The start of fall football practice is just over a month away. It is no secret that Bronco Mendenhall has many hurdles to clear before Virginia football gets back to a winning groove. He has a new challenge this year. One of his own making. After one season, the Virginia fan base is split on the wisdom of bringing Bronco and his band of assistants to Charlottesville.
Posting a 2-10 record in his first season has many Virginia fans concerned. Opening the season with a convincing 17-point loss to University of Richmond took a lot of the optimistic winds out of Bronco’s sails. The team’s performances in the following weeks did little to build confidence in the direction of the program. The rotten cherry on the soured sundae was a thumping at the hands of Virginia Tech when Bronco deployed a ridiculous QB rotation that ended in utterly predictable failure.
The recruiting season has not brought tidings of joy to hardcore Virginia fans who spend the football off-season analyzing the whims of 18-year old high school footballers. While Bronco is filling his 2018 recruiting class at a brisk pace, the reality is that Bronco is bringing a different breed of cat to the program.
A standard measure of a recruit’s talent is always the “offer list”. Who else wanted a recruit to play for them? Over the Groh and London years Virginia landed many recruits with impressive offer lists. Fans were often giddy when Georgia, Penn State, USC, and Florida were vying for kids who decided to come play for Virginia. Unfortunately, those kids didn’t win that many games wearing the orange & blue.
A look at the offer lists of the 2018 recruiting class has many Virginia fans concerned. Bronco’s recent commits have offer lists that include Bucknell, Penn, Yale, and Cornell. Others have offers from Wake Forest, Vandy, and Boston College. Still others boast offers from Bowling Green St, Akron, and Florida Atlantic. Let’s recognize the obvious: Bronco is not recruiting the same kids as college football’s blue bloods…or even college football’s light-blue bloods. It sounds like his guys might do well as contestants on “Jeopardy”, but can they beat Clemson & Miami? Heck, can they beat Richmond & UConn?
The Virginia fan base is split into two camps: those who believe in Bronco and his system. They look at his past performance. His BYU recruiting classes were littered with castoffs from Southern Cal, UCLA, and Oregon. Bronco won a lot of games with those players. Many of them went on to play in the NFL. Virginia’s “system” fans are convinced that Bronco’ can succeed in similar fashion at Virginia.
There is evidence to support this position. Jim Harbaugh was a “system” coach at Stanford. Harbaugh came to Stanford after a 1-11 season in 2006. The talent pool at Stanford was not deep when Harbaugh arrived. Rivals ranked Stanford’s 2004-2008 recruiting classes in the middle of the pack at best:
Yet in 2007, Harbaugh improved Stanford’s record to 4-8. He went 5-7 in 2008, 8-5 in 2009, and then reached his zenith at Stanford with a 12-1 season in 2010. Think about the redshirt juniors and seniors that led the 2009 & 2010 teams. They were kids from the middling recruiting classes that averaged 50.6 in national recruiting rankings. I recognize that one of those recruits in the 50.6 ranked classes was Andrew Luck. Got it. He’s a stud. However, his supporting cast on offense and defense was made up of “system guys” who developed during the years at Stanford and thrived in the Harbaugh system.
The system fans believe in Bronco. They believe in player development and past performance as a predictor of future success. I get the “system” fans’ argument. There have been several successful programs that back their stance. Paul Johnson at Ga. Tech is the consummate system coach. Ga. Tech has won a lot of football games while Virginia has floundered the past 10 years. I want to believe the system fans. I want to be optimistic, until I hear from the “athletes” crowd.
The opposing camp of Virginia fans feels that Bronco is doomed for failure at worst and mediocrity at best. As noted in an earlier column, it is not hard to conclude that Virginia simply does not have the athletes to compete and win in the rising tide of ACC football. Pick a team, any team from the George Welsh era and compare those players (their recruiting rank and NFL potential) with the players Virginia has on the roster now and more importantly with the players Bronco is bringing to the program. These fans will tell you, with great passion, that we can have the best system and player development on the planet, but unless you have the horses that can run with Clemson and Florida State, Virginia is going to be a perpetual bottom tier program.
Last season’s performance combined with Bronco’s recruiting strategy has created this fissure in the Virginia fan base. The gotta-have-the-athletes crowd is biding their time with Bronco, waiting for him to flame out with his players that belong in the Ivy League or the Patriot League. The System fans ask for patience and pray for at least 5 wins this season.
Only time will tell which position is correct. I tend to think that Bronco’s system has done very well in the past and deserves more time. I think it can succeed at Virginia, but I worry about a low ceiling for success and settling for 6 wins a year as the measure of a successful program. I also worry that if the system breaks down, we don’t have any one fast enough to run down the next Deshawn Watson or Lamar Jackson. It’s hard to consistently “out-system” the thoroughbreds coming to play at other programs in the ACC.
My bigger concern is that Virginia football needs all the help it can get returning to respectability. One of the assets Virginia needs is an optimistic and enthusiastic fan base. I am worried that a divided fan base likely spends more time in the West Lot than in the stands, which is not good for anyone, except the bourbon distillers.
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