As we wrap our official season preview coverage and next week go into our usual game-week battle rhythm talking the Tech game, the last thing we want to do is share our Final Thoughts. This is our usual place for each of our writers to spend a few minutes stepping back to speak whatever is on their mind after spending the last month deep-diving the X's and O's surrounding the team and the conference. It's an open space for whatever feelings, concerns, hopes or fears ultimately weigh heavy on our minds as we christen another new season in Charlottesville.
It’s easy, and potentially even accurate, to bucket the Bronco Mendenhall era into two stages – the Kurt Benkert years and the Bryce Perkins years. Both transfers into the program and both two-year starters, each quarterback had his own respective share of questions before taking over as Virginia’s signal caller. Of course, both went on to have successful careers in Charlottesville that led them onto NFL rosters. Now year five of the Mendenhall era represents the dawning of the Brennan Armstrong years in Virginia football history. How the redshirt sophomore fares will in large part determine the team’s success this season.
Not to say there are not any other factors at play, because there certainly are. Among them include the emergence of new receiving threats, running back durability, offensive line development, and overall defensive health. But if you want to boil the season down to its simplest, most important point, it’s Brennan Armstrong’s play.
While Benkert and the rest of the Virginia program endured growing pains in 2016 during Mendenhall's first year in Charlottesville, the past three seasons have been defined by record breaking quarterback play. Benkert and Perkins accelerated the development of a program that needed a complete and total rebuild from the London years, successfully covering deficiencies in other parts of the roster with their stellar performances. Can Armstrong do the same?
The roster makeup has come a long way since Mendenhall took over, but it still isn’t perfect. The offensive line is finally experienced although still largely unproven, and the combination of transfers, waiver denials, and COVID opt-outs have taken a hit to a large part of the running back room. And at receiver, Virginia will need to lean on transfers and underclassmen to replace last season’s record-breaking production. The defense is ahead of the offense, although it must avoid the injury bug that hit the defensive line in 2018 and the secondary in 2019.
But who are we kidding? At the end of the day, this is the Brennan Armstrong season. I’m optimistic that the lefty signal caller will have success. He has performed well in limited game action and also effortlessly won the starting quarterback spot over transfer challenger Keytaon Thompson. If Armstrong can follow the same path laid by Benkert and Perkins, Virginia should be in for a competitive season..
I am just happy that it looks like the season is going to begin. It seems like a great time to take a cue from our favorite basketball coach Tony Bennett and be thankful that we can be in a position in our lives where we can still enjoy a game. Not everyone can say that. I'm not sure how many people thought the season would even reach this point, and who knows how many games we will actually get to see the Wahoos play, but let's be grateful for what we do get. Credit to the coaches, medical staff, and players for working hard and staying safe, enabling the program to reach this point with, so far, few positive COVID numbers.
WITH THAT SAID, passion is also a Bennett pillar, and even though this season will feel weird, the desire to see wins remains as well. Once the season gets going, there will be the usual gripes and criticisms of our Hoos -- and praise, too! -- and that's because we care so much and want them to be successful so badly. We know they are good kids, too, and we want the best for them, and Bronco as well.
Despite the good feelings associated with the beginning of a new season, the reality is Virginia draws Virginia Tech first, which is unusual, as we usually get to enjoy a couple of easy wins before the going gets tough and intense. Funny, after 16 seasons of waiting for another win over the Hokies, we don't even get to enjoy it for a whole year before having to defend the Cup. Tech will be favored, and UVa may lose. A defeat would undoubtedly sour the season, especially if only a few games are played in 2020. But the good news is, unlike the past couple of decades, if the Hoos lose, there are more games scheduled afterward (key word is scheduled), which will be opportunities to put a loss in the rearview and record some victories. On the other hand, barring a big collapse, if we beat Tech, especially following a 9-5 campaign, almost anything else we do this year will be gravy.
But taking a 1,000-foot view of the season, whether UVa knocks off Tech or not, the pieces are still in place to have a successful year, which to me, after losing a big-time talent in Bryce Perkins and program stalwarts Joe Reed, Hasise Dubois, Eli Hanback, Jordan Mack, and Bryce Hall, would mean attaining a winning season of at least 6-5. In such a strange year, I'll understand if we only finish 5-6 as well, but I fully believe in Bronco's and the coaches' ability to get us to 6-5 and even beyond. With all the craziness of this offseason, and possibly the season, I think UVa can be one of the teams that thrives because of Bronco's superior leadership, the program's stable culture, and his strong organizational skills. Anything worse than 5-6 would be a disappointing step back, but 5-6 for one year, I could take. But I stubbornly believe, as a lot of us do by now, that Bronco can turn (has turned??) this program into a consistent winner. I never would've said that just a few years ago, but I am now a much more optimistic UVa football fan than I was from about midway through the 2012 season through a portion of the 2017 season. Those were dark times indeed. But it shows how far we've come to even believe we can lose one of the best QBs in the program's history and still feel like our chances of finishing with a winning record are pretty good.
This is pretty simple. But my number one hope, beyond everything else, is a season where everyone remains healthy. I love college football and the way it can impact lives for the better. But I also acknowledge, and respect, the risks and sacrifices being made by all involved to play a game they love, and that I follow and support without any skin in the game.
And in that vein, all UVA fans should also respect the decisions made by the players and their families that have elected not to play this season.
So here we are on the eve of the weirdest college football season probably ever. When we set out earlier this summer to start writing this preview, we had no idea if we'd get this far. The B1G and the Pac-12 were in the process of shutting things down and there was every reason to think the rest of D-1 would follow suit.
But we decided we'd press on anyways. "As long as UVA is preparing to play football, we'll be here writing about it," we said. We don't do this for a paycheck. We do this because UVA athletics is a passion, and writing about the Hoos is our way of sharing our passion with the UVA community. It felt wrong to do anything other than take a leap of faith and lean forward into this preview even in the face of massive uncertainty.
And a month later, as we put a bow on week after week of content, having reviewed every position group, looked critically at the strengths and weaknesses of the offense and defense, revising and republishing with every Bronco Mendenhall press conference announcing a new player departure or arrival, now we get to let it all soak in for a week before we go from 0 to 60 immediately, starting the season with Virginia Tech instead of ending it.
I don't know what this season is going to bring. I don't know how confident I am that we'll play 11 games, or if we'll still be playing at all in December. I just know that this team is a team I'm excited about, and a team I really want to root for.
I want to see Brennan Armstrong be our future at quarterback, and just as much I believe Keytaon Thompson can be the third straight immediate-eligible transfer QB that coaches Beck and Anae turn into a weapon. I want to see fresh new faces breakout at the WR spots, with transfers and rookies and maturing returners all battling to be dangerous targets for our passing game. I want to see our most veteran and deep offensive line in years deploy to protect the QB and open up lanes for the running game. And I want to see what a Hoo defense that returns upperclass starters across all three levels, DL, LBs, and DBs, can do if it stays healthy for the first time in years.
Maybe we retain the Commonwealth Cup. Maybe we shock Clemson and the world. Maybe we finish with a .500-or-better regular season for the fourth straight year and continue the steady upward trend under Bronco Mendenhall's regime.
I just want to see it happen. Win or lose, this is a group I'm proud of. I'm proud of their accomplishments on the field and off it, as their August "Grounds Keepers" movement is incredibly inspiring. Great citizens, great students, great athletes, from coach to trainer to veteran to rookie. This 2020 Hoo team has my 100% support.
Can't wait to see them do great things..