There has been a lot of chatter this offseason about the tough Virginia Cavaliers non-conference football schedule, which features #14 UCLA, #11 Notre Dame, and #20 Boise State. It has been discussed that UVA's schedule is setting the program up to fail and lowering the chances to make a bowl game. Other ACC programs, like Duke and Louisville, had easier non-conference schedules last year in route to bowl games. Navigating through the complex history of Virginia's non-conference scheduling trends in the past 20 years, do these games actually have any bearing on the overall success of a season?
Looking at the past 20 years of football schedules, the Cavaliers played on average 11-12 games a year, with 8 ACC games, leaving 3-4 non-conference games to fill each year. The non-conference teams that fill the schedule can be broken down into five categories below:
- Local - Local Virginia teams that are in the FCS (Formerly known as Div. I-AA) like Richmond, VMI, and William & Mary
- Lower Tier - Teams from non-local smaller Div. I conferences like Akron, Western Michigan, Wyoming, Temple, Troy, and UConn
- Middle of the Road - Teams from power conferences that are occasionally ranked when they play UVA, like BYU, Penn State, South Carolina, and Indiana
- Marquee - Teams that are well-known and presumed to be nationally ranked when facing Virginia, like USC, Oregon, Texas, TCU, and Auburn
- VT/ND - The annual Virginia Tech game gets its own category since before the Hokies joined the ACC in 2004 in was a non-conference game. Sometimes VT was a marquee matchup, other times only middle of the road, but since the Hokies were on the schedule every year, they do not really fit into the other categories. Notre Dame will fit this role now since they are technically a non-conference game in the standings, but UVA will face the Irish on a regular basis going forward.
Not surprisingly Virginia has done well against the local teams, but struggled in the marquee matchups in the past 20 seasons:
One of the main ways schools go about scheduling non-conference games are "home and away" series, in which each team plays at each other's stadium in consecutive (or close to consecutive) years. For example, UVA hosted UCLA last year and will travel to Los Angeles to face the Bruins this year. Below is the list of Virginia's "home and away" series since 1995.
It appears there were a lot of marquee series early on (1995-98) and recently (2008-14), but there were a lot of middle of the road matchups between 1999-2007. Could these non-conference schedule fluctuations explain the gradual decline in winning percentage and bowl appearances for the program? The chart below breaks down these eras in order to see any correlation:
As the chart illustrates, while Virginia's overall record and ACC record have declined, the number of marquee matchups and earlier VT games per year remained constant. Despite having played marquee teams and VT 9 times between 1995-98, UVA went to three bowl games in four years since the Cavaliers went 23-9 (.719) in the ACC. Between 1999-2007 the softer schedules may have earned the Hoos a couple extra post season appearances to make up for the 42-32 (.568) ACC record. However, the main contributor to Virginia missing a bowl game in six of the past seven years is the 16-40 (.286) ACC record, not the yearly loss to a non-conference powerhouse team.
UVA needs to get back to beating ACC foes before worrying about playing games against the USC Trojans instead of Troy.