Last month after the win over Tech, I wrote that the Hoos had earned themselves two bites at the big-boy-football apple. Chance number one did not go particularly well. Chance number two is upon us.
The Hoos gave up 62 points to Clemson, which is going to happen when you face Clemson's offense without your all-American cornerback - and the players still on the field leave their tackling skills on the bus. And yet, even the 62-17 final score felt a little unfair. UVA moved the ball and at times befuddled the Clemson defense, showing them looks they'd never seen before. That's not easy to do to a team that is getting everyone's best shot all season long. But for a small few plays going the wrong way (an interception in the end zone on UVA's first drive, for example) the Hoos, well, still likely would've given up 62 points, but their own side of the board would've looked more respectable.
Florida, for its part, is a top-10 team and a deserving one - but what it isn't, is a top-2 team as Clemson is. They hung with LSU for a half and beat Auburn. They also squeaked past more than their fair share of 6-6 teams and found themselves down 20-17 to South Carolina after three quarters, which is exactly the same South Carolina team that the Hoos thumped in Charlotte last year, only much worse at 4-8. Clemson steamrolled everything in its path this year (except, in the one bad game everyone is allotted, North Carolina.) Florida, on the other hand, spent a decent chunk of the season looking mortal. Deepest analysis of the matchups is an exercise I leave to others these days, but even a cursory look at Florida's stats and results this year reveals ways they can be taken advantage of, if you have the ability to do so - one being their general lack of a frightening run game.
So, just as much as UVA didn't have much chance of competing with Clemson....it's possible Florida wouldn't, either. Here's the question: which is the bigger gap, Florida to Clemson or UVA to Florida? (Yes, that's why they're going to play the game, smartypants.) That's what we'll find out in this Orange Bowl. It's a useful question. UVA has a difficult slate of games next year, which includes Clemson again. Georgia as well. I'm willing to even overlook (somewhat) UVA's poor tackling in the ACC CG; it can be partly explained by UVA not having had the chance to tackle anyone quite so fast or strong as the Tiger players.
Now that they have, they need to start working that into their muscle memory. Because if they're going to be more than a cute novelty that wins a game against their main rivals every 15 years or so, they're going to have to start looking the part against better teams than the basketball schools in the ACC. That doesn't even make the Orange Bowl a must-win. Just a must-compete. The pessimistic view of this game says the teams are at least as far apart as their double-digit Vegas line says they are. The optimistic view says they had their eyes opened a bit against Clemson and will put those lessons to good use against a team with more holes than Clemson had. I don't have any idea which is right, but we'll soon find out.