CHARLOTTESVILLE -- They're still pinching themselves here. Number two? In the whole country? In football?

Seemingly impossible, but true.

The University of Virginia Cavaliers, onetime doormats of Atlantic Coast Conference football, are undefeated and rated second only to perennial power the University of Michigan. It's the highest ranking in the team's 102-year history, and "Wahoo Fever" on the 17,500-student campus is growing by the week.

"People here still haven't absorbed it," said Susan Fleming, 20, a third-year student from Blacksburg, as she sat on the front steps of Peabody Hall on a misty afternoon this week. "They're still in shock. This is too good to be true."

From the fraternity houses on Rugby Road to the Pavilion XI student hangout, from the fabled Lawn to the president's mansion, from alumni homes to sports bars across the state, U-Va. fans are praying it can last.

Today's home game against the ACC rival North Carolina State is sold out, even though most students left yesterday for fall break.

A local radio station is giving away tickets to sold-out home games as contest prizes. The yearbook is already preparing a bowl game spread. Students are still searching for souvenir pieces of the goal posts swiped by wild fans after the rousing 20-7 defeat of Clemson.

"I'm just trying to keep my feet on the ground," said James K. Candler, an oil distributor from Lynchburg who graduated in 1958 and recently stepped down as president of the Alumni Association.

U-Va. students and fans are accustomed to athletic success when it comes to basketball, particularly during the Ralph Sampson era during the early '80s. But they rarely tasted victory on the gridiron until the last few years under Coach George Welsh.

Traditionally, football games have been mere social occasions where students, in typical U-Va. fashion, have shown up in ties and dresses to sip wine, gossip and make small talk.

Now they come in U-Va. sweat shirts, some with their faces painted in orange, one of the school's colors, and all with eyes only for the game.

"I went to the {Clemson} game thinking, 'Why did I go to the game? I don't like football,' " recalled Tabitha Newkirk, 20, a second-year student from Brooklyn, N.Y. "But as the hours went by, I was transformed. I was out there screaming, 'Go! Go!' . . . . And afterward, I was like, 'I've got to go to the next game.' "

"I wasn't much of a football fan before I came to Virginia," said Duane Holloway, 18, a first-year student from Baltimore. "But . . . with all the spirit and the articles in the paper, I'm pretty excited."

Aside from the emotional thrill, many university boosters expect the football team's unprecedented success will be a boon from an institutional and business standpoint.

The sports information office has been flooded with calls from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Sports Illustrated, the Philadelphia Inquirer and CBS Sports. The Sept. 8 game against Clemson, in which the Cavaliers broke a 29-year losing streak against the Tigers, was broadcast on national television. More victories could mean more exposure, particularly if the Cavaliers earn a major bowl game bid.

"You can't buy the kind of publicity we're getting," Candler said.

Other universities that have seen a sudden surge of football success have often experienced an increase in applications, stadium sell outs and fund-raising bonanzas.

If there's a downside to the athletic success, it's the apprehension among some students that becoming a football power somehow could detract from the university's strong academic tradition or possibly lead to some of the same big-sports scandals that have ensnared other schools.

"I was afraid the school would start to suffer academically," said Laura Trevino, 21, a third-year student from Bowie. "Look at {the University of} Maryland, with all the problems with basketball and football. They're starting to focus on academics and they're getting better and better. I was afraid we were doing the opposite."

But she, like many students, was pleased that on the same day U-Va. earned its No. 2 football rating, U.S. News included the university among its 20 top schools in academics.

D. Alan Williams, an assistant history professor and faculty liaison to the athletic department, said alumni are adamant that the sports programs be clean. "They tell me the same thing: 'Tell me we're doing it right,' " he said. He said he believes they are. "If anything even begins to look funny, faculty will call me immediately," he said.

In the meantime, the university and the town seem unsure how to demonstrate their excitement without appearing unseemly.

Except for a few leftover "Beat Clemson" signs hanging from the first-year dorms, there are no banners or fliers trumpeting the team's success. The new orange V's painted on a main Charlottesville thoroughfare actually don't sit well with some students. And there aren't any bonfires or pep rallies or other special events planned.

"I don't think it's hit a lot of people yet," said Beth Cooch, 19, a second-year student from Annandale. "Wait till bowl time."