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Bowl Watch Week 1: UVA Football aiming higher than a bowl game

A great bowl game could be in order if Virginia meets expectations.

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NCAA Football: Belk Bowl-South Carolina vs Virginia Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The UVA football program took multiple steps forward in 2018, including winning a bowl game for the first time since 2005. The Hoos are shooting even higher this year.

The ACC media picked Virginia to win the ACC Coastal Division for the first time in school history, and those surrounding the program are embracing the challenge. With a veteran roster and a favorable schedule, they could very well do it. And if not, they could still end up in a major bowl game.

Welcome back to Bowl Watch, STL’s weekly look at Virginia’s postseason prospects. In previous years, I’ve mostly focused on whether or not UVA would make a bowl game. And for good reason: Virginia has only qualified for three bowls in the last decade.

But the coverage will change this year to reflect the higher expectations UVA faces. While I’ll still focus much of the early-season coverage on bowl eligibility, I’ll also keep our eye on potential bowl destinations and opponents. Let’s get to it.

Where We Are

Here’s how Virginia stacks up against its opponents in the current Sagarin ratings. It’s a much different picture than in previous years when UVA was an underdog most of the time. This year, the Hoos start the season ranked higher than eight of their opponents.

9 – @ Notre Dame

23 – Florida State

30 – @ Miami

40 – Virginia Tech

42 – Virginia

43 – @ Pittsburgh

48 – Duke

58 – Georgia Tech

63 – @ North Carolina

81 – @ Louisville

131 – Liberty

137 – Old Dominion

188 – William & Mary

Grouping the Games

As in previous years, I’ve split Virginia’s schedule into five groups:

Must-Win: These are games in which Virginia should be a double-digit favorite. Losses here would be embarrassing. Not UMBC-level embarrassing, but William & Mary ‘09 and Richmond ‘16 embarrassing.

  • William and Mary (Home, September 6)
  • Old Dominion (Home, September 21)
  • Liberty (Home, November 23)

Analysis: There’s little to say here. Liberty and Old Dominion are two of the most lightly-regarded teams in FBS football. And Liberty and William & Mary are both breaking in new coaches. I hear William & Mary’s new coach was a cop at one point.

Favorable: These are games in which Virginia should be the clear favorite. Losses here wouldn’t be shocking, but would still be disappointing. Virginia merely needs to sweep its “Must-Wins” and “Favorables” to get to bowl eligibility for the third consecutive season.

  • Duke (Home, October 19)
  • Louisville (Away, October 26)
  • Georgia Tech (Home, November 9)

Analysis: Virginia has won four in a row against Duke, and the Blue Devils lost quarterback Daniel Jones to the first round of the NFL draft. Louisville and Georgia Tech are in Year One of program rebuilds under new coaches. Tech will also be moving to a completely new offensive system.

Toss-Up: These are games in which Virginia could be the favorite or the underdog. I think the spread will be a field goal or less either way. These games will determine how “good” or “mediocre” UVA’s season ends up being.

  • Pittsburgh (Away, August 31)
  • Florida State (Home, September 14)
  • North Carolina (Away, November 2)
  • Virginia Tech (Home, November 29)

Analysis: With two of its “toss-up” games in the first three weeks, it’s crucial for Virginia to get off to a fast start. UVA is currently a slight favorite against Pitt and will likely be the same against FSU. The Carolina game would be listed as “Favorable” if it were in Charlottesville. The Tech game, as always, is the most important game on the schedule.

Unfavorable: These are games in which Virginia should be a clear underdog.

  • Miami (Away, October 11)

Analysis: Virginia’s players certainly won’t be afraid headed down to Miami Gardens. UVA beat the Canes last year and led them by two touchdowns in the second half in 2017. This game could decide the Coastal.

Longshot: These are games in which Virginia could be a double-digit underdog.

  • Notre Dame (Away, September 28)

Analysis: Notre Dame is the best team on Virginia’s schedule and could be 10-point favorites when the Hoos head to South Bend. But the Irish could be banged up after facing Georgia the prior week.

A note on the categories: The categories will stay the same throughout the season, but the opponents may move into different places depending on how their seasons unfold. Last season, for example, I listed the Virginia Tech game as a “Longshot” at the beginning of the season but listed it as a “Toss-Up” by the end.

Current Bowl Projections

It might seem ridiculous to have bowl projections this early, but I dare say that August is the time for such ridiculousness. Besides, I’m not making the projections; I’m just relaying them.

Here’s where the media currently has Virginia going, ranked subjectively by my personal excitement level. Feel free to disagree.

247 Sports has Virginia in the Orange Bowl against Florida (Miami Gardens, December 30). Analysis: South Florida weather at New Years? Count me in. This could be the highest-profile bowl game in school history. Only the Sugar Bowl appearance against Tennessee would compare.

ESPN’s Mark Schlabach has Virginia in the Citrus Bowl against Florida (Orlando, January 1). Analysis: The only way an ACC team can land in the Citrus Bowl is if the Orange Bowl ends up with an ACC vs. Big Ten matchup. So while this would be an exciting matchup, it would require additional dominoes to fall. UVA hasn’t played in a New Year’s Day bowl since 2007

CBS Sports has Virginia in the Camping World Bowl against Iowa State (Orlando, December 28). College Football News and Brett McMurphy have the Hoos here against Oklahoma State. Analysis: This is as good as it gets for ACC teams that don’t make the playoff or New Year’s Six. This is another Florida trip that gets UVA fans out of the cold. I’d be in.

The Sporting News has Virginia in the Music City Bowl against Kentucky (Nashville, December 30). ESPN’s Kyle Bonagura has the Hoos here against Tennessee. Analysis: This is the last year of the ACC’s agreement with the Music City Bowl. So if this projection comes true, it could be your last chance to see a UVA game before stumbling over to Tootsie’s to continue the party.

Bleacher Report has Virginia in a Belk Bowl rematch with South Carolina (Charlotte, December 31). Analysis: Last year’s game was a blast and I’d go back in a heartbeat. But this rematch ain’t happening.

USA Today has Virginia in the Pinstripe Bowl against Minnesota (The Bronx, December 27). Analysis: It’s an easy game to attend for Virginia fans on the I-95 corridor. New York City in December might be cold, but it’s still New York City. And anyone who went to the Final Four can attest that Minnesotans are really, really nice.

SB Nation/Banner Society has Virginia in the Sun Bowl against Arizona State (El Paso, December 31). Analysis: I’m fascinated by this game after watching it so many years on CBS. I envision a road trip with George Strait and Marty Robbins providing the background music. Chasing the wind and racing the sun, so to speak. I’m sure it would be a...solo...road trip.

The Orlando Sentinel has Virginia in the Independence Bowl against Memphis (Shreveport, December 26). Analysis: This is also the last year of the ACC’s agreement with the Independence Bowl. So if this projection comes true, it could be your last chance to see UVA play in a bowl game before stumbling...ummm...through Shreveport (?) to continue the party.

Games To Monitor This Week

Virginia at Pittsburgh - Obviously. UVA’s opener against Pitt could set the tone for its entire season. This isn’t a must-win game for the sake of bowl eligibility or the bowl pecking order, but it might be a must-win game if Virginia wants to win the Coastal. Beat Pitt and all things are possible. Lose and pressure will build quickly.

North Carolina vs. South Carolina (in Charlotte) - How will North Carolina look under the Mack Brown 2.0 regime? The Tar Heels will start true freshman Sam Howell at quarterback as they look to begin their climb back to respectability. It’s hard to believe that UNC played in the ACC title game only four short seasons ago.

Virginia Tech at Boston College - Will the Hokies be able to shake off their 2018 implosion? Tech made headlines recently when a Sports Illustrated piece examined dissension in the locker room last season. Hokie Coach Justin Fuente has instituted a number of changes to improve team morale -- including getting turkey bacon into the meal plan -- and insists that this year’s squad is on the same page. Saturday will be a big test.

Florida State vs. Boise State - The Seminoles were the ACC’s most disappointing team in 2018. Heck...they might have been the most disappointing team in the country. Can Willie Taggert right the ship in his second season? Quarterback James Blackman will take the reins once more after riding the pine for much of last year.

That’s it for now. Settle in, fans. It should be an enjoyable year. I hope to have more answers next week.

Until then, Go Hoos.