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By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– For five straight seasons, starting in 2012, the University of Virginia football team’s helmets and pads had been put away by the time the calendar flipped to December.
The Cavaliers failed to qualify for postseason in each of those years –– the first four under head coach Mike London, the fifth under his successor, Bronco Mendenhall –– and thus did not reap the benefits of the 15 extra practices permitted for bowl teams each year.
In pro sports, struggling teams are rewarded with prime draft picks. In college football, struggling teams miss out on opportunities to improve.
“When you don’t have those practices, you’re at a deficit in relation to the teams that do,” Mendenhall said Sunday night.
For UVA, that deficit has been steadily shrinking. In 2017, after posting a 6-6 record in the regular season, the Wahoos played in the Military Bowl in Annapolis, Md., where they lost to Navy.
In 2018, the Hoos finished 8-5 after defeating South Carolina in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, N.C. They’ll play on a much bigger stage this year: the Orange Bowl, one of the New Year’s Six, against a Southeastern Conference power, Florida.
“There’s credibility that comes with those games,” Mendenhall said, “and when you have that, playing at a high level magnifies that and accelerates your program in a way that can’t be done in lesser games or with lesser exposure. So it’s an essential step for growing our program, and a huge opportunity.”
Virginia (9-4), No. 24 in the College Football Playoff rankings, meets No. 9 Florida (10-2) on Dec. 30 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. ESPN will televise the 8 p.m. game.
After winning their first Coastal Division title late last month, the Cavaliers had a week to prepare for the ACC championship game in Charlotte, where they lost to No. 3 Clemson. Now they get 15 more practices before taking on the Gators.
“That [extra practice time] accumulates pretty quickly over three years, and it’s not an accident that each of one of our seasons has been stronger and better than the previous one,” Mendenhall said. 
The Cavaliers’ program isn’t as deep or as talented or as proficient as he would like, Mendenhall said, but “we played and competed for a conference championship, and now we’re playing in one of the elite bowl games and bowl tiers in college football, and that in part can be attributed to the bowl practices we’ve had and the extra work we’ve gotten.”
Several representatives of the Orange Bowl were in Charlottesville on Sunday to deliver the official invitation, including UVA alumni Wayne Schuchts, Don Slesnick and Lettie Bien.
Schuchts played quarterback for the Cavaliers in the early 1980s.
“Clearly Clemson is the gold standard [in the ACC],” Schuchts said, “but for Virginia to be in the Orange Bowl is surreal.”
Mendenhall said: “It’s a huge opportunity to learn, grow and advance our program again to a new level, which is what the intent of our team and our coaching staff is: to continue to move this program into national relevance, national prominence, and play on the biggest stages.”
Games of the Orange Bowl’s stature are “essential for national prominence and perception,” Mendenhall said, “which is why it’s so important to leverage those opportunities with quality play and quality preparation, and we are adjusting and growing into those stages.”
That adjustment process isn’t always seamless. Saturday night, in its first game against Clemson since 2013, UVA lost 62-17 at Bank of America Stadium.
The Tigers, who have won 28 straight games and five consecutive ACC titles, are in the College Football Playoff for the fifth year in a row, and they’ve captured two of the past three national titles.
For the Cavaliers, it was their first appearance in the ACC championship game.
“Last night just opened our eyes to what that top tier [is like],” junior linebacker Charles Snowden said Sunday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena. “Clemson has won 28 games in a row [and is the] reigning national champs, so we know what the best of the best are like, and we know what the bully on the block is like.
“Last night, maybe some of the guys were kind of tentative, not knowing. And so now we know exactly what it’ll be like to [face] the best in the country.”
On offense, the Cavaliers totaled 387 yards, by the far most Clemson has allowed this season. But UVA’s defense missed multiple tackles and gave up a season-high 619 yards.
“It was very rough, and we’re definitely better for it,” junior defensive lineman Mandy Alonso said Sunday, “because it exposed our weaknesses and what we need to improve on. All our assignment mistakes and everything like that, it’s going to get our minds focused and ready for this game.”
The postgame message from defensive coordinator Nick Howell?
“It was just that we need to change our mindset for this next game,” Alonso said, “and we need to be more locked in on every little detail.”
If the Hoos needed extra motivation during their bowl prep, the one-sided loss to Clemson provided it.
“When you come off a game like we just played, and knowing we could have executed and played at a higher level, but also knowing that our level of preparation and quite frankly just the simple performance could have been better,” Mendenhall said, “it leaves you with this idea of how fast can you get back to work to start addressing some of those things. I really like the chance to come back and improve, which is what I’m sure our team wants to do as well.”
Snowden said: “We have another game to kind of redeem ourselves on another big stage, against another great team, probably similar to Clemson. So it’s another opportunity that we’re all excited about.”
Nobody is more excited than Alonso, who’s from Miami. This will be his third game as a Cavalier at Hard Rock Stadium. (The Miami Hurricanes defeated the Cavaliers there in 2017 and this season.) 
“Being able to play Florida, the state school, is even more special,” said Alonso, whom the Gators did not recruit. “If we win, it’s going to be amazing. I think my dad is probably even more excited for this game, because it’s the last time I’m going to be playing in Miami.”
Against Clemson, the Cavaliers played without their only All-ACC first-team selection, senior Joe Reed, who was honored at two positions (all-purpose and return specialist). Reed, a standout wide receiver on offense, missed the ACC championship game with a hip injury but said Sunday that he’ll “be fine for [the Orange Bowl].”
Twice in the past decade, UVA has played Florida in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The schools have less of a history in football. In their only clash to date, the Gators defeated the Cavaliers 55-10 on Oct. 3, 1959, in Gainesville, Fla.
A victory over Florida would give Virginia the second 10-win season in program history. In 1989, their eighth season under head coach George Welsh, the Cavaliers finished 10-3.
“That’s been the big message,” Reed said, “the fact that we’ve only done it one time and how we can continue to make history like we’ve been doing this year. So a 10th win would be huge for us, and that’s definitely a goal we have in mind.”
Mendenhall said Sunday night that he had not begun scouting the Gators, but he’s familiar with their head coach, Dan Mullen. In 2003 and ’04, when Mendenhall was defensive coordinator at BYU, Mullen was quarterbacks coach at Utah.
Mullen was head coach at Mississippi State, where he compiled a record of 69-46, before taking the job at Florida after the 2017 season. The Gators finished 10-3 in 2018, and their losses this season have been to Southeastern Conference powers LSU and Georgia. Florida closed the regular season with a 40-17 rout of Florida State.
“I know Dan Mullen,” Mendenhall said. “I know his body of work. I know his body of leadership and the results that he’s produced.
“I certainly see their record, and I see their ranking. So we expect a very similar opponent to what we just faced [in the ACC championship game], and we certainly know that we have improvement to make in relation to that, so I expect a great test from Florida.”
UVA athletics director Carla Williams, a Georgia alumna, knows SEC football well and understands the challenge facing Mendenhall’s team. She also understands the opportunity the Orange Bowl represents for an ascending program.
“I’m just so happy for our players,” Williams said. “These types of accolades, they’re the result of a lot of hard work over a long period of time by our coaches and our student-athletes, and they’ve earned the right to participate in this bowl. I’m very proud of that, but I’m also equally proud of who they are as people … These guys are great representatives of our program.”