Saturday, November 01, 2008

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Will front-runner status change Cavaliers?

Now we'll see what they can do as contenders.

For much of this season, the Virginia Cavaliers have merely been a subject of drive-by intrigue. Whether it was their blowout losses, their off-the-field issues or their unexpected victories, they've been more spectacle than anything else.

But slowly, that's changed.

The Maryland win made them puzzling.

The East Carolina win caused a radar blip.

The North Carolina win proved they could be resourceful.

And last week's victory at George Tech? That snapped them squarely into the role of front-runner, shocking the entire conference.

"I was not expecting them to lose," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said of the Yellow Jackets, the erstwhile division leaders and the team his Seminoles meet today. "But Virginia's an amazing team."

Hear that? The second winningest coach in the history of college football thinks the Cavaliers are amazing -- and he's not even playing them this week!

Give coach Al Groh credit. In less than a month, Virginia has dispatched two of the Coastal Division's top threats and destroyed the co-leader in the Atlantic.

But the best news is the success has not changed him. Oh, no. When asked whether it's more difficult to prepare a team during a winning streak, Groh whipped out this gem:

"Any time that your team is able to prepare from a foundation of confidence is a more advantageous circumstance," he said. "And confidence only comes from demonstrated performance."

Ah, sweet, nourishing circumstance and confidence drawn from demonstrated performance. Good to know that even during this bizarre season, you can still count on some things.

But there's another side to that argument, too -- one that should give the team pause: This year's Cavaliers have never had to face the kind of pressure they're going to feel today.

The majority of fans at Scott Stadium will show up expecting them to win. Gamblers moved the betting line three points in their direction, making them the favorites.

And after clawing for weeks to make something -- anything -- out of this season, UVa is now charged with protecting a lead that nobody expected them to have.

They might want to take Joe Biden's advice and gird their loins.

Groh said the Cavs are preparing like they have all season, spending about half their practice time on game-planning for the opponent and the other half honing fundamentals to improve consistency.

But it's the time in between practices -- hours spent walking to class, eating dinner, hanging out at the dorms -- that toys with the psychology of the players.

Their peers view them as winners now. Now they have to keep proving it.

Much like Virginia Tech did last year, the Cavaliers have experienced an offensive Renaissance in the middle of the season. They've averaged 382 yards during their streak after reaching 300 just once in their first four games.

But outside of the Maryland game, there have been no comfortable wins. And based on talent level alone, the Cavs are probably closer to the middle of the ACC pack than their current standing.

"It has been hard enough in each one of [the wins] that we can see that the margin is very, very small," Groh said. "And if we do anything less than what we've done for the previous four games, it probably won't be enough."

Four ACC teams are off this weekend. Miami-Virginia is the only noon game in the league. That means there will be a lot of eyeballs on the unlikely contenders.

And for the first time in a long time, anything less than a win would be a surprise.

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