Are the Cavaliers a sleeping giant?
Admittedly, calling UVA a “sleeping giant” these days might be bit of a stretch. But after enduring seasons of 5-7 and 4-8, there’s evidence to suggest that the Hoos are approaching a breakthrough. Bronco Mendenhall and his staff have raised the level of excitement and energy in Charlottesville. But just as important, the team has been on the cusp of success the last two seasons, and the pieces are in place for a turnaround.
To do that, however, Virginia will need to start winning close games.
Turning close losses into close wins is easier said than done. Mendenhall admitted as much in an interview with ESPN this summer. But Virginia has been somewhat of a statistical anomaly these last two seasons. In 2014, the Cavaliers lost five games by a touchdown or less. Since 2005, there have been 32 Power Five conference teams that have had five losses of a touchdown or less. All but eight of them increased their win total the following season. In fact, the teams added on average 2.2 wins the next year.
Would anyone like to guess one of the eight teams that failed to achieve more wins? You’re right if you guessed he 2015 Virginia Cavaliers...who also lost five games by a touchdown or less. That’s the bad news, of course. The good news is that the same statistical trend favors a Virginia turnaround in 2016.
Poor coaching has often been one of the culprits during Virginia’s close game struggles. Too often to count during the London era, it appeared the team had done enough to win, only to be undone by tactical or strategic blunders from the coaching staff. Anyone remember the timeout kerfuffle at Virginia Tech in 2012? The “Khalek Get Off The Field” loss to Louisiana Tech? The 2014 meltdown loss to UNC? All of those losses can at least partly be attributed to coaching decisions and game management.
The hope is that the hire of Mendenhall can fix those issues. Again, the statistical evidence paints an optimistic picture. SB Nation’s Football Study Hall recently looked at how teams, and particularly coaches, deviated from their expected wins on any given year. Bronco Mendenhall’s teams performed on average 0.2 wins over expected, while Mike London’s Virginia teams fared 0.2 wins below expected. While the difference isn’t astronomical, it is significant. It suggests that other indications of improvement may not be just a pipe dream.
The statistics surrounding Virginia’s roster also portend a turnaround. SB Nation’s college football guru Bill Connelly recently published a piece measuring the impact on a team’s potential scoring average based on the returning players. Virginia returns 80% of its offense and figures to see a 2.8 points per game (ppg) bump based on that returning experience. On defense, the Hoos return 60%, good for a 0.5 ppg improvement. Those numbers combined and Virginia’s returners rank 39th in the country. The cupboard isn’t bare. With studs on both sides of the ball such as Quin Blanding and Taquan Mizzell, Virginia looks to prove the stats right and get back to winning ways.
Time will tell whether or not these statistics are just grasping at straws, or whether the stage is set for Virginia to rediscover success, and bring excitement back to Scott Stadium.