Virginia Football finished the 2010 season with a 4-8 record, which, surprisingly, was actually better than what the experts predicted. There's a glaring question mark in what's been tabbed as a four-way race for the starting quarterback position, which is to say, Virginia basically has no quarterback for 2011. Oh, and the Hoos have lost to Duke for three straight years now. No matter how you slice it, UVA is far from being "back, baby." But there's a strange feeling in the air. Virginia Football is actually fun again.
Maybe it's all the fanfare that's surrounded the team, whether it's the Building of a Program, road shows, white-outs, and so on. Maybe it's that the Class of 2011 recruiting class is one of the best hauls we've seen in a while. Maybe it's the multiple rap videos praising the blue and orange.
I think it's something else. Coach Mike London is doing something that we never saw former head coach Al Groh do: he's taking risks on the field.
In his first season as Virginia head coach last year, London went for a whopping 28 fourth-down conversion attempts. Only eight schools had more attempts (Georgia Tech (40), Oregon (34), Louisiana-Monroe (33), Florida (33), Southern California (32), Western Michigan (30), Air Force (30) and Kentucky (29)).
By comparison, under Groh, Virginia took only 14 fourth down attempts in 2009, 20 in 2010 and 14 in 2008. The year before that, nine.
More after the jump.
There's something to be said about a coach willing to gamble on fourth down to keep the ball driving. Of course, it keeps defenses on their toes and allows a 3rd down situation to stay in two-down territory. It also lets the players know that their coach trusts them to come up big in tight situations.
It's not just that the Hoos are going for it on 4th down, but they're actually converting, getting 16 of the 28 attempts (57%). In Groh's final season at Virginia, he went 2-of-14 (14%).
In the victory over then-No. 22 Miami last season - the highlight of the season, in my opinion - London chose to go for it on 4th-and-3 from Miami's 16-yard line, scoreless midway through the second quarter. Marc Verica hit a wide open Colter Phillips, who trotted into the endzone. In a different era of Virginia Football, the Hoos would have kicked it for the easy three and the lead.
Also don't forget that tough 14-17 loss to then-No. 16 USC Trojans early in the season, when the Hoos went 2-for-3 on fourth-down conversions, robbed of that one-yard attempt early in the scoreless game.
One thing distinctly noticeable last season was that any boos you may have heard from the fans (I certainly didn't hear any) were not because of "cop-out" calls. Three years ago when Virginia traveled to Southern Cal, Al Groh made the decision to punt the ball on 4th-and-4 with 44 seconds to go in the half. That's not something I expect to hear coming under Coach London - at least, not with the current personnel.
And the fun's not over yet. Coach London expects opponents to think that every position could be treated like four-down territory for Virginia.
"And one day, and hopefully one day soon, we'll get to the point where we feel like we can run, pass on fourth and short, fourth and longs," London had said last season following the Duke loss. "It's not a brashness or cockiness. It's just kind of a mentality that you have to have with a team that feels like they can make it on any down or any opportunity."
As a fan of college football generally, I love watching fourth down attempts (something you just don't get in the NFL), trick plays and other risky maneuvers. And I'm glad to see that London's using the entire playbook to keep teams guessing.
No, Virginia Football's not back. But a whole new era is upon us, and this writer can't wait to see if we're going to punt or go for it.