In the Georgia Dome locker room immediately after Virginia's 43-24 loss to Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, U.Va. running back Perry Jones spent a few moments with as many fifth-year seniors as he could find.
It was his personal tribute for a group of players that never got to experience a bowl victory, but still helped U.Va. put together an 8-5 record after enduring three consecutive losing seasons. Now, the hard work of actually building off that momentum has just begun.
"Those guys turned this program around," said Jones of fifth-year players including wide receivers Kris Burd and Matt Snyder, linebacker Aaron Taliaferro, center Anthony Mihota, free safety Corey Mosley, cornerbacks Chase Minnifield and Dom Joseph and defensive tackles Matt Conrath and Nick Jenkins.
In coach Mike London's second season in Charlottesville, U.Va. went from Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division doormat after going 4-8 overall and 1-7 in the ACC last season to surprising division title contender this season with a 5-3 conference record.
Five of U.Va.'s wins came by seven points or fewer. U.Va., which went to a bowl for the first time since the 2007 season, became the first team ever to beat Miami and Florida State on the road in the same season.
U.Va. snapped a seven-game ACC road losing streak with a win in October at Miami, then broke a 13-game losing streak for games played in November by winning at Maryland. Four straight wins in October and November, including three on the road, put U.Va. in position to play for the division title against Virginia Tech, but the Hokies crushed the Cavaliers 38-0 in the regular-season finale.
"I have a lot of memories with my teammates," said Burd, who led the team with 66 catches for 913 yards and three touchdowns, and finished his career with 162 catches (second in U.Va. history). "The fifth-year seniors have a lot to look back on. We kind of started a movement, and got U.Va. football back to where it needed to be."
The big turnaround this season started with a significant improvement on the defensive side, where coordinator Jim Reid's unit went from 78th in the nation in total defense last season (396.1 yards per game) to 39th this season (351.7 yards per game).
U.Va.'s most dramatic steps forward came against the run. The Cavaliers were 106th in the nation last season (203.7 yards per game) and improved to 50th this season (139.5 yards per game). Conrath, who led the team with 12 tackles for losses, and Minnifield, who had three interceptions and 11 passes defended, both earned first team All-ACC honors.
On the offensive side, coordinator Bill Lazor orchestrated a group that posted 400-plus yards in games seven times, and finished 46th in total offense (399.8 yards per game). The last time U.Va. had more games with 400-plus yards was '04, when it had eight.
Quarterback Michael Rocco started all season, but he had to split many reps in the first seven games with freshman David Watford, a Hampton High graduate. In those first seven games, Rocco threw four touchdowns and eight interceptions. In the final six games, he threw nine touchdowns and four interceptions.
He was bolstered by Jones, who contributed 915 rushing yards and five touchdowns, and 48 catches for 506 yards and three touchdowns. Redshirt freshman Kevin Parks also ran for 709 yards and scored nine touchdowns, while freshman Clifton Richardson, a Menchville High graduate, added 366 rushing yards.
Left guard Austin Pasztor, who earned Associated Press second team All-American honors, led an offensive line that contributed to U.Va. only giving up 16 sacks.
U.Va. gets Rocco, Jones, linebacker Steve Greer (team-high 103 tackles), cornerback Demetrious Nicholson, receivers Tim Smith, Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell and three offensive line starters back next season.
Yet, the Cavaliers must replace 11 starters, including three defensive linemen (Conrath, Jenkins and defensive end Cam Johnson, who led the with four sacks) and three defensive backs (Mosley, Minnifield and strong safety Rodney McLeod). Also, punter Jimmy Howell and kicker Robert Randolph must be replaced.
Defensive tackle Will Hill, a Lafayette High graduate, defensive ends Brent Urban and Thompson Brown, free safety Rijo Walker, a Bethel High graduate, cornerback Drequan Hoskey and strong safety Anthony Harris all will be expected to assume larger roles.
U.Va. will take on a schedule that will include road games against Texas Christian, Virginia Tech, Duke, N.C. State and Georgia Tech, and home meetings against Penn State, Richmond, Louisiana Tech, Miami, Maryland, Wake Forest and North Carolina.
"This program is up and coming," London said. "This program is going to be a very good program. We're going to attract the type of student-athletes and young men that this program and this university can be proud of."
U.Va.'s 2011 season
Overall record: 8-5. ACC: 5-3.
Sept. 3: William and Mary (W, 40-3)
Sept. 10: at Indiana (W, 34-31)
Sept. 17: at North Carolina (L, 17-28)
Sept. 24: Southern Miss (L, 24-30)
Oct. 1: Idaho (W, 21-20, OT)
Oct. 15: Georgia Tech (W, 24-21)
Oct. 22: N.C. State (L, 14-28)
Oct. 27: at Miami (W, 28-21)
Nov. 5: at Maryland (W, 31-13)
Nov. 12: Duke (W, 31-21)
Nov. 19: at Florida State (W, 14-13)
Nov. 26: Virginia Tech (L, 0-38)
Dec. 31: Chick-fil-A Bowl vs. Auburn (L, 24-43)Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times