After an emotional win over Virginia Tech on Friday, the Virginia football team turns the page and looks toward Saturday’s ACC Championship Game in Charlotte.
The Cavaliers (9-3, 6-2 ACC) need to quickly place last week’s historic win behind them as they prepare for Clemson, the defending national champion sporting a perfect 12-0 record this season. Beating the Tigers won’t be easy, and it will take an elite team effort.
Challenge vs. opportunityDepending on the site or sports book, Virginia sits as roughly a four-touchdown underdog to the Tigers. From the outside perspective, the Cavaliers are expected to get blown out by the Tigers.
It’s easy to view the game as a tremendous, and potentially insurmountable, challenge. Virginia, however, views the game differently.
“Those two things are usually synonymous, opportunity and challenge,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “We’ve framed it as such. It’s a magical opportunity for our program.”
After going 2-10 in Mendenhall’s first season, the Cavaliers are a win away from being crowned ACC champions. To earn the title, they’ll need to get through one of the best programs in college football.
Virginia’s “magical opportunity” comes in part due to Clemson’s success. Winning an ACC championship is one thing, but winning an ACC championship over Dabo Swinney’s 2019 Clemson team would shock the college football landscape.
Since the start of last season, Clemson is 27-0 with 17 of those victories coming by 30 points or more. The Tigers have won only three games by fewer than 10 points during that span, and they beat Notre Dame and Alabama by a combined score of 74-19 in two College Football Playoff games last season.
Swinney’s team is playing at an insanely efficient rate, and the Tigers look the part of a national title contender. Since a 21-20 scare at North Carolina on Sept. 28, Clemson is 7-0 with a combined score of 353-61. Each victory has come by at least 31 points.
“This is a defense that’s playing the most consistent football of any group we’ve had,” Swinney said. “They’re giving up 10 points a game. They’ve just been so consistent. Offensively, this is the most prolific offense we’ve had, scoring 45 a game. I mean, we’re rushing the ball for 250 something a game. The other big thing, this is the best turnover margin team I’ve had. We’re plus 11 in the turnover margin. We’re getting a lot of takeaways, we’re doing a good job of taking care of the ball. I think we’ve had seven games in a row now we’ve won the margin, which is the first time since I’ve been a head coach to have that consistency.”
Clemson is putting together one of its best seasons under Swinney a year after winning the national title in dominant fashion.
Under Mendenhall, the Cavaliers have placed an emphasis on unbroken growth. They want to elevate the program each season and build upon what the previous senior class left. Through four seasons, they’ve done that.
Mendenhall’s first season saw the Cavaliers go 2-10 before rattling off a 6-7 season in 2017, an 8-5 season in 2018 and a 9-3 season so far in 2019 with a win over Virginia Tech and an ACC Coastal Division title.
“It wasn’t perfect this year,” quarterback Bryce Perkins said. “We had a couple ugly losses. The way we fought back, the way that we were resilient, is right on line with the program’s growth and the program’s culture that coach built these past years that he was here.”
Virginia wanted to become an ACC title contender under Mendenhall. The Cavaliers play in their first ACC Championship Game on Saturday night.
“Just really an incredible journey that they’ve been on since [Mendenhall] got there,” Swinney said. “I mean, it’s been fun to watch. You could see this coming as far as them building a championship program. Just being around Bronco in meetings and things like that, I think he’s an outstanding coach, unbelievable human being, has just done a wonderful job there at Virginia.”
Perkins catches fire
Virginia’s offense has scored at least 30 points in four consecutive games. Clemson’s defense hasn’t yielded more than 20 points in a game all season. The last time the Tigers allowed 30 points to an ACC team was Nov. 4, 2016, when Clemson defeated N.C. State, 38-31.
Scoring against the Tigers won’t be easy, but Bryce Perkins gives Virginia’s offense a fighting chance. In his past four games, Perkins is averaging 286.5 passing yards and 103 rushing yards per game. He’s scored 13 touchdowns and thrown one interception during that span. UVa’s quarterback has been playing at an All-ACC caliber level in recent weeks.
In the win over Virginia Tech, Perkins accounted for 475 of the team’s 492 yards. He was named ACC Quarterback of the Week on Monday. Without consistent production from running backs, the redshirt senior will be asked to do it Saturday against the Tigers. If Virginia stands any chance of winning Saturday, it will be up to Perkins to excel.
“He’s a great player,” Swinney said. “First of all, he’s a great leader. You just see that in him. He plays with an incredible will to win. He has this belief to him. It’s very easy to see that. He’s one of those guys that makes everybody around him better. You can tell, again, he’s a great young man and a great leader. That doesn’t just happen. He’s got the total respect of everyone. Kind of as he goes, they go.”