Sooner or later, Virginia’s football team was going to meet Clemson again.
Actually, the Cavaliers are going to visit Clemson next season, which would have been their second meeting in 11 years.
That was before UVa defeated visiting Virginia Tech 39-30 on Saturday to snap a 15-game losing streak against the Hokies.
In the process, No. 22 Virginia (9-3, 6-2 ACC) captured the Coastal Division championship and will meet Atlantic Division champion and No. 3-ranked Clemson (12-0, 8-0) at 7:30 p.m. for the ACC championship.
Clemson is also the reigning national champion.
The Tigers have been installed as 28-point favorites against the Cavaliers, who have never won an outright ACC football title, having shared championships in 1989 and 1995.
It wasn’t too long ago that UVa had six straight losing seasons, from 2012 through 2017.
That included a 59-10 loss to the Tigers when they last met in Charlottesville in 2013. Clemson was ranked No. 9 at the time.
Virginia should be familiar with the venue in Charlotte on Saturday night. Bank of America Stadium was the site of a 28-0 UVa victory over South Carolina in last season’s Belk Bowl.
Only three years ago, Virginia was 2-10 in its first season under coach Bronco Mendenhall. Since then, the Cavaliers have gone 23-15, including 17-8 over the past two seasons. A third straight bowl trip is certain to follow Saturday’s game.
“Each year has brought new steps, new challenges [and] new opportunities for growth and development,” said Mendenhall on a late Sunday afternoon teleconference. “This stage and this step is the next.”
Clemson is the third Top 5 team to play Virginia during Mendenhall’s four-year tenure. The Cavaliers lost at home to No. 5 Louisville 32-25 in 2016, then lost at No. 2 Miami 44-28 in 2017.
Asked Sunday if he felt that the impending meeting could be viewed as a David vs. Goliath struggle, Mendenhall responded, “I think that’s probably the case with anyone that Clemson has played this year.”
In their previous meeting, the Tigers, then ranked No 18, won at home 34-21 in coach Dabo Swinney’s first full season in 2009.
“It certainly is a challenge because there are no existing reference points or shared experiences with a coach or team that are relevant,” Mendenhall said. “I don’t have any experience against Clemson or coach Swinney or any of their existing players.
“So, really, at that point, your focus needs to be on your own scheme, your own strategy, your own execution, your own position mastery, your own mindset, everything that can be controlled.”
They had four common opponents — Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Florida State and Louisville. UVa was 3-1 against that group, with the lone loss at Louisville, 28-21.
“I think we’ll be the next team lumped in the same category as everyone else,” Mendenhall said. “We battled, scrapped, clawed to win our division in a program that had recent success and was hungry for more.”
While Mendenhall and Swinney do not have a pre-existing relationship, it was Swinney who texted Virginia men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett prior to last April’s NCAA title game with the words, “Let the light that shines in you be brighter than the light that shines on you.”
Bennett shared the saying with his players prior to the title game.
“I’d like to congratulate Virginia and coach Mendenhall on an awesome season and, really, an incredible journey that they’ve been on since [Mendenhall] got there,” Swinney said. “It’s been fun to watch.
“You could see that coming in terms of building a championship program. He’s an outstanding coach, a wonderful human being and just done a wonderful job there.”
It will be the fifth consecutive trip to the ACC title game for the Tigers, who have won the last four championships and five of the last eight championships. The Atlantic Division representative has won the last eight title games, counting three by Florida State.
“Everybody focused on who left [for the pros] and they forgot to focus on who’s still here,” Swinney said Sunday. “We had great players leave, but we’ve got great players here.
“My feeling coming into the season was that it was the best back seven [on defense] that I’ve had since I’ve been a head coach. People don’t respect that we played 10 bowl teams. People haven’t focused on who we are as a team.
“My job is to stand up and speak the truth and speak up for this program when it’s necessary.”