CHARLOTTESVILLE — Cover the spread.
It’s really that simple. Around 11 p.m. Saturday night, unless we witness a total shocker, that’s the best way we’ll be able to judge how well Virginia has done in the 2019 ACC championship game. That’s how we should most objectively determine if the Cavaliers have taken another step on their stairway to glory.
We’ll know if they cover the spread. Because it’s a big one.
This suggestion has nothing to do with gambling or money. Coach Bronco Mendenhall wants no part of any of that, nor should he. But Mendenhall loves numbers, adores metrics. He constantly seeks concrete evidence that what he, his staff and his players are doing is working.
For example, Mendenhall didn’t just say, “We want to be better at run defense in 2019.” He researched the per-carry rushing average — 3.5 yards — that the nation’s better defenses historically post, then made staying under that number the goal for his team. Entering Saturday, UVa has held opponents to a 3.48 rushing average, down from 4.34 last season.
That’s just one example of many. At UVa, everything from recruiting to practice to in-game decision-making is based on a system. Mendenhall is constantly grading players, seeking innovative ways to motivate them.
“We trust what he has to say, trust the plan that he puts in place for us,” UVa linebacker Zane Zandier said. “When we execute it, good things happen. Every morning, we just kind of see how he frames the rest of the week and see how he frames the game. It normally works out pretty good for us if we follow through with it.”
So how should he frame this one? Try to win the thing first, obviously.
Barring that unlikelihood, cover the spread.
Mendenhall has always made the study of points — scoring them, preventing them — the central focus of his analytical study. Because, as he likes to say, “points determine outcome.”
The Las Vegas oddsmakers have provided him with a metric for that. In making Clemson a 28.5-point favorite, they’ve insinuated that this game probably will be over by halftime. The Tigers are that good, and they’ll be motivated to make the margin as healthy as possible to boost their seeding in the College Football Playoff.
As betting lines become more mainstream in the wake of the federal government’s decriminalization of sports gambling, more and more people understand how lines work.
For anyone who might not, though, it’s important to point out that the oddsmakers aren’t making any kind of prediction on the outcome of this game. They’re simply setting a line that they hope will attract equal betting action on both sides, ensuring them a profit because of the juice.
Given Clemson’s recent performance — blowout win over blowout win — they’ve had little choice but to set an astronomical spread here. Not doing so would risk the public throwing all of its money on Clemson and putting sportsbooks in peril.
Result: The 28.5-point margin is the third-largest spread ever posted for a conference championship game, trailing only the 2011 Pac-12 title game (Oregon favored by 31 over UCLA) and the 2013 ACC championship game (Florida State favored by 29.5 over Duke). And it’s a fair approximation of the public’s perception of the disparity between Clemson and UVa.
ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Tigers a 94.9 percent chance to win this game. That’s what makes this different than, say, last week’s game against Virginia Tech. Covering the meager 2.5-point spread as an underdog against the Hokies would have been meaningless. Not so Saturday.
Is it “loser talk” to discuss anything other than victory? Sure, most people would say so. But Mendenhall has always been blunt with his players. From the first day he set foot on campus, he’s never lathered honey on anything, and he doesn’t have to here. Keeping this game close would represent more progress.
The progress has already been striking, of course. Mendenhall remembers fans rushing the field in 2017 when UVa beat Georgia Tech just to become bowl eligible. Now the Cavaliers are Coastal Division champs and have put the Commonwealth Cup streak to rest.
“Compare that  rushing the field to the one that just happened, right?” Mendenhall said. “It’s a similar response, but what it took to have that response has climbed significantly. And that happens with growth in expectations of a program.
“There will be a time — I don’t know or when or how, I can’t predict that — where the conference championship game is something that not only are we expected to participate in, but we’re expected to go and win.”
That time is not now. Not yet. But a cover would be another tangible move in that direction.