CHARLOTTESVILLE, NOV. 3 -- What does the world produce if not the unexpected? First, the Virginia Cavaliers rise from football oblivion to become the top-ranked team in the nation. Almost as quickly, darkness descends on Charlottesville like an eclipse and the Cavaliers are knocked from Olympus back to the Blue Ridge.

What began as such a promising afternoon ended this evening with No. 16 Georgia Tech restoring Virginia's sense of mortality with a 41-38 victory achieved against the favored, the newly precocious and seemingly charmed Cavaliers in the last seven seconds. It sent a chill of disappointment through the highly partisan, record turnout of Wahoos.

This was back-and-forth explosive football to make Virginia gentlemen shed their tweed coats, unbutton their collars and yank off their neckties. It was a game that made them cheer, sweat and ultimately cry. After years, decades actually, of being football also-rans, they'd lost their No. 1 ranking almost as quickly and shockingly as they'd achieved it. And to a team coached by Bobby Ross, once their tormentor at Maryland. Putting men on the moon had been more easily achieved than launching Virginia football to No. 1.

"We could have won it," said Virginia Coach George Welsh. "We had it."

His expression was as painful to behold as his team's costly mistakes, his anguish reflecting the lost opportunity today to certify the Cavaliers' No. 1 ranking before a national television audience.

About noon, indisputable proof that the place to be in all America for a college football weekend deep into this season hovered above the lush Virginia countryside, out by James Madison's house. It was the surest sign of a network television athletic event, a blimp from Sea World.

It veered left after passing Montpelier, and pointed unmistakably toward Jefferson's Grounds and Scott Stadium. When it arrived, no one remembered ever seeing a blimp above Scott Stadium. Later, people wondered if one would ever return.

"You never think of the university being athletically inclined," said white-haired Leo Clawson, 76, who retired here from Idaho never expecting such crowds and excitement. "It's never been hyper like this. You can feel it. I love it. I really do."

Virginia, after all, had managed only two winning seasons before Welsh came here from Navy as coach in 1982. From 1958 to 1960, the Cavaliers lost 28 straight. Even now, few people in such traditional college football outposts as South Bend, Ind., Lincoln, Neb., and Ann Arbor, Mich. took the Wahoos seriously. The Wahoos? They wanted to prove something here.

"It's almost hard to enjoy, waiting for the other shoe to fall," said Nick Slater, a Marshall, Va., banker. Slater graduated 25 years ago and suffered through so many Cavaliers football setbacks that he could scarcely believe this season could continue perfectly. As early as Friday in his office, Slater had been clutching his stadium parking pass for this homecoming game and what he called "stall walking" -- pacing, in horse country parlance.

Before this day went up in smoke figuratively, it almost did in reality. A seven-by-10-yard patch of artificial turf near midfield was destroyed overnight by a fire which police are investigating. Hurriedly, some leftover turf was put down. One official said: "If it were cold or raining, we wouldn't have been able to get it down and make it stick. I don't know what we would have done."

No doubt play, because neither of these explosive teams usually wastes much time in the middle of the field, and certainly no one wanted a postponement of this long-awaited matchup and Virginia's first major test of its rare ranking.

"We need to win this game to show some people," said a man in one of the parking lots filled with tailgate parties. If the tailgate party wasn't invented here, historically it's been the major part of Virginia football until recent years.

The art form perfected over the decades, the U-Va. tailgate party as evidenced today begins with a tablecloth and fresh flowers and might feature barbecued chicken, a chablis or good bourbon (light beer and Bartles & Jaymes increased during the '80s) and grocery bags of trimmings.

"Here's the salt," a woman said.

"I've got a patent on this," said a man who built his party on a sturdy wooden one-legged table that protruded from his car trunk.

As leaves literally tumbled about them on this glorious day, pic-nickers spread blankets about the historic Grounds. The conversations included more than football: courses of instruction, majors, and degree of difficulty in getting into the school. And tonight's social calendar, which would no doubt go on as scheduled.

As might be expected in this community of scholarship, not everyone cares exclusively about football. On a lawn near the Lawn, the centerpiece of Jefferson's "academical village," a group of about 20 performed English Morris dancing. One of the dancers said that twice a year they gather and perform traditional rites. In spring they hope to improve the earth's fertility and in fall they celebrate the harvest.

"The game?" she asked.

Tacked onto a door to one of the coveted 54 Lawn rooms occupied by the most honored undergraduates was an essay on "Attitude." Having the right kind of attitude was thought to be more important than "the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes . . . " This day and this place seemed advantageous in adopting the right attitude.

If a Cavalier could overlook the final outcome, he'd admit the setting was as perfect as it gets -- summery, blue sky. One student called the atmosphere "electric," but the currents must run deep in the Cavaliers. Students and grads approached this showdown with total outward calm. Say what you will in retrospect, they looked confident.

Crowds walked leisurely to the stadium. For the most part, young and older alike were dressed as if for a more formal occasion, with men wearing blazers and ties and khaki slacks, women in fine dresses.

The opposite was true for those customarily in starched uniform. At halftime the "pep band," which proved a motley-dressed crew, was announced and said to be ready to "actually present a precision drill." Whatever they did, it looked like fun and sounded good enough even though the musicians might not have been as precise as, say, Southern Cal's uniformed Trojan marching band.

Naturally, there were a few indications that this was serious football. Tickets were being scalped for up to $350. A sign downtown said, "Lunch at 11 -- See Game on Big TV" -- that was at the Book Gallery and Restaurant. Amid all the blue and orange bow ties and the people carrying blue and orange seat cushions was a man wearing an orange wig.

Some students had V's painted on their faces, and a few even had their entire faces covered with blue and orange. Area radio stations did reports from the stadium gates. Bowl representatives from among the two dozen present held impromptu news conferences with some of the record 350 news people.

"The winner probably will go to the Citrus -- we have an opportunity to take the loser," said Fiesta Bowl representative Tom Fridena. A bedsheet banner near the stadium said a bit prematurely: "Georgia May Have Its Peaches, But We Have the Citrus."

The possibility was enough to attract a record 49,700 today, with students (who are never turned away) filling the grassy bank at the open end of the stadium. Only 3,500 Georgia Tech fans were able to come up with precious tickets, but those lucky ones were to be rewarded with one of the great upsets for a school with a proud football history.

One Atlantan said he hadn't seen any such football fervor here since 1948 when North Carolina with "Choo Choo" Justice came to town and the post-war Wahoo of renown was John Papit. (Virginia long-sufferers needn't be reminded of that score.) It was worse than today, but couldn't have hurt any more.

This bitter end will be brooded over long into this sad night in University Avenue watering spots. It will be the subject of extended philosophizing. It will test that proper "attitude." In the end Cavaliers students and alums and other faithful followers probably will put Virginia football into context and get on with what seemed to be their full lives.