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STL Roundtable: Was Virginia Football’s Season a Success?

Here’s how our staff views the Hoos’ 5-5 finish.

NCAA Football: Boston College at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

In what was the weirdest year of college football maybe (probably) ever, we’re left with the same question all fans face at season’s end: was our team successful?

For some of you, the answer was laid bare last Saturday, when the Virginia Cavaliers fell to rival Virginia Tech, 33-15. Such an embarrassing loss all but ensured 2020 as a failure.

Still, others might opt to take a more wholistic approach, taking note of the team’s response to four consecutive losses by winning four of their last five. After the loss of Bryce Perkins and other major offensive threats, finishing .500 can be seen as an accomplishment in some lights.

Let’s take a look at how our Streaking the Lawn staffers line up:

Caroline: I probably won’t get many in agreement with me due to the dud of a season finale, but I have to say that the season was a success. The biggest thing that I am grading the 2020 season on is how they managed to navigate the difficulties of the pandemic, and I don’t think you can say that was anything but successful. Virginia had no games canceled or postponed as a result of issues within the program, and when there were positive tests, full-fledged outbreaks were prevented by following strict guidelines for contact tracing and isolation. The commitment that the players, coaches, administrators, and staff made to make that possible cannot be overstated.

On the field, they had some rough outings and some good ones. This is a team that was expected to take a big step back with the departure of Bryce Perkins. The defense - especially the secondary - had way more struggles than I expected. Injuries certainly did not help, but there were some bright spots with Nick Jackson, Zane Zandier, and D’Angelo Amos. Offensively, Brennan Armstrong was impressive. The last game against VT was arguably his worst of the season, but he showed he’s a threat with both his legs and arm. Keytaon Thompson, Tony Poljan, Shane Simpson, and Lavel Davis were all fun new faces, and Billy Kemp was the unheralded star of the season.

At 5-5 Virginia left winnable games on the table (NC State, Miami, Wake Forest, and VT), and it’s frustrating to close with such an uninspiring loss at VPI. There are some questions for the off-season around the defense and what happens with the secondary and DL, but Virginia executed as safe of a season as you could possibly ask for in a year where everything has been a total dumpster fire. I hope they all get to see family and take a break.

Tiki: I guess I’m somewhere in the middle. Certainly, based upon expectations coming off last season it seems like a disappointment. But the backdrop of this unique season makes it hard to judge. Like Caroline, I am proud of the team for navigating this season without any internal CoVID-19 issues. Not a lot of schools can say that. But even without big CoVID-19 issues, there were a lot of injuries. How much of that is due to the team not having a normal offseason with coaches and trainers? Seven of the eleven opening day defensive starters missed time for one reason or another. That’s on top of the injuries suffered by QB Brennan Armstrong, WR Lavel Davis, Jr and OL Dillon Reinkensmeyer on the offense. With no spring practice, abbreviated training camp, altered training schedules, the “next man up” philosophy doesn’t work so well. Plus, the schedule repeatedly changed, sometimes at the last minute. In light of all that, winning five games seems pretty successful.

Ryan: If there’s something I have learned over the last 10 months it is that it’s OK to adjust expectations, it’s OK to say this just sucks. The commitment this team made to being ready to play every single week of this season was exemplary. They were one of five teams in the ACC to have zero games cancelled or postponed because of COVID within the program. For that they should be commended. Back in the summer, it didn’t look like there would be a football season at all, so for this team to do what they did, day in and day out, not seeing their families, not being able to let off steam like they usually would, took a level of commitment we should never have to ask of anyone. But they did it willingly, so that they could play the sport they love. Football isn’t mission essential, but it did bring joy to millions of people this fall, so for that, I’m willing to look beyond wins and losses for a year.

Pierce: As y’all have noted, it’s impossible to judge this season without the frame of the pandemic and its impact on the roster, the schedule, the lack of fans, and the depth and health of the team. UVA was successful as possible in managing the necessary restrictions to pull off a season - and if their rivals in Blacksburg had done as such, we may have had a different feel to this season (maybe even a different result in that particular game?). It’s hard to call the season a success outside of the baseline fact - though impressive in its own right - that they managed to play a season. They did a commendable job getting that done, though, and I’m glad they’ll be skipping the bowl game and getting a holiday break with their families.

