA to treat the game as little more than a warmup on its way toward a berth in the first-ever FBS playoff and a chance to add some frequent-flyer miles to the ledger.

So here’s the stakes for London, who enters his fifth season very much on the hot seat: you don’t need to win, though a win against a Top 10 team would no question be nice, but your guys had better play well, be competitive, be in the game in the second half, and not let the score to get away from you in the end.

Anything other than that, and, well, the writing is on the wall.

And no, it wouldn’t be a moral victory to lose a tight one with UCLA. Not what I’m saying at all. What I’m saying is, playing well, win or lose, would give the Cavs something to build on with a front-loaded home schedule that can go one of two ways.

A blowout loss to UCLA takes the season down the wrong path before the calendar even hits September. Anything resembling last season’s debacles against Oregon and Clemson, both of which hung 59 on Virginia in Scott Stadium, sends the wrong message to players, one, and to a fan base already so disinterested in Virginia football that they’re leaving 20,000 seats empty for a season opener against a Top 10 team with a top Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback.

So the fans stay home, and games in Scott Stadium, four more after Saturday in the next five weeks, more resemble classes in the nearby Chem building in terms of attendance, and game-day atmosphere. Richmond, then, comes in next week with a pair of ex-UVA quarterbacks, Michael Rocco and Michael Strauss, smelling blood in the water, and then there’s Louisville in Week 3 in town looking for an easy ACC road win.

Week 4 at BYU, which somehow lost in the 2013 opener in Charlottesville against a UVA team that would go on to lose the rest of its games against FCS competition, promises not to be pretty. Kent State and Pitt on the return trip to Virginia are no pushovers.

Lose big on Saturday, show no life, no moxie, and a 1-5 or 0-6 start is a strong possibility, and guys getting paid to be there are updating their resumes.

Play well against UCLA, pull off the upset, or make it damn close, and the tables are turned. The fans who left tickets at the windows want to come out for UR and Louisville to see what’s going on. The team enters those games with confidence that they can hang with a team that a lot of people think can win a national title. Maybe BYU isn’t as scary as it looks on the schedule right now. Even with a loss, you can see a 4-2 start as a real possibility.

London needs to win at least six games this fall to have a job in Bryant Hall next year. No ifs, ands or buts about it. He didn’t earn this year as much as the contract extension that Craig Littlepage gave him after winning eight games in 2011 made it hard for the school to part ways with him and also hire someone to take his place, but that issue goes away after this fall, with just two years left on his contract, and the buyout being that much less cumbersome.

To win six, Virginia is going to need to be 4-2 at the end of the opening stretch. Only two games after Oct. 4 are at home, against North Carolina and Miami. Road trips to Florida State, Duke, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech loom. Finding two wins in that mess is difficult, but a team that could go 4-2 against the likes of UCLA, Louisville and BYU can get two more there.

There is no fine line here. Play well on Saturday, win or lose, or the countdown to the end of the Mike London era begins. There’s your stakes.

– Column by Chris Graham

         
 

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