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Five reasons to still be optimistic about Virginia football this season


NCAA Football: Virginia at Duke Jaylynn Nash-USA TODAY Sports

Through five games of the Tony Elliott era, the Virginia Cavaliers sit at 2-3 with their only wins coming at home against in-state competition. Things don’t look particularly good for this team in year one of Elliott’s helm and there’s plenty of reason for frustration and pessimism about this UVA squad.

BUT! There are still reasons for optimism. Three losses is not the end of the world and there’s plenty of time for Virginia to turn things around. So, I’ve come up with five legitimate reasons for optimism about UVA football this season:

The scores haven’t been exact indicators of results

Through five games and three losses, the Wahoos’ scoring margin sits at -29 with a pair of 21-point losses acting as meaningful blemishes to the early season schedule. A mere two-point victory at home against ODU didn’t help matters, while the middling 17-point win versus Richmond is the only thing holding that margin from ballooning out.

BUT, the 21-point losses and two-point win over ODU mask performances where the ‘Hoos were better than the final scores depict and that’s worth keeping in mind when trying to evaluate what the first five games mean for the rest of this season.

Duke had 377 yards of offense against the ‘Hoos on Saturday. UVA gained 295 yards of offense against the Blue Devils. That difference doesn’t directly translate to 21 points. What does is the little things such as UVA electing to have Brennan Armstrong punt for a net gain of 26 yards, not committing to playing four downs of offense when down by three-plus scores, fumbling a kickoff, having a punt blocked, and 15-yard penalty after 15-yard penalty. Take the dumb, avoidable mistakes out of this contest and it’s actually a winnable game.

Against ODU, UVA put up 513 yards of offense while ODU only gained 324 yards. The problem was that the ‘Hoos turned the ball over three times and twice in the red-zone. Add a missed field goal and this should not have been a two-point win. But, again, those small things are what are making life so difficult for Virginia.

That was true against Syracuse and Illinois as well. UVA shot itself in the foot too many times that winning those games became nearly impossible. But the key here is that, if the little things are cleaned up, there are wins to be had for UVA moving forward.

The back half of the schedule looks easier than expected

Entering this 2022 season the blueprint for success over the 12-game regular season seemed pretty straightforward: clean up against mediocre to bad competition in the front half of the schedule and then try to nab a win or two in the back half.

But, now that we’re headed into week six of the college football season, that perception has been challenged. Duke, Syracuse, and Illinois are all (far) better than expected while supposed ACC Coastal juggernauts that UVA plays in late October and November have stumbled.

For instance, Miami lost to Middle Tennessee by 14 points with quarterback Tyler Van Dyke struggling far more than he did in his breakout season last year. Meanwhile, Pitt lost to Georgia Tech — that had just fired its head coach Geoff Collins — at home, 26-21.

Continuing with this theme, North Carolina has looked good with new QB Drake Maye at the helm, but they still only beat Georgia State by a touchdown and lost to a pretty meh Notre Dame team by 13. Then, while getting a win on the road against Virginia Tech seems like an eternal struggle for UVA program, the Hokies lost to Old Dominion, to West Virginia by 23, and to UNC by 31.

All this goes to say that there are opportunities for the ‘Hoos to get wins especially with two similarly bad Louisville and Gerogia Tech teams slated for Virginia’s next two contests. Throw in a Coastal Carolina team that is yet to be tested and that, of the seven remaining games, only two are on the road for Tony Elliott’s team, and it’s not crazy to predict a scenario where UVA rallies together and makes a run at bowl eligibility.

Virginia’s best players are the ones who are struggling

The fact that Virginia’s quarterback and wide receiver play is largely what is holding the team back indicates that the ‘Hoos have a much, much higher ceiling than what they’ve shown in five games. A simple reversion to a mean that is between last year’s high-flying offensive performances of Brennan Armstrong, Dontayvion Wicks, and company and this season’s complete reversal in quality of play would probably make this a middle of the pack ACC team that could qualify for a bowl game.

That’s at least a comforting thought. Obviously, this is what we’ve been asking for from this team and this offense for weeks now to little avail. But the potential is still there. And where there is potential, there’s hope.

This is the best Wahoo secondary in years

While UVA’s defensive line was gashed for 248 yards against Duke and has been inconsistent on a week to week basis, UVA’s secondary has been the strength of this team even while dealing with a number of different absences due to injury and illness. Anthony Johnson and Fentrell Cypress have been tremendous as the team’s outside corners while sophomore safeties Jonas Sanker and Lex Long have been breakout players as they’ve each split time at free safety, strong safety, and slot corner.

Senior Antonio Clary, when healthy, has been solid as well with a few career-best performances in his fourth year. Then, while not grading out as well as his younger competition, Darrius Bratton has been good in the slot and helps maintain the secondary’s depth. Speaking of depth, even though junior safety Coen King has missed all but one contest, this group hasn’t skipped a beat and legitimately has eight guys capable of filling the five spots as sophomore corner Jaylon Baker filled in well on the outside in Cypress’ absence against Duke.

This is genuinely exciting considering how bad the Wahoo secondary has been in recent years. There is stability in the back half of this defense and that, at the very least, provides a decent floor of performance for this defense as the season progresses. Maybe against better quarterbacks it will get exposed. But, for now, the signs are pretty darn good for Defensive Coordinator John Rudzinksi and Defensive Passing Game Cordinator Curome Cox.

We’re only five games into the Elliott era

With all that said about this 2022 football season, we gotta keep the big picture in mind. Arguably, expectations were too high for this team heading into the fall. Throwing out predictions of an eight or nine win season should also come with a shifting of goals for UVA in season one with a new head coach. It’s disappointing, don’t get me wrong. This looked like a team with the opportunity to make real noise in the Coastal all season long.

But five games does not a program nor a head coach make. These things take time and, while it’s taking more time than some may have thought before the season got underway, that is the lens with which the UVA faithful ought to view this season. If the ‘Hoos could nab a couple good wins and build momentum and finish 6-6 on the year, that would be a huge win. Throw a VT win in there and this team in Elliott’s first year would be more successful than in Mendenhall’s sixth (yes, that’s unfair to Mendenhall considering Elliott inherited his roster, but still).

Give it time. If things still look like this by the end of the season, that’s a different conversation. If it still looks like this after two or three years, then we can start talking about moving on. But Elliott deserves time. He’s got championship pedigree, and championship programs aren’t built in a season, much less five games.