CHARLOTTESVILLE—Bronco Mendenhall didn’t take umbrage at the notion that his Virginia football team is considered a massive underdog against defending national champion Clemson in Saturday’s Atlantic Coast Conference title game. After all, the fourth-year U.Va. coach said, they’re in good company.
“I think that’s probably the case with anyone that Clemson has played this year,” said Mendenhall, whose Cavaliers clinched their first Coastal Division title Saturday by beating rival Virginia Tech. “I don’t find us in any different situation. I think we’ll just be the next team that will be lumped in the same category as everyone else.”
Of course, Virginia’s rise from the bottom of the ACC to a championship game appearance—a rapid ascent that took Mendenhall just four seasons—is a story unlike anyone else’s.
In his first season in Charlottesville, Mendenhall—a surprise hire who had spent his entire career on he West coast, the previous 11 seasons at BYU—won just two games.
Year 2 saw a 6–7 record and a lopsided Military Bowl loss to Navy. Last season, Virginia went 8–5 and drilled South Carolina in the Belk Bowl.
Saturday, the Cavaliers (9–3) play Clemson (12–0) in the ACC championship game in Charlotte. A berth in the Orange Bowl is almost assuredly to follow.
Unbroken growth is how Mendenhall likes to describe it. His program has made incremental steps each season.
And while the move from last place to division champion came more quickly than anyone anticipated, the players downplayed the notion that they’ve arrived at this point ahead of schedule and that an upset of Clemson would be, essentially, cheating ahead.
“I don’t think we kind of necessarily have a schedule,” junior linebacker Charles Snowden said. “I think our goal is just to improve every year. Whatever that improvement looks like is great. I wouldn’t say it would be ahead of schedule or behind schedule. If it happens, I think it would be right on schedule.”
In fact, quarterback Bryce Perkins said, Virginia was close to reaching this point last season, in Mendenhall’s third year, before back-to-back overtime losses on the road to end the regular season set the Cavaliers back.
“Just think about last year, how close we were to actually winning the ACC [Coastal] and beating Tech,” Perkins said. “We felt we had the talent and the will last year. We just had to keep it going, keep improving from the mistakes from last year to this year.”
It happened, instead this year, and set up Saturday’s game against Clemson, which has won 27 games in a row and is currently a 29-point favorite over Virginia.
“It’s off the scale for our program at this time on our quest for national relevance,” Mendenhall said. “Last week did wonders for achievement and moving the needle for our program, hitting new benchmarks and metrics. Now all that does is qualify us, and that qualification isn’t a gift and it’s not random, it’s something we’ve earned. It’s qualified us and our team has earned the chance now for the next and significantly bigger opportunity and challenge.”
Mendenhall’s counterpart at Clemson understands. Dabo Swinney went 19–15 his first two-plus years at Clemson, taking over midway through the 2008 season. He’s 109–15 since, including 67–4 with a pair of national titles in the last five years.
“It’s a massive moment for what Bronco has done with the program, for them building their program,” Swinney said. “It’s a huge moment. I mean, they just won the Coastal. They’re playing in a championship game. There’s a progression that you go through when you’re really building something special. I think that’s what they’ve been able to do to this point.”
More big stages await the Cavaliers. Win or lose, they’re almost certain to head to the Orange Bowl to face a big-name SEC opponent. And Virginia opens next season against Georgia.
Ahead of schedule or not, the moment is here.
Perkins and linebacker Noah Taylor were named ACC players of the week at their respective positions.