When George Welsh arrived in Charlottesville and turned a slumbering program into a national powerhouse 30 years ago, it began a golden era in football at the University of Virginia. On the flip side, success breeds expectations, leading to losses that were more painful than in previous eras.
Through the reigns of Welsh, Al Groh, and now Mike London, there have been plenty of highlights. But as the 2012 season approaches, here's a take at the top 25 losses -- the most painful, the most devastating -- from the past 25 years:
1. Georgia Tech 41 - Virginia 38, 1990: Virginia was undefeated and ranked #1 in the country, and undefeated Georgia Tech rolled into town for what was billed as the "Brawl for it All." It was a spectacularly beautiful November day, a blimp floated over the record Scott Stadium crowd, and Charlottesville held the national spotlight. U.Va. raced to a 28-13 lead, but in a game of offensive explosions by both teams, Tech went up late, 38-35. In the sequence that haunts Cavalier fans, U.Va. drove to the Tech 1-yard line, had a TD pass called back on a fateful illegal procedure penalty, and opted for a tying FG. Now, it was Tech's turn to drive the length of the field. With 7 seconds remaining, Scott Sisson nailed a 37-yard FG for the win, and the crushing silence in Scott Stadium was deafening. Decades later, it's still painful.
2. Michigan 18 - Virginia 17, 1995: U.Va. was tabbed to kick off the season in the Pigskin Classic in a showdown of ranked teams in Ann Arbor. Virginia stunned the 100,000+ Michigan fans, carrying a 17-0 lead into the fourth quarter. But two touchdowns pulled the Wolverines to 17-12. And with 4 seconds remaining, on fourth down from the U.Va. 15, Michigan's Scott Dreisbach lofted the ball for Mercury Hayes in the back right corner of the end zone. By the slimmest of margins, Hayes got one foot down inbounds for the win.
3. Texas 17 - Virginia 16, 1995: In the same season as the Michigan heart-breaker, 6-2 Virginia traveled to Austin for a battle of ranked teams. Virginia carried a hard-fought 13-7 lead into the fourth quarter, but Ricky Williams scored late to give the Longhorns a 14-13 lead. On the next drive, U.Va.'s Rafael Garcia kicked a shocking 56-yard FG to put the Wahoos up 16-14. But Texas drove in the final minute -- aided by some questionable calls -- and, on the final play of the game, Phil Dawson hit a 50-yarder -- into the wind -- for the win.
4. Tennessee 23 - Virginia 22, Sugar Bowl, 1991: The 'Hoos had slipped since losing their #1 ranking, but had a New Year's Day bowl to prove they were no fluke. In front of an overwhelmingly Tennessee crowd, Virginia dominated the first half and held a 16-0 lead. But in the second half, the Volunteers scored TDs while U.Va. managed only a pair of FGs. Tennessee drove the length of the field to win the game in the final minute by a single point. Adding to the frustration, fans know that if QB Shawn Moore wasn't limited by an injured thumb, this game wouldn't have been close.
5. Clemson 29 - Virginia 28, 1992: The 'Hoos were 5-0, ranked #10, and hadn't lost to Clemson in their last two matchups. U.Va. rolled to a 28-0 lead in front of a frenzied, sold-out Scott Stadium, and surely the tables had finally turned for good on this one-sided rivalry. The rest is simply too painful to recount.
6. Fresno State 37 - Virginia 34 (OT), MPC Computers Bowl, 2004: U.Va. was frustrated at being sent off to a lower-tier bowl, and the 'Hoos led the entire game on the blue turf. But the defense gave up a tying TD on fourth-and-goal with 11 seconds left, and then wilted in OT, allowing a game-ending 25-yard TD pass on the Bulldogs' first play.
7. Georgia 35 - Virginia 33, Peach Bowl, 1998: On New Year's Eve in Atlanta, 9-2 Virginia had a 21-0 first-half lead behind Aaron Brooks. But the 'Hoos gave up points in bunches in the second half to Quincy Carter and Georgia. U.Va missed a potential game-tying two-point conversion, then recovered an onside kick, but missed a last-second FG attempt.
8. Texas Tech 31 - Virginia 28, Gator Bowl, 2008: Facing the Red Raiders' high-octane offense on New Year's Day, U.Va. led 21-7 at the half. But the team fell apart down the stretch, highlighted by an inexplicable fumble by QB Peter Lalich.
9. Duke 24 - Virginia 17 (OT), 1999: It was unthinkable at the time that U.Va. could lose to Duke, especially in Charlottesville. The Blue Devils tied the game on a broken play -- Keystone Cops-type, last-second, fumbled reverse that somehow ended in a TD. Then there were several questionable calls by the referees in the second OT.
