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 By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– Of the football recruiting class that enrolled at UVA in 2015, only six players remain in the program: defensive linemen Eli Hanback and Richard Burney, tight end Tanner Cowley, running back Chris Sharp, linebacker Reed Kellam, and wide receiver Ben Hogg.
During their careers, UVA has played every other team in the ACC at least once, with two exceptions: Clemson and Florida State.
Virginia and Clemson haven’t met since 2013, and if they do so this year it will be in the ACC championship game. The Cavaliers haven’t played the Seminoles since 2014, but that’s about to change.
At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, in a game to air on the new ACC Network, No. 25 UVA (2-0 overall, 1-0 conference) meets Florida State at Scott Stadium. This is the ACC opener for the Seminoles (1-1). For Virginia, which is coming off a 52-17 win over William & Mary, it’s the midpoint of a three-game homestand.
“Anxious to be back in ACC play,” UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall said Monday. “Especially glad to be home again.”
UVA hasn’t played FSU at Scott Stadium since 2010. Hanback, then 14 years old and living in Hanover County, was in the stands that day.
“It wasn’t a good ending for us, but I do remember watching that game,” Hanback said of the Seminoles’ 34-14 victory.
The next year, however, the Cavaliers upset FSU 14-13 in Tallahassee, Florida. The Seminoles lead the series 15-3, but it’s been a while since they’ve look like the powerhouse that for years ruled the ACC.
In 2018, their first season under head coach Willie Taggart, the Noles finished 5-7, and they’re off to a shaky start this year. They blew an 18-point lead late last month in their season-opening loss to Boise State, and they needed overtime to edge Louisiana Monroe on Saturday. Both of those games were played at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee.
Even so, Hanback said, “Florida State every year is full of talent. They’re still full of talent, so it’s a game we’re taking very serious and we’re very excited for. They’ve got a lot of capable guys on both sides of the ball, and so it’s a game we have to play at our best … No matter what they’ve been through, they can win any game they play in.”
Mendenhall offered a similar assessment of the Noles. “They’re dynamic and explosive and capable of putting a lot of points on the board and doing it really quickly.”
The most explosive Seminole is junior tailback Cam Akers, who’s carried 51 times for 309 yards and three touchdowns this season.
“I think this is definitely going to be a very good test to see where we’re at in the run game,” said Hanback, a four-year starter. “This running back has NFL potential. He’s very fast, very physical and strong, and he’s behind a very talented O-line, with very talented skill guys on the edges. 
“As an offense as a whole they’re very talented, but that backfield is definitely going to be a test for us, and I think it’ll be a good measure to see where we’re at, at this point of the season, in stopping the run.”
Junior safety Brenton Nelson said: “We all want to show that we’re capable and that we belong where we’re at now, belong among the best.”
As head coach at BYU, Mendenhall was 0-2 against the Seminoles, losing to them in 2009 and 2010. The challenge facing Mendenhall and his staff this season is similar to what they faced in 2009, given their unfamiliarity with FSU, which competes in the ACC’s Atlantic Division.
It’s like preparing for a non-conference game, Mendenhall said, “even though it has conference implications.”

For the second time in four seasons under Mendenhall, the Cavaliers are ranked. After defeating North Carolina on Oct. 27, 2018, Virginia moved into The Associated Press poll at No. 23, only to lose three of its final four regular-season games.

“So being ranked doesn’t mean anything in the beginning of the season or early in the season,” UVA quarterback Bryce Perkins said. “We still got to go out there and play. It kind of puts a target on our back and makes us have to practice harder, not even just play harder but practice harder and be more prepared so we can take that next step as a team and continue to be great and continue to show that this UVA team is something serious.”
The ranking speaks “to the direction we’re going and how much Coach Mendenhall has done for this program,” Cowley said. “It’s not going to change our preparation … We’re still going to prepare the same way. It’s just like any other game for us right now.”
Perkins, a senior, suffered a minor knee injury early in training camp and wore a brace in the first two games.
“My knee’s feeling really good,” he said Monday. “Now it’s just more of a precaution, just until I’m 100 percent. But I feel good out there running. I barely even notice it, so it’s not really hindering anything.”
Perkins was intercepted twice against William & Mary, each time on an ill-advised pass.
“Just trying to do too much,” he said. “Looking at both of those, they were stupid plays. Both of those, just trying to throw back across the middle. It’s something that, as soon as I threw it, after the fact, I just knew that [it was a bad decision] …  I’ve just got to play smarter and not try to do too much.”
The turnovers did not prevent UVA from overwhelming the Tribe. For the Hoos, there was much to like about their performance and even more to like about the atmosphere at Scott Stadium, where attendance has been disappointing in recent years.
The student turnout was 10,027, the highest figure at Scott Stadium in 11 years.

“One of my favorite things from Friday night was our student section,” Mendenhall said. “It was jammed. It was so much fun. What a cool thing for college students to have a chance on a Friday night to go to a football game and see good and winning football in an environment like that. I hope it’s just the beginning. I really do. It was noticeable to me. I pay attention usually just before the game, and then they have to be pretty loud for me to notice during the game, and I notice not only their section, but the grass hill [beyond the north end zone]. 
“It just started looking like, ‘Hey, this is starting to take shape.’ … I would hope it’s just the beginning and that the community at large, the state, as well as our student section and the longtime fans that have been so loyal, I hope they’re optimistic and enjoying what’s happening and encourage their friends to come [Saturday night]. It’s Florida State, ACC football, with a UVA team that seems to be on the right track.”

Hanback and his teammates notice, and appreciate, the support, too.
“When I came in here, football wasn’t our big team at UVA,” Hanback said, “and I think now, along with basketball too, obviously, they’ve become our two marquee sports, and I’ve been able to be a part of a program that’s gotten better each year, and we’re becoming a big part of this university. It’s really cool to be a part of and to see everyone get behind us and really be excited about the future of UVA football.”