The football season is over as of yesterday. So what better time to write about football?
Actually, no, I'm not being facetious. I just witnessed literally the most successful UVA football season I've ever seen, so it demands at least a handful of retrospective words. (My UVA fandom officially dates back to 2000 and the BYU game that opened the "new" Scott Stadium.)
My goals for any given UVA football season are simple. Beat Tech. Go bowling. Contend for the Coastal championship and periodically win it. This has never happened all at once, due partly to the fact that the last time UVA beat Tech, there was no such thing as a Coastal Division. That win took place in an ACC that was dominated by Florida State on a yearly basis, so ACC championships depended on whether you could beat the Seminoles (which only Clemson did that year) and not fall on your face some other time (which Clemson did that year, repeatedly.) It was also an ACC that did not include huge chunks of the Big East. The Hoos' reward for a perfectly nice season was a perfectly nice bowl game in Charlotte and a win over future division rival Pittsburgh. It was good and nice and not the Orange Bowl.
This year was the Orange Bowl, meaning that UVA succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of many of its fans. And within the wildest dreams of me. I've seen it said in the past that UVA's ceiling is around 7-5. This was not (only) from national observers; it was in so many cases our own fans. Believe me or don't, but I've fought that notion every time I've seen it. UVA won't ever be Alabama, no. But occasionally winning the ACC isn't crazy. Winning this mediocre-ass division definitely isn't. Being good enough to be nationally relevant as a matter of course, isn't either.
So, while the players talked about a New Standard, I don't really begrudge them that because they were still eating Play-Doh when Al Groh was injecting a new excitement into a football program that was getting ready to Go Places. (Yes, it's true. Groh's first three years - which I saw all of from the student section - were nothing like the malaise-ridden end of his tenure. They were full of a palpable excitement, a feeling that UVA football was on the very brink of taking another huge step forward.) But, it just goes to show what's old is new again. It's not so much that the players are showing me what's finally possible. It's just, I'm glad we finally have a group that agrees with me: UVA shouldn't suck at this.
One thing that is new is the pride these players have in themselves. Groh ran a businesslike, pro-style program, right down to NFL-ifying the uniforms. (Don't get me wrong: I liked them.) Bronco runs a program that is more appealing to the inner instincts of college football players. You could see the pride in the Orange Bowl. Amidst a hostile atmosphere, in their second crack at big-boy-pants football after the first went downhill, the team posted maybe its best loss ever. You just can't be mad about how that game went: a play here and a play there, and we're talking about a win over an SEC powerhouse after blasting a middle-class SEC team out of the water last year. Some might call it a loser's attitude to take a moral victory away from it; I say that learning how to win is a real thing, and UVA football has clearly needed a refresher after the last lost decade. UVA had no reason to walk out of that stadium with their heads hung, and you can bet they didn't. Getting there, in and of itself, is something the program can and should be able to build on. This time more permanently.
And don't panic if it doesn't happen immediately in 2020. Success was a long time coming in getting here, because it required a culture change first, and it still has a ways to go to become sustained success. There are scheduling headwinds next season that will probably prevent a repeat. It starts with Georgia in Atlanta, a game scheduled before UGA decided to really challenge Alabama for SEC supremacy. Clemson is included; again on the road. Virginia Tech - also on the road, against a Tech team that has found a quarterback. From here in January, that's three games where the Hoos will be clear and obvious underdogs. The margin of error will be awfully slim against the likes of Miami, GT, Pitt, Louisville, UNC. A 7-5 season might be in the cards. Or 6-6. The temptation will be there to get all restless and torch-pitchforky.
Please realize now: that won't be necessary. For one, Bronco knows what he's doing. He knows how to coach a defense and he knows how to coach a game. (Kneeling the conversion after the fumble-recovery touchdown against Tech was the right move, and one that takes actual creative thinking to figure out.) Robert Anae, it can be said, also knows what he's doing. But even more so, the New Standard is just a standard now, and the culture is more than merely transformed. That, more than anything, will keep this program on the right side of perception from here on out.