In my more aspirational moments, I think about swearing off UVA sports and studying art. Lord knows it would be less emotionally taxing.
But, I know very little about art. Show me a piece of art, and I’ll show you my best blank stare.
Eventually I snap out of it, of course. Like a scorned lover, I’ll never be able to quit the addictive emotional turmoil of being a Virginia fan. And let’s face it: UVA sports confuse me just as much as any art exhibit would.
Take the upcoming football season as an example. Despite the considerable time I’ve thought about it, I still don’t really know what to expect. So continuing with the art theme, I propose this question: if we were looking at a painting of Virginia football, what would we see?
On one side, we’d see a team replacing a starting quarterback, an NFL defensive lineman, its all-time leading tackler, its best defensive player in a decade, and two of its top receivers. We’d see a team with paper-thin depth on the offensive and defensive lines. We’d see a former tight end slotted at defensive end out of necessity.
In addition, we’d see a place kicker with less range than a Jack Salt jump shot. We’d see two lightly-regarded recruiting classes in a row. We’d see a 1-6 record in the last seven games and zero offensive touchdowns in the last nine quarters. And we’d see 14 consecutive losses to the main rival.
That side of the painting looks pretty ugly.
But on the other side, we’d see talent and depth at defensive back and linebacker. We’d see an exciting new dual-threat quarterback who aligns well with the offense. We’d see the ACC’s best kickoff return man and its top returning receiver. We’d see playmakers at nose tackle, inside linebacker, and safety.
Looking further, we’d see a solid punter and an improved special teams unit. We’d see a reliable starting running back and a nice stable of youngsters behind him. We’d see a coaching staff that’s finally found its footing on the recruiting trail. We’d see a team coming off its first bowl game in six years. And we’d see a manageable schedule.
That side of the painting looks pretty good.
So what are we to make of the whole piece? Is it a winner? Is it a loser? Is it a Picasso or just a bunch of paint?
Honestly, I’m so conflicted that my most intelligent interpretation can be summed up thusly:
But let’s not give up that easily.
What if we look to the artist for help? In this case, Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall says that going to the post-season is now an expectation for his program (#NewStandard and whatnot). But he also says that it will take another Herculean effort to get back to a bowl game in 2018. He says the roster doesn’t have as much ACC caliber talent as he would like. But he says the roster building and succession planning is well underway. That doesn’t clarify much.
What about the surrounding environment? If you put a crappy painting the in the Louvre, it would seem a whole lot nicer than if you put it in my living room, right?
Well, both Mendenhall and athletic director Carla Williams say Virginia is well-behind its peers in terms of facilities and support. But progress is also being made. UVA has upped its strength staff and a campaign is underway to raise funds. Does that point to a program that’s building momentum? How long until the results match the plans? At this point, the surrounding environment is just as confusing as the picture itself.
Okay…we’re almost ready to give up. But before we do, what if we look at other paintings for comparison?
The pictures certainly look better at Clemson and Florida State. And those at Miami, Virginia Tech, NC State, and Louisville have risen in value in recent years.
But do we really think that Virginia is that much worse than Pitt, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, and Duke (the latter three of which the Hoos beat last season)? I certainly don’t. And neither does renowned art critic…I mean football writer…Bill Connelly. While he ranks Virginia as the 14th-best (i.e. worst) team in the ACC this season, he still thinks the Hoos could win 6 or 7 games.
So after all that looking, we’re left where we started: staring at a football program that’s too cloudy to make any definitive conclusions.
Fortunately, we’ll start to get more clues soon. The season kicks off in less than a month and could be one of the more intriguing in recent memory. Until then, your interpretations are as good as mine. Like lots of things in art, and in life, the appeal of Virginia football comes down to the opinion of the person who’s looking at it.