By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — A rare opportunity awaits UVa’s football team in Atlanta: an ESPN-televised date with defending national champion Auburn in the only game to be shown in that prime-time slot on New Year’s Eve.
At 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 31, the Cavaliers (8-4) will meet the Tigers (7-5) in the Chick-fil-A Bowl at the Georgia Dome. This is no second-tier bowl, and it’s not just another game for the Cavaliers, whose last postseason appearance came in 2007.
“I think any time you’re playing on the national stage, particularly against this team, which was last year’s national champion, all eyes are going to be on your program, on your university, on those student-athletes that represent the university,” said Mike London, the Cavaliers’ second-year coach.
A year after going 4-8, Virginia can finish with nine wins for only the third time since George Welsh’s illustrious tenure as head coach ended in 2000.
“There’s a lot riding on it: the chance to go 9-4 and be a bowl champion,” London said.
This will be the Wahoos’ fourth appearance in the Chick-fil-A (formerly the Peach), and UVa fans flocked to Atlanta for each of the first three bowls. London, who last week was named ACC coach of year, hopes to see similar support New Year’s Eve at the Georgia Dome.
“It’s going to be filled with orange and blue, as I understand it, because Auburn has the same colors,” London said, “but at the same time, it’s always great for our players to look up in the stands and see our Cavalier fans and our faithful.”
As of Friday morning, approximately 7,000 tickets remained to be sold from UVa’s 18,000-seat allotment from the bowl. London’s message to fans?
“Come down to Atlanta and just fill the place,” he said. “You may not have been to an away game, but make an attempt to come to this one. It’s more than just a football game being played. It’s an opportunity to extend what a lot of people think about the University of Virginia as being a great institution.”
For this game, London said, the “national spotlight is placed upon the University of Virginia, and it’s important that our players and our recruits see a supportive fan base.”
Tickets are available through UVa for Virginia Athletics Foundation donors, season-ticket holders, alumni and the general public. The priority deadline is today (Dec. 9) at 5 p.m., and tickets bought before then will be in better seat locations than those purchased after the deadline.
None of the players on London’s roster saw action in the 2007 Gator Bowl at Jacksonville, Fla., where Texas Tech rallied to edge UVa on a late field goal. Virginia’s current fifth-year seniors, however, redshirted that season, including cornerback Chase Minnifield and wide receiver Kris Burd, and made the trip to Jacksonville with the team.
The fifth-year seniors were determined not to leave UVa without playing in a bowl game themselves, and they didn’t hesitate to say so once the 2010 season ended.
“We’ve been talking about it since before we started our preseason workouts,” Burd said Monday, “and for us to have the opportunity to go out there against an SEC team in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, it’s what you play for.”
Twelve true freshmen have played for the ‘Hoos this season, and they have benefited from the leadership shown by London’s veterans.
Starting in the summer, said middle linebacker Steve Greer, a redshirt junior, he saw “the older guys kind of stepping up and getting in the younger guys’ ears and trying to show them the right way to do stuff. We were just kind of sick of the results we’ve had around here for the past couple years. I think it was the older guys getting in the younger guys’ ears and just kind of bringing on a new attitude among everyone.”
Virginia’s regular season included ACC victories at Maryland, at Miami and, for the first time, at Florida State. And now the Cavaliers, who were picked to finish fifth in the six-team Coastal Division, have a chance to cap a remarkable season with a win over one of the nation’s storied programs.
“It’s very important, obviously, to put up a good effort against an SEC team on this stage,” Minnifield said, “just for the notoriety of the program and just for Coach London and his future, and the University of Virginia and its future.”