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Bowl Watch: How Virginia finally broke through

What a long, strange trip it’s been.

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NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

“Finally it has happened to me right in front of my face. My feelings can’t describe it.”

After six years of wondering in the college football wilderness, the Virginia Cavaliers are bowl eligible.

It wasn’t an easy path. Consider Saturday’s game alone: the Hoos came back from three different deficits to knock off Georgia Tech. They did so:

  • With a game-winning touchdown in the last two minutes during a driving rainstorm.
  • With three senior defensive studs, two of whom (Micah Kiser and Quin Blanding) could have left school after their junior season.
  • With three second-half touchdown passes from Kurt Benkert, who had performed poorly enough in previous weeks to fuel injury speculation.
  • With the first-ever kickoff return TD from sophomore Joe Reed.
  • With redshirt freshman and former walk-on Brenton Nelson picking up a key interception.
  • With true freshman defensive lineman Mandy Alonso getting his first start.
  • With redshirt freshman offensive lineman Ben Knutson getting his first start...after barely playing all year.
  • With true freshman offensive lineman Chris Glaser appearing in his first game and damn near going the distance.
  • With three consecutive second-half punts downed inside the 20-yard-line.
  • With three field goals in one game. The Hoos only made five field goals in 2016.
  • With an extra point that hit both goal posts and went in.

The list could go on, but it still wouldn’t do justice to the weirdness of the game or the import of the moment. Just think about all of the things that have changed in the program since the last time Virginia went to a bowl game: a new coach, a new staff, a new attitude, and a new work ethic.

For too long, the postseason seemed like a far away dream. Now it’s a reality.

Schedule Analysis:

Virginia’s path to six wins has been surprising as well. At the start of the season, I categorized Virginia’s schedule into four buckets.

  • Should-wins: Home games against W&M, UConn, and Boston College
  • Toss-ups: Home games against Indiana and Duke
  • Potential Upsets: Road games against Pitt and UNC, and a home game against Georgia Tech
  • Prayers: Road games against Louisville, Miami, and Boise State, and the home finale against Virginia Tech.

I said Virginia would need to sweep the should wins and toss-ups, and hope to pick up an upset somewhere else. Instead, the Hoos lost to Boston College and Indiana, squeaked by Georgia Tech and Duke, and walloped Boise State on the road. If you had told me in August that UVA would lose to the Eagles and Hoosiers and still be bowl eligible in early November, I would have asked for a shot of whatever you’d been drinking.

Bowl Projections:

With bowl eligibility achieved, I’ll shift this column to try to provide insight on where the Hoos might head for the holidays. The key note there is “try.” These things tend to be unpredictable.

On that note, here’s where UVA sits in this week’s bowl projections. With 6 wins already in the bank, the team can improve its bowl standing by snagging one more upset in the next three weeks.

Week 13 Bowl Projections

Site Bowl Prediction Opponent
Site Bowl Prediction Opponent
SB Nation Military Bowl (Annapolis, MD, December 28) Navy
CBS Sports (Jerry Palm) Quick Lane Bowl (Detroit, MI, December 26) Western Michigan
College Football News Military Bowl (Annapolis, MD, December 28) Navy
Sports Illustrated Quick Lane Bowl (Detroit, MI, December 26) Central Michigan
ESPN (David Hale) Military Bowl (Annapolis, MD, December 28) Navy
ESPN (Kyle Bonagura) Military Bowl (Annapolis, MD, December 28) South Florida
USA Today Military Bowl (Annapolis, MD, December 28) Navy

Rankings And Results:

So where might the Cavaliers bolster their postseason resume? Well, here’s how they stack up against their opponents in the most recent S&P+ ratings. But the last three weeks have proved that rankings and projections are always going to be imperfect. So take these with a healthy grain of salt.

  • at Miami (8-0) - 11
  • Virginia Tech (7-2) - 18
  • at Boise State (7-2) - 25 - Win
  • at Louisville (5-4) - 44
  • Georgia Tech (4-4) - 50 - Win
  • Virginia (6-3) - 57
  • Indiana (3-6) - 62 - Loss
  • Boston College (5-4) - 79 - Loss
  • Duke (4-5) - 86 - Win
  • at Pittsburgh (4-5) - 102 - Loss
  • at North Carolina (1-8) - 105 - Win
  • Connecticut (3-6) - 121 - Win
  • William and Mary (2-7) - 191 - Win (Sagarin ranking used for W&M)

What’s Next:

Virginia heads to Louisville this week to face 2017’s most enigmatic team. The Cardinals still boast Heisman winner Lamar Jackson, arguably the most dangerous player in college football. They’ve lost three out of their last four, however, and haven’t beaten a single team with a winning record.

I asked local Louisville sports radio personality Joe Kelly what his thoughts were on the game. Here’s what he had to say:

Virginia might be a double-digit underdog (again), but I think the game will be competitive.

Saturday’s game could help sort out some of the ACC bowl pecking order. If the Cardinals reach bowl eligibility, they’ll likely compete with Virginia will likely for the same tier of bowl games. A win Saturday could go a long way towards placing the Hoos in a more desirable destination (like Nashville or Charlotte). A loss could have the opposite effect.