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Success or Failure? Virginia football's schedule quietly defined this season

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Because TWO teams take the field every week.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

College football is a strange, strange sport.  Its much-maligned system of polls, rankings, committees, and computer models is necessary because comparing the 128 FBS teams based on win-loss records is ludicrous; 11-0 Marshall is not in the playoff discussion because they would not be 11-0 if they played in the SEC West.  On a large scale, pundits and fans alike are generally pretty good at recognizing these issues and at least attempting to make a mental "strength of schedule" adjustment.

However, when we fans focus in on our own teams, we aren't as good at this. When the clock hits 0:00, and we shut off the TV annoyed or walk out of Scott Stadium depressed, the prowess of our opponents is not much of a consolation.  Nor should it be.  At the end of the day, wins and losses are what matter.  (Six wins means a bowl game, after all.) And that's especially true for a team like UVA, whose resume won't be dissected as part of the four-team playoff picture.  But these wins and losses are driven by scheduling, and, fair or not, Virginia's imposing slate kept this team from "success."

The Hoos' conference schedule was as difficult as could be - ACC Coastal teams each play each other, then take on two "cross-over" Atlantic teams - UVA got #3 Florida State, and Louisville (who we beat!), a team that's getting close to reappearing in the top 25.  The Cavaliers have seen FSU 3 times in 5 years.  That's tough luck.

Then, the administration put together an out-of-conference schedule that included matchups with a ranked UCLA team and on the road at BYU.  There are lots of good reasons to play good teams, such as media exposure, the higher rewards of a win, and added experience.  I tend to be in favor of it, mostly selfishly; it's certainly more fun to watch the team take on Pac-12 powerhouses than cupcakes.  But with a rebuilding program and a struggling head coach, the decision was ultimately unwise.

Overall, the team's SOS is ranked 34th by TeamRankings.com, and that's in line with other rankings out there.

As a pure thought experiment, imagine if we swapped schedules with Duke.  The Blue Devils are pretty well-respected this year; they'll ultimately fall just short of the ACC title game, but the team is 8-3 this season heading into their season finale against Wake Forest, a likely win.

Duke plays the same ACC Coastal teams that we do, but their crossover opponents are Syracuse and Wake Forest, probably the conference's two weakest squads, rather than FSU and Louisville. Duke's out-of-conference schedule was downright embarrassing, as they played Elon, at Troy, Kansas, and Tulane. (Elon is an FCS school.  The other 3 are ranked 125, 93, and 100, respectively, out of 128 by Football Outsiders.).  UVA's games against Richmond and Kent State are similar to the matchups with Elon and Tulane, while games against UCLA and at BYU are much more imposing than easy victories over Troy and Kansas.

Yes, it's a fallacy to assume that games are played in a vacuum (changing UVA's schedule may have somehow affected the team's ability to beat Miami, for example).  Still -  assuming that the Hoos played exactly as well each week, but Duke's opponents happened to take the field, Virginia would have notched 3 additional wins and be 8-3 heading into Friday night's matchup with the Hokies.  Can you imagine the difference in the mood of the fanbase? Our Tim Mulholland put it best: Attendance would be up, fans would be happy, and we'd be ready to erect a giant statue of Mike London outside Scott Stadium. (Well, at least the first two).

My goal isn't to excuse critical errors that the coaching staff made all season, which I'd argue turned at least a couple of wins into losses (and have been for the past five years). It's to point out how dramatic the effect scheduling may have, on both the season's outcome and on our perceptions.  College football is a fickle sport; quietly, a major factor that has the fans disgruntled and London on the chopping block is the schedule.