10. Duke 31 - Virginia 3, 2008: Expectations were very low after the team's 1-2 start, but nobody saw this coming. The hapless Blue Devils had a 25-game ACC losing streak, but six Cavalier turnovers later, Duke could celebrate in Durham.
11. Georgia Tech 41 - Virginia 38, 1998: This one's in Atlanta, but Virginia is undefeated, blows a big lead, the Jackets win a thriller, and the final score -- painfully -- is exactly the same as the 1990 classic.
12. Maryland 35 - Virginia 30, 1990: After the devastating heartache of the Georgia Tech loss, U.Va. bounced back to win at UNC. But in the home finale, the 'Hoos were shocked by the Terps to drop to 8-2.
13. William and Mary 26 - Virginia 14, 2009: William and Mary was no cupcake -- one of the best I-AA teams in the nation -- but this season-opening loss at home was still unacceptable and kicked off an ugly 3-9 season.
14. Virginia Tech 17 - Virginia 14, 2008: Closing a disappointing season, U.Va. unveiled the "'Hoo-cat" offense; Vic Hall was spectacular in the role, and the Cavaliers led 14-7 at the half. But U.Va. surrendered the lead and QB Marc Verica threw a terrible interception in the end zone rather than settle for a game-tying FG.
15. Virginia Tech 38 - Virginia 0, 2011: At 8-3, ranked #24, riding a four-game winning streak including wins at Miami and at Florida State, the 'Hoos were playing their rivals at home for a spot in the ACC championship. The game wasn't quite as one-sided as the final score would indicate, but it was still bad.
16. BYU 38 - Virginia 35 (OT), 2000: Opening the season against a high-profile non-conference opponent in newly-expanded Scott Stadium, U.Va. blows a 21-0 halftime lead.
17. USC 17 - Virginia 14, 2010: Little was expected from this brutal roadtrip in just the second game of the Mike London era, but it turned into a slugfest with the heavily-favored Trojans. A terrible blown call by the referees -- incorrectly nullifying a successful fake punt -- was gut-wrenching. For what it's worth, the PAC-10 reprimanded the referees.
18. USC 52 - Virginia 7, 2008: This was a much-hyped home opener on the heels of a still-controversial stadium re-seating scheme. The total demolition did nothing to soothe the feelings of ornery season-ticket holders
19. UNC 7 - Virginia 5, 2005: Coming off an upset of #4 Florida State, the 'Hoos traveled to Chapel Hill and sleepwalked against a struggling UNC team. Whether it was a case of some bizarrely stubborn coaching or a hangover following the 'Noles game, this just never should have happened.
20. Clemson 10 - Virginia 7, 1988: It's difficult to call a pre-1990 loss to Clemson "devastating" -- since this loss ran the all-time series record to 0-28 -- but this one was painfully close.
21. Louisville 30 - Virginia 28, 1988: It wasn't as easy road game, but the 'Hoos were facing a beatable opponent and squandered a 28-14 lead. They would run the table the next five games to get to 7-4, but it wasn't enough to get a bowl invitation, making this stumble all the more painful.
22. Georgia Tech 34 - Virginia 9, 2009: The 'Hoos' season was going down the drain, but U.Va. had a proud streak at stake, having beaten the Jackets every time they'd come to Charlottesville since the 1990 heart-breaker. Surely, the 'Hoos would make a stand. They didn't, and the Al Groh era was all but finished.
23. Miami 31 - Virginia 21, 2004: At 7-1, U.Va. had high hopes for a high-profile victory against the ACC's new heavyweight. At home and under the lights, the 'Hoos stayed within range the entire game, but the 'Canes exploded for several big plays in the fourth quarter to seal it.
24. Wyoming 23 - Virginia 3, 2007: In an intriguing season opener on the road, the Cavaliers looked unprepared and were non-competitive from start to finish. The team did respond by winning its next seven games.
25. Notre Dame 36 - Virginia 13, 1989: In another season opener, the 'Hoos had the national spotlight of playing in the Kickoff Classic against defending national champ Notre Dame in Giants Stadium. The Wahoos trailed 33-0 at halftime. Virginia would bounce back to go 10-1 during the rest of the regular season.
KW Rosenfeld is a graduate of the University of Virginia and a football season-ticket holder. As a student he covered U.Va. sports for a Charlottesville radio station, highlighted by the football team's run in 1990 as the #1-ranked team in the nation.