Virginia opened its training camp on Monday with low expectations from its fan base but big dreams by its players and coaches.
With two marquee opponents coming to Charlottesville to start the season in Brigham Young and No. 3 Oregon, there's no room for goldbricking.
I personally believe the opener with BYU is the biggest game of the season and I'll tell you why. In a year when many observers believe the Cavaliers won't finish .500, every win counts and upsetting the Cougars (presently a 3-point favorite over UVa) could work wonders for Mike London's team in terms of momentum.
With the possibility of sellout crowds for the first two games, a win could not only give the Wahoos momentum but reenergize a fan base thirsting for success.
I think London agrees with me. At least recent comments by him suggest that notion.
"They're huge," the Big Whistle said about the first two games. "It's a way to make a mark for the program.
"Our approach is that you can control the destiny of how you are perceived the way you play and we want to play well enough to win," London continued. "At home, in front of a packed crowd would be awesome. That's all our players think about (the first two games). Right now BYU is the biggest game for the program."
Up to the task?
The Cougars are coming off an 8-5 season and a bowl win. Boasting the nation's No. 3 defense last season with six starters returning to that unit, the Provo lads boast All-America outside linebacker candidate Kyle Van Noy. However, the independents have some adjustments of their own to deal with: a new offensive coordinator in Robert Anae and four offensive assistants in their first year with the program (offensive line, running backs, quarterbacks and wide receivers).
Cushioning that concern is eight returning starters on that side of the ball, which is a good thing because BYU is playing one of its most aggressive schedules ever. The Cougars play Texas the week after opening at Virginia. Also looming on the schedule is Utah, Georgia Tech, Boise State, Wisconsin and Notre Dame.
"We feel like this is an opportunity game," said junior UVa linebacker Daquan Romero. "Nobody expects us to win the first two games of the season but we're not bowing to anybody. It's a big opener for us and for our fans. We feel like we have to win because coming off a 4-8 season, you don't want to lose your first game. We're going out there with a chip on our shoulder."
Senior offensive tackle Morgan Moses said the Cavaliers' schedule was one of the reasons he returned.
"We talk about if you want to be the best you've got to play the best," Moses said. "BYU and Oregon are great teams but they put their pads on the same way we do. We have to have the mindset that we can win."
Sophomore defensive end Eli Harold believes a win over BYU can change the complexion of how outsiders view Virginia's program and believes Scott Stadium will be sold out.
"It's pretty big," said junior corner Tre' Nicholson of the opener. "It's the first game of the season and the first one is always the biggest one. As coach says, we can't worry about the crowd, who's there or not there. We're the ones on the field and have to execute. Playing games like this is definitely going to push you a little harder going against a better opponent."
Doing all the “little things”
Many of UVa's players have worked harder than ever and that hasn't gone unnoticed. London said strength and conditioning coach Evan Marcus reported Sunday night that extensive gains in the bench press, squat and power clean have been made in the offseason.
Senior wide receiver Tim Smith said that Marcus switched up the Cavaliers' summer workout program from last year's with a purpose.
"[Marcus] keyed in on smart, tough and aggressive, being able to throw that first blow," Smith said. "It's not going to be a walk in the park and we all know that. We kept that in the back of our minds all summer."
Harold talked about being prepared to throw that first punch against BYU.
"Coach Marcus told us that if you get knocked down, then pick your (bleep) back up and go harder," Harold said.
Seen these guys before
While Virginia has a limited history with the Cougars (a win over BYU in the All-America Bowl in Birmingham in 1987; a win at Provo in a high-scoring shootout in 1999; and a 38-35 loss in overtime to the Cougars to open the renovated Scott Stadium in George Welsh's last season), two of the Cavaliers’ new coaches are more familiar.
Offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild played against BYU as a player at Colorado State and as an assistant and head coach at CSU, having faced Cougars coaches Lavelle Edwards, Gary Crowton and present boss Bronco Mendenhall.
"Forever, they were always known as an offensive team that threw the ball a lot and scored a lot, and they've done that," Fairchild said Monday. "But as years progressed they've gotten better on defense. Bronco has a defensive background. They don't give up big plays; they're real big with a physical front seven, along with Van Noy, who is probably an early draft pick. Both safeties are coming back and the field corner so there's experience in the secondary."
Special teams coordinator and running backs coach Larry Lewis goes way back with BYU. When he was head coach at Idaho State his program patterned a lot of its systems from Edwards' philosophy and offensive coordinator Norm Chow.
"The thing I've seen over the years is that Bronco Mendenhall (74-29, 8 years) will prepare his kids well," Lewis said. "He's a great motivational coach. He brings his team together as good as any coach that I've seen as far as one team. He brings that defensive mentality. It's not going to affect them that they're in Virginia or anywhere else in the nation. They'll play against anybody."
Lewis agrees the momentum gained from an upset win could be a huge deal for the Cavaliers.
"Any first win, especially a big win, it really does (give momentum) and you feel good, too," Lewis said. "Is it a season-clincher? Not necessarily. But it's a great momentum builder."
That's what Monday was all about. The first step toward springing the upset, gaining that momentum, changing the perception of how Virginia is received.
London was right. Right now, BYU is the biggest game for the program.