I’ll admit that I was intrigued.
After weeks of thinking Virginia football would go to the Military Bowl, I sat on the couch Sunday morning contemplating a trip to the Bronx. With reports surfacing that the Pinstripe Bowl was interested in the Wahoos, I suddenly found myself humming a Sinatra tune.
After all, who wouldn’t raise an eyebrow at the chance to see UVA play in the city that doesn’t sleep?
News soon came, however, that the Cavaliers would in fact head to Annapolis to play Navy. It seems that the conventional wisdom was correct sense had prevailed, and I’m ultimately glad it was. Because as alluring as a trip to New York City at Christmas might be, I’m convinced that the Military Bowl is the perfect game at the perfect time for Virginia football and its fans.
Despite this year’s turnaround, Bronco Mendenhall’s program is in the midst of a fragile rebuild. The Cavaliers have a razor thin margin for error these days. Just consider that they throttled Boise State at home but got gutted by Boston College at home. UVA’s roster lacks depth, its offense lacks consistency, and its in-state recruiting success lacks gravitas.
The Cavalier fanbase reflects the state of the program. A decade of losing alienated scores of followers, as evidenced by low attendance at Scott Stadium. Faith in the program, while on the upswing, still has a long way to go. The fanbase will need to rebuild itself, and progress will be fragile at first.
That’s the main reason I think the Military Bowl fit so well.
I believe Virginia fans will start coming back when football starts feeling “fun” again. Most of that “fun” will come with winning. And beating Virginia Tech at some point would certainly help. But another part of the “fun” will come when fans can associate Virginia football with their own personal positive experiences. After all, people follow and cheer for their teams because they make them feel a certain way.
The Military Bowl provides the best chance for a positive experience for Virginia players and fans this offseason. Annapolis is a close drive for the 40,000 UVA alumni that live in the metro DC area. It’s a longer, but still manageable drive for Virginia partisans in the Commonwealth and along the I-95 corridor. It’s a charming city with great views, restaurants, and shops. Wrap those traits together, and the potential “fun quotient” for this bowl trip is quite high.
Then there’s the matter of the game itself. At this stage in its rebuild, Virginia needs compelling but beatable opponents. Navy certainly fits the bill. The two schools share a history with George Welsh. The coaching staffs know each other well. Navy runs the damned triple option that Virginia fans have come to loathe from watching Georgia Tech games. And Navy and Virginia punch in the same weight class. The Hoos are currently 77th in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ ratings. The Middies are 78th.
In the best-case scenario, Virginia will beat the Middies in an exciting game watched in person by 15,000 Cavalier fans. Those hearty Hoos in attendance will be reminded of the fun of traveling with the team and cheering for victory. Some might have such a good time tailgating that they’ll remember the party more than the game. That’s okay, too.
One day, I hope Virginia will take tens of thousands of fans to bowl games outside of the DMV. One day, I hope the Wahoo faithful will travel to New York, to Charlotte, to Florida, and who knows where else. One day, I hope Virginia fans will be as passionate about showing up to football games as they are about tweeting ESPN writers who criticize the basketball team.
But for 2017, Virginia football needed a bowl game that could help nurture the small but fledgling flame of fan enthusiasm that it sparked this season. It needed a bowl game convenient enough that even fence-sitting Wahoos would attend. It needed an interesting opponent and good storylines. A Pinstripe Bowl game against Iowa wouldn’t have provided those things, regardless of the fun that the Big Apple provides. Navy and the Military Bowl will.
For the first time in six years, the Hoos earned the right to play in the postseason. They are fortunate to have landed where they did.