Virginia coach Mike London knows the facts: Virginia Tech has won 11 of the past 12 games in the series, and each of the past seven.
This team, though, is different, London said.
You'd better believe it is.
For three straight seasons prior to this one, Virginia had a losing record. Now, in only London’s second season, the Cavaliers are heading to a bowl game and playing on Saturday for the Coastal Division title for the first time since 2007. The turnaround is ahead of schedule and has far exceeded expectations for a team that was picked by the media to finish fifth in the Coastal Division standings this year.
So how’d he do it? What, exactly, is different?
London will tell you at length about the off-field process, the effort to get the players more involved in the classroom and in community service, to make them winners off the field before they walked on it. He has done that, and weeded out some players who couldn’t cut it academically or socially. He has changed the culture, and he has changed the mentality on the field, but there are also some big differences on the field that have helped lead to the Cavaliers’ immediate success.
You can point to the defense, which is another year older and wiser and more comfortable in the second year under coordinator Jim Reid. You can point to the quarterback, Michael Rocco, who has been a steady factor over the four-game winning streak, completing 61.2 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns and one interception. You can point to the work of offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, who has dramatically improved the Cavaliers’ offensive numbers. The staff has a good blend of promising young talent it recruited and veteran players who remained from the previous staff. It’s important to remember that Al Groh did not leave the cupboard bare, especially on defense. The staff also has had the same five starters on the offensive line for the past 11 games.
“They're a good football team,” Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. “They're for real. They're good, and they're playing really well and playing with a lot of confidence, as they should. They've done a good job up there.”
UVa has amassed more than 400 yards of total offense in 11-of-23 games since Lazor brought his pro-style philosophy to Charlottesville. The Oct. 22 game against NC State (249 yards) and UVa’s 2010 season finale (291 yards) are the only games during London’s tenure when the Cavaliers failed to reach at least 300 yards of total offense. UVa enters Saturday’s game against the Hokies ranked No. 3 in the ACC and No. 42 in the nation with an average of 411.0 total yards per game.
Defensively, Virginia has forced a turnover in every game this season and is tied for No. 5 in the nation and No. 1 in the ACC in red zone defense. Virginia’s front seven has been a strength, and it should be with the veteran leadership of senior defensive tackles Matt Conrath and Nick Jenkins, and senior defensive end Cam Johnson.
While Virginia has overachieved in the big picture, the expectations from the start were that this was going to be a good defense. All of it, though, has added up to an ACC contender quicker than most expected.
The question now is whether London can finish what he has started. It’s an accomplishment in itself, though, to be in a position to try.
“It's great to know that in November we're still talking about Virginia football being relevant,” London said. “It's great to know that there's a lot at stake here. It's an opportunity to play in the last game of the year that decides whether you have a chance to play for goals that you've set coming into this season. They've been on this side of the ledger for a long time. This is new, unchartered territory for us.
"There doesn't have to be any fake hype or fake talk, anything like that. We don't need any Twitter account stuff, Facebook stuff, going back and forth. We're in-state rivals, and it would be characterized to say that's how they feel about us and we feel about them.
“You know and you respect the men that you're going against, but you also understand that you're the in-state rival. You want to beat the in-state rival in everything that you do. Right now, they've had a number of years of success in that regard. We stand here and get ready to play and want to be able to challenge them in recruiting. We want to be able to challenge them on the football field. And that's what you do. I can't put it any other way.”