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Bowl Watch Week 5: Virginia enters the season’s toughest stretch

Can the Hoos continue their improved play against better opponents?

NCAA Football: Louisville at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Virginia football team (3-1, 1-0 ACC) took a major step towards the postseason on Saturday with a 27-3 lashing of Louisville. The Hoos are now halfway towards bowl eligibility with eight games remaining. They start the toughest part of their schedule this weekend when they travel to face NC State.

But not all is well.

Virginia received brutal injury news on Monday: defensive end Richard Burney will miss the rest of the season with a medical condition and linebacker Jordan Mack will miss the next six weeks with an injury. Burney was a starter on an already thin defensive line, and Mack is the team’s best linebacker. Their absences will make UVA’s postseason run more difficult.

Even so, Cavalier fans should rejoice in Virginia’s early season progress. Only the most optimistic predictions had the Hoos laying 3-1 at this point. Anyone who tells you that they thought Virginia would start 4-0…is lying.

Opponent Update

Here’s a quick look at how Virginia’s opponents fared in Week 4:

  • Georgia Tech got stomped by Clemson.
  • Pitt lost to a UNC team that previously looked hapless.
  • UNC beat a Pitt team that previously looked hapless.
  • Liberty lost to North Texas at home by 40.
  • Miami took care of business to get to 3-1.
  • NC State got a nice road win against Marshall to get to 3-0.
  • Duke rolled to 4-0 but lost another quarterback.

Cool…let’s move on…wait…what’s that? Something else happened?

Ah yes…how could I forget?! Virginia Tech suffered the most embarrassing loss by an ACC team in 40 years, losing 49-35 to Old Dominion. That’s the same Old Dominion that lost to Liberty by 40. That’s the same Old Dominion that’s only been playing football since 2009 (save me your pre-WWII history lessons...I don’t care). And that’s the same Old Dominion where ya boy once won a long-distance shootout trophy at the 1992 Oliver Purnell Monarch basketball camp.

You’ve undoubtedly heard about this already and know most the specifics. But some of them are worth repeating. VPISU gave up 632 yards of offense to the Monarchs. The Hokies allowed 495 passing yards from ODU’s backup quarterback Blake “don’t call me Tony” LaRussa. All in all, they just embarrassed themselves. It was glorious.

This all means that Virginia’s remaining schedule looks much more amenable for a postseason run than it once did. The ACC is positively mediocre outside of Clemson, and the Hoos don’t play Clemson. Louisville was much worse than I thought they would be. Pitt, Carolina, and Georgia Tech all look worse than I thought they would. And the Hokies definitely look worse than I thought they would.

Add it all up and Virginia’s “manageable schedule” looks like a gift that could keep on giving. Which leads to our…

Schedule assessment

A note before we go on: I received reader feedback last week that my game categories were confusing, so I’ve tried to clear them up. I’ve re-categorized the remaining games into five tiers. I’ll use these categories the rest of the season. Here they are, ranked from least difficult to most difficult:

  • Must Win
  • Favorable
  • Toss-Up
  • Unfavorable
  • Long Shot

With that in mind, here’s a current look at how UVA’s schedule stacks up:

At the moment, the Hoos are ranked higher than four of their remaining opponents in the Sagarin ratings (UNC, Pitt, Liberty, Georgia Tech), and five in the S&P+ ratings (Virginia Tech).

I’ve upgraded the Pitt game to “Favorable,” the Georgia Tech game to “Toss-Up” and the Virginia Tech game to “Unfavorable” after Week 4’s results. The Duke game, which previously had been under “TBD,” is now classified as “Unfavorable” as well.

As always, these rankings are fluid.

Bowl projections

Not surprisingly, Virginia picked up more bowl projections this week than it had last week.

SB Nation and Mitch Sherman from ESPN have Virginia facing Florida in the Music City Bowl (Nashville, December 28).

The Orlando Sentinel, and Kyle Bonagura from ESPN have Virginia facing Memphis in the Independence Bowl (Shreveport, December 27).

The Sporting News has Virginia facing Northwestern in the Quick Lane Bowl (Detroit, December 26), while Brett McMurphy and Stadium has them in the same bowl, but in a rematch with Indiana.

College Football News has a Military Bowl (Annapolis, December 31) rematch with Virginia facing Navy, but Sports Illustrated has them facing Army in Annapolis instead.

Ah, Annapolis. I’m reminded of our last trip there:

The path forward

At 3-1, Virginia’s bowl path is clear. The Hoos only need to sweep their UNC-Pitt-Liberty stretch and they’ll be back in the postseason. If something goes wrong there, they’ll have a solid chance against Georgia Tech on November 17.

But as I’ve said before, just because Virginia’s bowl path is simple doesn’t mean it will be easy. The Hoos still have a tiny margin for error, and it’s made even smaller by Burney’s and Mack’s absences. At this point, my confidence about a bowl game is as much because of how poorly UVA’s future opponents have played as it is because of how well UVA has played.

The next three weeks will be interesting to watch considering that Virginia has very little to lose – it doesn’t necessarily need to win any of these three to go bowling. If they can pull off an upset versus NC State, Miami, or Duke, they’ll be in amazing shape for the postseason. If they somehow win two? They’d be legit Coastal division contenders.

On the flip side, who knows what would happen if Virginia goes 0-3. They’ll be underdogs in all three games. Would they enter the Carolina-Pitt-Liberty stretch deflated? Or would they embrace the chance to get back on track at home? Here’s hoping we don’t have to find out.

Around the ACC, we’re keeping a close Week 5 eye on the Thursday night throwdown between Miami and UNC and the Saturday night soiree between Virginia Tech and Duke.

As always, we’ll be back next week with more info. Looking forward to it!