Can Mike London Survive Saturday’s Crushing Loss?

Virginia head coach Mike London leads the list of most vulnerable head coaches in college football this year. In all likelihood, the Cavaliers need to make a bowl game or the sixth-year coach will be gone. It’s not unreasonable—Virginia has only made one bowl appearance in London’s first five years. But it made Saturday’s 34-27 loss to Notre Dame even more heartbreaking. As one who started the game wanting the Irish to win, I couldn’t help but start to root for London as the game went on and the upset looked ready to happen.

Notre Dame came out and dominated the line of scrimmage in the first quarter, building up a 12-0 lead (a missed two-point conversion after a touchdown, along with two field goals) and it seemed like Virginia was completely overmatched. Even when quarterback Matt Johns got into a passing rhythm, it seemed doubtful that it would matter against the Irish control of the trenches.

Then the worm completely turned. Virginia gradually took over at the point of attack. Irish running back C. J. Prosise, who had done pretty much what he wanted early in the game, found running room harder to find. On the offensive side, Virginia was pounding the ball, protecting Johns and when they took a 27-26 lead late in the fourth quarter, you just had to be happy for London. It was obvious his kids were still playing hard for him and this was going to be the win he badly needed.

You’ve likely seen the highlights of what happened next. Notre Dame had its own magical moment. DeShone Kizer, the redshirt freshman quarterback forced into duty after a season-ending injury to starter Malik Zaire, threw a beautiful flag route to Will Fuller who pulled it in for the winning touchdown.

Virginia’s heart was ripped out and finding the six wins they’ll need to qualify for a bowl just won’t be easy to find. The administration has gone out and scheduled top non-conference competition—they played at UCLA last week, and Boise State is still on the September slate.

The school deserves credit for finding good teams to play, and this isn’t the first time in recent years that Virginia has played significant non-conference games in September. You just hope that they’d cut the head coach a little slack. It’s scheduling this that turn what would be bowl seasons at a lot of schools into 5-7, which London was last year.

London got some national attention with his emotional leadership during the 2011 season, the one time Virginia has made a bowl game under his leadership. The Cavs pulled off some notable upsets in a year that had a magic ride quality to it and they just haven’t been able to put the magic back together.

Now they have to go back to the drawing board and find a way to win six of their next ten games. William & Mary next is a virtual lock. Then they host Boise in a Friday night game, after which the Cavs will take a week off before beginning ACC play.

Virginia is in the ACC Coastal Division, opposite Florida State and Clemson. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there’s no divisional doormat. You would have to expect they’ll need to go at least 3-1 against a home conference schedule with Syracuse, Georgia Tech, Duke and Virginia Tech. That would make Syracuse a must-win, Georgia Tech unlikely, and then a sweep of the Blue Devils and Hokies.

The road schedule has trips to Pitt, Miami, North Carolina and Louisville. The Cavs will obviously need to steal at least one win there. If they’re able to finish September 2-2, which would mean beating Boise State and get that 3-1 home record, that makes one road win enough for bowl eligibility.

I don’t like their chances though. Going 3-1 against that home schedule is going to be a tough row to hoe and beating Boise won’t be easy. It’s doable, but all year long that heartbreaking loss we saw to Notre Dame in Charlottesville on Saturday will loom large.