Six months after the somewhat unlikely selection of Virginia as a preseason choice to win the ACC’s Coastal Division, it can be said that the Cavaliers’ football team lived up to expectations.
It wasn’t the best season in UVa history. That distinction is held by either the 1989 team that finished 10-3 or the 1990 team that won its first seven games and was ranked No. 1 in the country for three weeks.
That team was led by quarterback Shawn Moore, who finished fourth in balloting for the Heisman Trophy. UVa didn’t have another dual-threat like him until Bryce Perkins came east from Arizona Western Junior College in the winter of 2018.
At that point, Bronco Mendenhall had gone 2-10 and 6-7 in his first two seasons as Virginia’s head football coach.
“It became really clear after those two years that we needed a dynamic player and person to lead our team offensively and from the quarterback position,” Mendenhall said Monday night after a 36-28 loss to heavily favored Florida in the Orange Bowl.
One year earlier, Perkins and Co. had routed South Carolina 28-0 in the Belk Bowl.
“Bryce is the exact person we were hopeful to have lead our program and I’m talking person first and then player second,” Mendenhall said. “It was — and is — the perfect fit.
“I couldn’t have hoped for anything else. I wouldn’t have wanted anything else or anybody else. I’m just grateful.”
The peak of Virginia’s season came in late November, when the Cavaliers defeated Virginia Tech 39-30 in Charlottesville and put an end to their 15-game losing streak in the Commonwealth Clash.
By then, UVa already had lost preseason All-America cornerback Bryce Hall, the victim of a fractured ankle sustained in the sixth game of the season. His fellow co-captain, linebacker Jordan Mack, underwent surgery after a lower-leg injury that sidelined him early in the ACC title game.
Atlantic Division champion Clemson routed the Cavaliers 62-17 at Bank of America Stadium.
Virginia entered the Orange Bowl as a 16-point underdog and only 40 seconds had elapsed when the Gators’ Lamical Perine ran 61 yards for a touchdown on the third offensive play of the game.
UVa countered with a 34-yard touchdown pass from Perkins to Terrell Jana that made it 7-7 and, while Florida had the lead for most of the night, it was scarcely a runaway.
One of the biggest plays of the game occurred as Florida, leading 27-21, was facing a fourth-and-1 from its 44-yard line early in the fourth quarter.
The Gators elected to go for a first down and converted. Quarterback Kyle Trask later completed a 30-yard pass to Van Jefferson to set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Trask with 9:33 left to make it 33-21.
“I think both teams were calling the game to win,” Mendenhall said, noting that Florida successfully had gone for first down on fourth-and-8 from the UVa 35 in the second quarter.
The Gators, leading 17-14 at the time, were able to go into the half with a two-score cushion.
“Not only did [Florida coach Dan Mullen] call it, but their team executed well enough to pull that off,” Mendenhall said. “That was a huge play.”
After a 2-10 finish in Mendenhall’s first year, the Cavaliers have improved their record in each of the past three seasons. To continue that rise, UVa would need to win 10 games for the first time in more than 30 years.
“I’m not into moral victories because we lost the game,” Mendenhall said. “These guys are going to be a force to be reckoned with. You could kind of see a glimpse of it today. We don’t take losing lightly.”
In addition to Perkins, the Cavaliers will be losing a pair of wide receivers with a combined 152 receptions this past season, Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois. Jana, who had a total of 13 receptions in 25 games over his first two seasons, could be a savior after catching 74 balls this year.
Presumably, Brennan Armstrong will be throwing to him after backing up Perkins for the past two seasons. Armstrong (6 foot 2, 220 pounds) played in five games and completed 13 of 16 passes for 181 yards, including a 44-yard touchdown pass to Dontayvion Wicks against Liberty.
The question offensively is a running game that ranked 119th out of 130 FBS teams in rushing yardage with an average of 121.2 yards per game. Clearly, Perkins was UVa’s top rushing threat, with more than 1,000 yards in gains before losses were subtracted.
UVa’s second leading rusher was sophomore Wayne Taulapapa with 473 yards, but it’s likely that the Cavaliers will continue to run the quarterback, particularly if it’s Armstrong, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons in high school.
Virginia’s No. 3 quarterback is Lindell Stone, a teammate of Jana at Woodberry Forest.
Clearly, UVa could have used its injured defensive leaders, Hall and Mack, down the stretch. However, they were going to be gone after this season any way. The secondary should benefit from the return of injured defensive backs Darrius Bratton and Brenton Nelson.
Other returnees include middle linebacker Zane Zandier, who had a team-high 108 tackles and teamed with outside pass-rushers Charles Snowden and Noah Taylor for 37 sacks.
“I’m thankful to the  senior class, most of whom I didn’t select,” said Mendenhall, referring to a class mostly recruited by predecessor Mike London and his staff. “I consider them a legacy class in terms of establishing what UVa football really is.”