Note: Considering the sad state of the Virginia program prior to George Welsh's arrival in 1982, I consider that to be the beginning of the modern era. Therefore, even though Virginia had a few moments prior to this time period these are the victories that I think defined our program.
10. 1989—Virginia 49 Duke 28
Usually a victory against Duke is not all that impressive, but it certainly is when Steve Spurrier is roaming the sideline.
Virginia coach George Welsh and Spurrier had been talking smack to each other before the game but quarterback Shawn Moore let his arm do the talking instead.
After two impressive victories on the road against Penn State and Georgia Tech, Virginia came home to humble Duke and make Spurrier eat his words with a 49-28 thrashing.
The convincing win propelled Virginia to its first ever ten-win season and Virginia’s first-ever ACC Championship in football.
9. 2005—Virginia 26 FSU 21
Everyone partied like it was 1995. The ten-year anniversary for the Cavaliers was just as memorable (though not as significant) as the first time around.
There would be no controversy as to who won this game between the Virginia Cavaliers and the fourth-ranked, undefeated Seminoles. The only real question was had quarterback Marques Hagans put on a better performance in his life.
Hagans simply could not be stopped, his ability to scramble left coach Bobby Bowden in shock as the Cavaliers posted 21 points in the first half.
Three interceptions by Drew Weatherford proved to be the difference, including one in the final minute which sealed an improbable victory for Virginia and sent the fans onto the field.
It also sent FSU into a tailspin it has not seemed to recover from.
8. 2002—Virginia 48 West Virginia 22
The best bowl game of the Al Groh era would have to be the Continental Tire Bowl where the Cavaliers put on a great show against the 15th ranked West Virginia Mountaineers. Wali Lundy had a tremendous game for Virginia as a freshman scoring four touchdowns and capping off a magical November.
The Cavaliers were picked to finish next to last in the ACC that season and instead finished in a tie for second just behind the Seminoles of Florida State. This win helped propel Virginia into the off-season with some great momentum behind the arm of ACC Offensive Player of the Year Matt Schaub and Lundy.
The Virginia fans are often maligned but Cavalier faithful showed up en masse for this game, dwarfing the Mountaineer contingent and providing a huge spark. Although Orange Fever has severely cooled in recent years, let us all remember we all used to trust Groh.
7. 1995—Virginia 34 Georgia 27
Arguably the 1995 Peach Bowl is Virginia’s biggest bowl victory in school history. However, most Cavalier fans remember the fact that Virginia almost blew it rather than the victory itself.
Virginia came out all guns blazing in the first half to take a 24-6 lead before the Bulldogs and their star wide receiver Hines Ward came blazing back. The Bulldogs appeared on the verge of tying the game in the final two minutes when a costly interception by Georgia appeared to put the game away.
Virginia responded though with an interception of their own and the Bulldogs walked in the end zone.
However, despite the collapse, the Cavaliers answered back on the very next play, taking the kickoff all the way back to the end zone for the win with less than a minute to win.
6. 1996—Virginia 37 Texas 13
Heartbreak was a constant theme in 1995 for Virginia. Three times the Cavaliers had chances to win and lost in the final minute. When Virginia traveled to Texas University, the Longhorns threw a deep ball in the waning seconds and conveniently were given enough time on the clock to nail the game-winning field goal and win 17-16.
The return game in 1996 was a far different story. With Ricky Williams and Priest Holmes in the backfield, the Cavaliers humbled the Longhorns with a 37-13 contest that was not even as close as it sounds.
Tiki Barber rushed for 121 yards and three touchdowns in the first-quarter in the rain-soaked Scott Stadium. Texas had four turnovers in their first four possessions due to the tough defense of Tiki’s brother, Ronde Barber, and Anthony Poindexter.
The win was magnificent but so was the moment of watching a top-15 team and national championship contender arrive to Charlottesville. George Welsh mentioned that ten years ago Texas would not go anywhere near Virginia. With a performance like that, don’t expect them to come back any time soon.
5. 1996—Virginia 20 UNC 17
Younger fans may not understand but before the rise of Virginia Tech, Cavalier players knew they had to beat the Tar Heels or face the wrath from fans the next day. UNC were the rivals of significance for many decades and so an amazing comeback in 1996 changed the trajectory of both teams for quite some time.
