Picked before the season to finish fifth in the Coastal Division, Virginia now is two wins from a division title. After losing 13 consecutive November games in a skid that ran from 2007 to 2010, the Cavaliers finally are producing a November to remember.
Virginia (7-3 overall, 4-2 in the ACC) puts its three-game winning streak on the line Saturday at Florida State (7-3, 5-2), which has won five in a row. A Virginia Tech (9-1, 5-1) victory Thursday over North Carolina and a Virginia loss to Florida State would allow the Hokies to clinch the Coastal Division title this week.
If Virginia Tech doesn't clinch this week, it would set up a winner-take-all showdown between the in-state rivals Nov. 26 in Charlottesville.
Virginia is a 17 1/2-point underdog at Florida State and hasn't beaten Virginia Tech since 2003, but the Cavaliers already have beaten the odds time and time again in their second season under Mike London. The same team that struggled to beat Indiana and Idaho early this season has won five of its past six games, including victories over Georgia Tech and Miami.
"The magical thing in this business is confidence and when it comes into your program," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. "If you have a couple of successful deals and the kids start playing better and better, and the talent starts to come out and you play more consistent. I think that's what he's got going. [He's] got them playing confident and is coaching them very well. He's done a heck of a job."
Virginia has improved in just about every facet of the game during its three-game winning streak. Michael Rocco has thrown six touchdown passes with only one interception. Running back Perry Jones has averaged 139.7 all-purpose yards per game. Virginia's defense has given up just 67.7 rushing yards per game during this stretch.
Virginia has made these strides while playing underclassmen at a number of key positions. Rocco is one of four sophomores on the first-team offense. Kevin Parks, a redshirt freshman, has rushed for 616 yards and a team-high seven touchdowns. True freshman cornerback Demetrious Nicholson has been a fixture in the starting lineup all season. As these underclassmen have matured, the team has improved.
"You put young players or guys in positions where [they] see the things that can cause you to win or cause you to lose," London said. "So as you become game-mature, you go in and you win some close games and you see the difference. You go on the road and win against some tough teams, you see the difference. There's a maturity that comes with that also.
"As everyone can probably attest to, when you have a chance to win, it breeds an attitude of believing that you can win. That's part of the execution of things. ... [You have] the belief that no matter what the score is, what quarter it's in, you still have a chance to win the game."
Although the underclassmen have stepped up, Virginia also has benefited from senior leadership. The defensive line and the secondary each have three senior starters. The offensive line features four-year starter Austin Pasztor at guard and senior center Anthony Mihota. Wide receiver Kris Burd will end his career with the second-most catches of any player in Virginia history.
All those seniors endured the pain of three consecutive losing seasons. They're savoring the opportunity to end their careers as ACC champions.
"We had a rough patch," Burd said. "For us to go out and kind of turn Virginia football history back around to where it used to be, it would definitely be a major landmark and a great honor to be a part of that."
BEST MATCHUP: Clemson WR Sammy Watkins vs. North Carolina State CB David Amerson. We're making this our spotlight matchup under the assumption that Watkins will play. Watkins hurt his shoulder last week against Wake Forest, and his status for the game may not be determined until just before the opening kickoff. Assuming Watkins is able to play, this matchup would pit the nation's top freshman against the NCAA interceptions leader. Watkins has 68 catches for 1,034 yards and 10 touchdowns. He leads the ACC with 103.4 receiving yards per game. Amerson recorded his 10th interception of the season last week. He needs one more interception to tie the ACC record held by Dre' Bly, who picked off 11 passes for North Carolina in 1996. Just in case Watkins doesn't play, we'll point out the matchup between North Carolina WR Dwight Jones and Virginia Tech CB Jayron Hosley also bears watching.
PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Virginia QB Michael Rocco. After throwing seven interceptions and only one touchdown pass in Virginia's first four games, Rocco has thrown for nine touchdowns and has been picked off only twice in the Cavaliers' past six contests. Now he faces perhaps the toughest test of the season against a Florida State defense that has allowed an average of 11.6 points over its last five games. Virginia has moved into ACC title contention by relying primarily on its defense and rushing attack, but the Cavaliers won't beat Florida State or Virginia Tech without making some big plays through the air. Now that the level of competition is stepping up these next two weeks, the Cavaliers need Rocco to continue his rapid progress.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Virginia Tech RB David Wilson. Wilson has rushed for 100 yards in nine games this season. If he breaks the century mark Thursday, he would tie the ACC record for most 100-yard games in a season. Don McCauley had 10 100-yard games for North Carolina in 1970. The only team to hold Wilson below 123 yards this season is Arkansas State, which limited him to 85 yards on 20 carries in a 26-7 loss to the Hokies on Sept. 17.
