Bronco

ANDREW SHURTLEFF/THE DAILY PROGRESS

Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall talks with players during warmups before the start of the ACC Championship Game against Clemson on Saturday in Charlotte, North Carolina.

For just the second time in program history, the Virginia football team is heading to a major bowl game.

The Cavaliers (9-4) received a bid to the Orange Bowl on Sunday afternoon, when this year’s New Year’s Six bowl matchups were revealed. Virginia will face Florida (10-2) at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida on Dec. 30 at 8 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN.

It will be the Wahoos’ first appearance in the Orange Bowl and their first major bowl game appearance since a trip to the Sugar Bowl in 1991.

“It’s fantastic,” said Wayne Schuchts, an Orange Bowl committee member and a former a former Virginia quarterback. “To think when George Welsh came in 1983 or thereabouts and to think about the program and where it was, to even think about [Virginia] playing in the Orange Bowl, I don’t think you could have even dreamed that.”

That changed on Sunday.

Virginia will be playing in one of college football’s most prestigious bowl games and one steeped in history. The Orange Bowl has been played annually since 1935, tying it with the Sugar Bowl and the Sun Bowl as the second oldest bowl game in college football, trailing only the Rose Bowl, which was first played in 1902 and has been played annually since 1916.

The Orange Bowl is part of the New Year’s Six, which is a group of the top six bowl games in college football that are part of the College Football Playoff. The other New Year’s Six bowl games are the Rose Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Peach Bowl and Cotton Bowl. Each season, two of the New Year’s Six bowl games serve as semifinals in the College Football Playoff. This season, the Peach Bowl and Fiesta Bowl are the College Football Playoff semifinals.

The Orange Bowl is contractually obligated to take the ACC champion unless they are in the College Football Playoff. Since Clemson, which beat Virginia 62-17 in the ACC Championship Game, is in the College Football Playoff, the Orange Bowl takes the next highest ranked ACC team. That was Virginia, which was ranked No. 24 in the final College Football Playoff rankings on Sunday. Florida was No. 9.

The Cavaliers will face a big challenge in South Florida. The Gators went 10-2 this season, with their only losses coming to SEC champion and College Football Playoff No. 1 seed LSU (13-0) and SEC East champion and Sugar Bowl participant Georgia (11-2).

Florida is averaging 33 points per game while limiting opponents to just 14.42 points per contest. The Gators’ offense is balanced. Florida has four receivers with at least 30 receptions, led by Kyle Pitts (51 catches, 610 yards, 5 TDs). All four of those UF receivers have scored at least three touchdowns. The Gators’ ground game also likes to spread the wealth. Three different running backs have scored four touchdowns for Florida this season.

The Gators’ defense is good at pressuring the quarterback. In 12 games this season, Florida has sacked opposing quarterbacks 46 times. The UF pass rush is led by senior linebacker Jonathan Greenard, who has recorded nine sacks and 15 tackles for loss. Fellow linebacker David Reese II leads Florida in total tackles with 89.

Virginia linebacker Charles Snowden said Saturday’s ACC Championship Game loss to Clemson will help in the Cavaliers’ preparation for the Gators.

“[Facing Clemson] opened our eyes to what that top tier [looks like],” Snowden said. “Clemson has won 28 in a row and are the defending national champs, so we know what the best of the best are like. We know what the bully on the block is like. So now we know going in, it won’t be a surprise.”

Virginia and Florida had two common opponents this season, Miami and Florida State. The Gators beat the Hurricanes 24-20 in the season opener in Orlando on Aug. 24, while the Cavaliers lost to Miami 17-9 on Oct. 11. Virginia beat Florida State 31-24 on Sept. 14 at Scott Stadium, while the Gators rolled to a 40-17 victory over the Seminoles in the regular season finale in Gainesville on Nov. 30.

Virginia and Florida have only met once. The Cavaliers visited then-No. 19 Florida on Oct. 3, 1959 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The Gators won that game, 55-10.

The Orange Bowl will be the fourth bowl game that Virginia has played at Hard Rock Stadium. The Cavaliers also played in two Carquest Bowls (1994, 1996) and one MicronPC Bowl (1999) at the stadium.

This year’s bowl trip to South Florida will certainly be the biggest.

“To have the opportunity to be in the Orange Bowl for Virginia I think it’s the next level,” Schuchts said. “It will be interesting to see with this group where they can go from here.

“Clearly, Clemson is the gold standard, but for Virginia to be in the Orange Bowl really is surreal.”

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