The Cavaliers had started the season strong but were stumbling from a loss to Clemson when the 8-1, nationally-ranked Tar Heels came into Scott Stadium.
UNC seemed on the verge of a big road victory up 17-3 and driving late in the game. The Tar Heels marched inside the five of Virginia before Antwan Harris picked off the ball and ran it all the way back for a 100-yard return.
Quarterback Tim Sherman seized the momentum to score a late touchdown and Rafael Garcia put the final nail in the coffin with a field goal to give Virginia a stunning victory.
The loss cost UNC its chance to get the bowl bid it desired and it also ran current Texas coach Mack Brown out of the ACC.
4. 1984—Virginia 27 Purdue 24
George Welsh came into Virginia knowing that many thought his task impossible. The Cavaliers came from a school that stressed academics so strongly that there was no real dedication to winning in football.
In fact, some believed the UVA job to be a graveyard for coaches which led Welsh to say that if it is, it sure is a nice graveyard.
The Cavaliers had only two winning seasons the past 30 years before Welsh took over but in just his third year Virginia did something they had never done in school history: go to a bowl game.
Virginia finished the 1984 season at 8-2-2 and received a bid to play in the Peach Bowl. It was the best Cavalier record in nearly two decades and fans were out in full force to see the Cavaliers in the post-season.
The Cavaliers did better than just show up; however, they made their first appearance count with a big victory. This moment took Virginia from out of the cellar in the ACC and made them competitive.
It marked a significant change in the attitude and the expectations of the program.
3. 1998—Virginia 36 Virginia Tech 32
This game in Charlottesville is simply known as “The Comeback”. Trailing 29-7 at half against their arch rivals the Cavaliers put forth an amazing 29-3 charge on the road to shock the denizens of Lane Stadium.
Quarterback Aaron Brooks found a streaking Ahmad Hawkins down the field and connected with a beautiful lob that let him waltz his way into the end zone with only 2:01 to play.
Hawkins had a signature celebration pose and the look from Hokie coach Frank Beamer only helped cement this as one of the greatest moments to be a Virginia Cavalier fan.
The win left the Cavaliers at 9-2 before they received another bid to the Peach Bowl and allowed Aaron Brooks to help cement his legacy as one of the top quarterbacks in school history.
2. 1995—Virginia 33 FSU 28
The hostile takeover ended in dramatic fashion before a sell-out crowd. Before the game the Florida State Seminoles, ranked second in the country, had never lost in the ACC when it joined a few years earlier. With Danny Kannell behind center and Warrick Dunn in the backfield who would be so shocked?
In Virginia’s first-ever Thursday night game, and in front of a national audience, the quick feet of Tiki Barber and the efficient arm of quarterback Mike Groh gave Virginia fans hope as they torched the Seminoles early.
However, the game is remembered for its controversial finish, something that Seminole fans will never forget. On the last play, Dunn is stopped near the goal line and even though his helmet clearly makes it, as for the ball…well you can decide for yourself.
FSU would not lose again in the ACC for the next five years and Virginia went on to the Peach Bowl and their second ACC Championship.
It is also the highest-ranked team Virginia has ever beaten.
1. 1990—Virginia 20 Clemson 7
29-0 became 29-1 in one amazing moment. George Welsh came to Virginia and had done just about everything imaginable. He had captured the 1989 ACC Championship, he had brought Virginia to the post-season for the first-time ever in just his third season and he got them a legitimate Heisman candidate in quarterback Shawn Moore.
In 1990 he filled the last requirement on his list, beating a team that had once referred to the Cavaliers as “white meat”.
Before FSU and the influx of the Big East, Clemson completely dominated the ACC. They represented all that Virginia was not: namely a champion.
Well that all changed in early September before a raucous crowd. The Cavaliers took down the Tigers in Scott Stadium behind the Moore-Moore connection between Shawn and wide receiver Herman. With a tremendous defensive performance by Chris Slade, the Tigers were tamed.
This win made Virginia relevant on a national scale as they marched their way towards a 7-0 record and the number one ranking in the country (the only team in the state that can claim that).
The Cavaliers finished the season with a heart-breaking 23-22 loss to Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl but that season will always be remembered as the time one of the more embarrassing losing streaks in the country was snapped and Virginia transformed from an afterthought to one of the consistent powers in the ACC for the following decade.
Oh yeah and since then the series has gone 7-6-1 in favor of Virginia.