If we’re talking about the season’s games, I can’t say ending with the Commonwealth Cup drubbing makes it look like a successful season of football, no. The highs in beating two good teams in UNC and BC are encouraging, and even the performance against Clemson (particularly the game Armstrong had) had its bright spots, but there were serious issues with this team that led to its sub-.500 conference record and an embarrassing loss in its final (and most important) game. Yes, all of this is framed in the sense that we’re lucky they even managed to play a season, but...every other team was dealing with the same issues, yes? In a non-horrific hypothetical 2020, would the UVA football team have finished under .500 in ACC play? Certainly debatable, but I think yes.

The defense was just a total mess - and Armstrong is young enough and not-quite-Bryce-Perkins enough to not cover for it as successfully as Perkins did (in every game - he certainly did against BC and UNC!). Attrition and injuries hit the defense immensely hard. But by this point in time in your coaching tenure at a school, there should be better depth to cover for things like that. Is this an extreme example of attrition unlikely to happen ever again? Sure. But does that make up for the secondary’s performance...basically all season long? Does it explain the “lack of havoc” the team admittedly pointed to as a problem (and big change from last year’s successful unit)? Even UVA’s star players looked like they took a step back from 2019 - remember the comments from the coaches about Snowden after the first month? ZZ’s tackles were down. Taylor’s tackles were down. Etc..etc...None of this is to put the blame on the players and certainly not on UVA’s still-really-good defensive stars. But how could the performance of the 2020’s defense be looked at as a success? It was largely dreadful.

Yes, there were plenty of bright spots - Davis’ emergence, Kemp’s record-breaking volume, Armstrong balling out and playing as that tough-as-nails leader you want to see in a QB - and like we’ve all said, the fact that they even succeeded in having a season is remarkable. And no, my criticisms are not to be construed as a call to staffing turnover or condemnation of Coach Mendenhall, but a success would have been to follow up an Orange Bowl Coastal Title season with a performance that suggested this program could build upon a wildly successful 2019 and show that the years of coaching and recruiting had formed a team capable of losing a star quarterback and still playing at a strong level. We could have easily expected a downturn in offensive production, but the tattered defense we saw in Blacksburg suggests a bigger issue to me than just a depleted end of the year roster. Had they beaten the Hokies, I’d be singing a completely different tune - so maybe this is a lot of sour-rivalry grapes - but I hope the players and coaches don’t feel like the product they put out last week was part of a successful 2020.

Sayer: I’ll chime in.

Coming off of the Tech loss - which, as others have laid out before me, was particularly stinging - it’s easy to overlook how inspiring this team’s turnaround was from a 1-4 start. Following a string of losses to some of the ACC’s best, the Hoos showed real mettle to turn the season from nothing into something, highlighted by Halloween night’s 44-41 win over then-No. 17 North Carolina (a team who, in all honesty, had way more talent than the Hoos in 2020). Putting last weekend’s game aside, that growth excites me for next fall.

Of course, we can’t just write off the loss in Blacksburg. Five days later, it still baffles me. But I’ll take a .500 record for a team that had lost the majority of its big-time playmakers from 2019 - Bryce Perkins, Hasise Dubois, Joe Reed - and had a lot of holes on defense.

I’ll also echo my fellow STL’ers on the job this program did with managing what was a historically weird - and potentially dangerous - season. Hats off to everyone involved.

Brian: I had no idea what to expect going into the season. Frankly, I would have bet my mortgage that we wouldn’t last more than half a college football season. (Unrelated: I lose most of my sports bets.) Like everyone else, I’m so impressed with how this team managed the pandemic. I think Armstrong actually impressed me more than anyone else on the team. Sure, there were breakouts like Davis and Kemp, but I was actually expecting very little out of Brennan Armstrong, and was looking to some of the other skill players to carry the team (and was not sure if UVA had any). Instead, I think Armstrong was a bright spot.

The team started 1-4 and finished 4-1 which, while the -1 was a pretty critical loss, was actually kind of a fun back half of a season. We’ll never know what would have happened had UVA and VT played at the beginning of the season.

So overall, no. I’m not disappointed. To Pierce’s point, he’s right — you don’t follow up an Orange Bowl appearance with a .500 record and call it anything other than disappointing. But my expectations, like my tolerance for risk-taking humans, plummeted as a result of COVID all summer long. Maybe it’s because sports, frankly, don’t seem to matter as much in the grand scheme of what we’ve all gone through this year, and I was just grateful to enjoy the entertainment.

I’m pretty happy with this season overall.

What are your thoughts on the 2020 season? Leave a comment below!


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