From season's start to finish, Virginia was a fragile football team. Amid significant progress, the Cavaliers nearly stumbled against Indiana and Idaho — combined record 3-21 — and endured a 38-point beating from Virginia Tech in their regular-season finale.
So there was no chance Virginia could withstand countless defensive and special teams breakdowns against anyone, let alone defending national champion Auburn on a postseason stage.
Yes, there was a talent and speed gap in Saturday's Chick-fil-A Bowl at the Georgia Dome. But the Cavaliers contributed plenty to their 43-24 demise.
"I know it was ugly … but this program is up and coming," second-year coach Mike London said, his hoarse voice barely audible.
The most glaring gaffes came in the kicking game, from two blocked punts to an ill-timed fake field goal that fooled no one in a Tigers uniform. Add a successful Auburn onside kick and 62-yard free-kick return, and you have a season's worth of special teams errors.
Virginia's most notable improvement in 2011 was defensively as players became more accustomed to London's 4-3 alignment. But the Cavaliers were soft Saturday against the run and pass, particularly in the second quarter, when the Tigers gained 237 yards and scored 21 points.
That was more yards than Auburn managed in full games against Georgia and Alabama. But those are Southeastern Conference defenses.
Auburn ended the evening with 454 yards, most by a Virginia opponent this season.
Knee injuries sidelined two of Virginia's All-ACC defenders: junior middle linebacker Steve Greer, the team's leading tackler, and senior cornerback Chase Minnifield.
Poor Minnifield. He had never missed a game and had waited four years to reach a bowl. All he could do was watch from the sideline in street clothes and hope to be healthy enough to work out for scouts prior to April's NFL draft.
But could a pedestrian Auburn offense without its best player — All-SEC tailback Michael Dyer, MVP of last season's national-title victory over Oregon, was suspended for the game — take advantage?
Uh, yeah. In the second quarter alone Auburn (8-5) had runs of 60 and 16 yards, and passes of 50, 30 and 25 yards. This from a passing offense that ranked 106th nationally during the regular season.
Much of the damage came from tailback Onterio McCalebb, starting in place of Dyer. He finished with 113 yards rushing and 53 receiving and was the obvious choice for the game's most outstanding offensive player.
The most telling play: Tre Mason's 22-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter. He ran through an arm tackle by redshirt freshman Henry Coley, Greer's replacement. On the next series, Tucker Windle was playing in Coley's stead.
It was far too much for quarterback Michael Rocco (season-high 312 yards passing) and the offense to overcome.
London is not bashful about saying that this year's success creates future expectations. He's right, and his primary offseason challenge is to remake a defense that loses seven senior starters, including Minnifield and All-ACC tackle Matt Conrath.
Virginia started only four seniors on offense Saturday, most notably All-America guard Austin Pasztor and receiver Kris Burd (six catches for 103 yards and two touchdowns Saturday). But other than Burd, and absent offseason defections, the Cavaliers will return most of their playmakers, chiefly tailbacks Perry Jones, Kevin Parks and Clifton Richardson.
Next season also brings the most challenging schedule of London's tenure. Virginia's non-conference opponents are Richmond, Penn State, at Texas Christian and Louisiana Tech.
That might not sound rugged, but Penn State and Mountain West champion TCU are top-25 teams and programs, and Louisiana Tech won the Western Athletic Conference this season.
So after a benchmark 14-13 victory at Florida State, Virginia (8-5) closed the year with two defeats in which it allowed 81 points and lost by a combined 57. That's far better than most (all?) envisioned after three consecutive losing seasons and a 4-8 record (2-8 against Bowl Subdivision opponents) in London's 2010 debut, but a sobering conclusion.
And that's not all together bad. The Cavaliers should be confident and humbled moving forward.
Confident that they can compete. Humbled by how far they still have to go.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun