CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia football is big on goal-setting and slogans and rallying cries.
But don’t expect to see “PICKED FIRST IN THE 2019 ACC COASTAL DIVISION” plastered all over the facility. The Cavaliers would prefer not to talk about that at all.
The main reason is the same one all teams give when they’re the preseason favorite: It simply does not matter. Whether you’re Clemson or Alabama or Ohio State or whoever, what the media think of you before the season kicks off is irrelevant. Outside expectations don’t score touchdowns or make tackles.
Still, from a broader perspective, UVa topping the division in the preseason poll signals a level of respect that was unimaginable three years ago, when the Cavaliers finished 2-10 overall and 1-7 in the ACC in Bronco Mendenhall’s first season.
“There is some satisfaction for at least an acknowledgement,” said Mendenhall, who briefly addressed the poll with his players before the start of fall camp. “Right after the acknowledgment, it’s, ‘OK, we’re done with that. Let’s practice.’”
The Cavaliers are an intrinsically motivated bunch. They have been since Mendenhall got here. They take great pride in the creative process of building this program into a contender, a process that is still ongoing. They feel a sense of ownership, of obligation.
We saw it last year, when Juan Thornhill returned for his senior year rather than turning pro. The free safety earned first-team All-ACC honors as a senior leader for a UVa team that went 8-5, 4-4 and blasted South Carolina 28-0 in the Belk Bowl. He joined the Kansas City Chiefs in April as a second-round pick.
And we’re seeing it again in the return of cornerback Bryce Hall, who could have entered the NFL Draft alongside Thornhill this spring. He, too, opted to stay for a fourth year.
Contrast that with UVa’s basketball team, which saw its core of underclassmen depart for the NBA after winning the 2019 national championship. Who could blame them? They’d done exactly what they had come to Charlottesville to do.
The football team, meanwhile, is still striving.
“We have goals we haven’t accomplished yet,” defensive tackle Eli Hanback said. “We have teams we haven’t beaten yet. I think there’s a lot of guys on this team that want to see that through and want to see that get done.
“I think a lot of those guys turned down money and came back to keep playing just because they want to be a part of something bigger than themselves.”
The returns of Thornhill and Hall then, provided more than just the obvious tangible benefits of production. The acts themselves were cultural affirmations.
“It symbolizes a lot,” free safety Joey Blount said. “They’re not giving up on us. It’s not three-and-out and leaving. There’s a lot of leadership in that, as well…It shows a lot of sacrifice, leadership and belief, believing that what you decide and what you have faith in is going to work out.”
The Cavaliers do have faith. They know a pair of overtime losses were the only thing that kept them from winning the Coastal Division title last year. They know their side of the bracket is wide open. They know this is an enormous opportunity.
“They think they can win the Coastal,” Mendenhall said of his players. “I’m not sure who has a better chance than us. And that would be realistic talk, not pretend talk. We have a returning quarterback and a strong defense. We have as good a chance as anyone.”
That sounds a lot like what the media pronounced with their prediction. But don’t expect to see those words replace the “Earned, Not Given” phrase that has become this program’s trademark.
“We don’t praise them much,” Mendenhall said with a smile. “We want them hungry for more.”