NUMBERS GAME: How remarkable is Virginia's turnaround this season? Consider this. Virginia went 4-8 last season. Since the 1953 formation of the ACC, 173 conference teams have won four or fewer games in a single season. Of those 173 teams, Virginia is only the 19th to win at least seven games the following season.
"I really don't want to get into a Brett Favre syndrome to the point where I'm trying to squeeze in everything. But I do have confidence in my arm, and it can get me in trouble sometimes." - Clemson QB Tajh Boyd, to The (Charleston) Post and Courier after throwing two interceptions and nearly getting picked off a few more times in a 31-28 victory over Wake Forest last week
"We have to make up our mind. Where do we want to be in December?" - North Carolina State coach Tom O'Brien, to the (Raleigh) News & Observer. NC State (5-5) must win its final two games, Saturday against Clemson and Nov. 26 against Maryland, to become bowl-eligible
"Every game we've lost this year has been close, down to the wire, every last one of them. It's just devastating when you lose them like that.'' - Miami QB Jacory Harris, to the (South Florida) Sun-Sentinel after the Hurricanes' 23-19 loss to Florida State
POLL WATCH: Florida State's fifth consecutive victory allowed the Seminoles to crack the BCS rankings for the first time this season at No. 25. Clemson leads all ACC teams and is ranked seventh overall, up two spots from last week. Virginia Tech is eighth after also moving up two spots. Clemson and Virginia Tech moved ahead of Stanford and Boise State, which each suffered their first losses of the season Saturday.
ETC.: Boston College's 14-10 victory over North Carolina State last week lasted only 2 hours, 29 minutes, which is 44 minutes below the national average. BC ran just 49 offensive plays, its lowest total in a win over an FBS opponent since a 21-17 victory over Notre Dame on Oct. 27, 2001. ... Clemson's victory over Wake Forest marked the third time this season the Tigers had won after trailing by at least 14 points. Before this season, Clemson had erased a 14-point deficit to win a game just nine times in school history. ... Duke WR Donovan Varner became the Blue Devils' career leader in receptions last week. Varner's 194 catches broke the record formerly held by Clarkston Hines, who caught 189 passes from 1986-89. Varner likely won't hold the record for long. Teammate Conner Vernon has 187 career receptions and is only a junior. ... The ACC decided to take no further action against Florida State LB Nigel Bradham for his hit on Miami receiver LaRon Byrd that resulted in a controversial ejection. The ACC noted Bradham's hit wasn't to Byrd's head or neck. Miami coach Al Golden has acknowledged Bradham's hit was a clean play. ... Boston College LB Luke Kuechly is only a junior, but he likely will set the ACC record for career tackles this week. Kuechly's 509 tackles put him six away from the ACC record held by Bubba Brown, who made 515 tackles for Clemson from 1976-79. ... Florida State P Shawn Powell wasn't named as a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award, even though the Seminoles rank second nationally in net punting. Powell's average of 47.1 yards per punt would lead the nation if he had enough attempts to qualify. ... Georgia Tech is suspending LB Jeremiah Attaochu for the first half of Saturday's game with Duke as punishment for punching Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas' helmet last week. Attaochu was penalized for a personal foul on the play to continue a drive that resulted in Virginia Tech's go-ahead touchdown. ... Maryland FS A.J. Hendy is the first true freshman to start at safety for Maryland since Lamont Gore in 1993. Hendy made his first career start last week against Notre Dame and recorded 13 tackles to tie for the team lead. ... Maryland QB Danny O'Brien will miss the rest of the season with a broken bone in his left arm. ... Miami RB Lamar Miller's 1,108 rushing yards this year puts him fifth on the school's single-season list. Although he probably won't break Willis McGahee's school record of 1,753 yards in 2002, Miller has a good chance of moving up to second. The top five: McGahee (1,753 in 2002), Edgerrin James (1,416 in 1998), Ottis Anderson (1,266 in 1978), Clinton Portis (1,200 in 2001) and Miller. ... North Carolina QB Bryn Renner said he is back at 100 percent after suffering a head injury two weeks ago against North Carolina State. ... With 10 interceptions through his first 10 games, North Carolina State CB David Amerson is aiming to become the first FBS player to average at least one interception per game for an entire season since Georgia's Terry Hoage in 1982. ... Virginia CB Chase Minnifield recorded his 13th career interception last week against Duke. The only active FBS player with more career interceptions is Ball State's Sean Baker, with 18. ... Virginia Tech is 25-2 in November since joining the ACC in 2004. That includes a 23-2 mark in conference games. ... Wake Forest CB Merrill Noel continues to lead the nation with 17 passes defended.