Virginia should have known something was wrong tonight when, in the game's opening moments, Clemson's 305-pound William (The Refrigerator) Perry established himself as quicker afoot than Kevin Ferguson, the Cavaliers' new quarterback.

Clemson, the consensus No. 1 pick of 27 publications making preseason rankings, made this a rough night for a new quarterback. The final score was 55-0, the widest margin in the history of a 24-game series in which Virginia has yet to win. It was also the Cavaliers' worst defeat since Texas routed them, 68-0, in 1977.

The main questions remaining for the Scott Stadium opening-night crowd of 36,676 were: Is Clemson this good (perhaps) and is Virginia this bad (not likely)?

After his team gained 535 yards and led by 48 points with 5:40 left in the third quarter, Clemson Coach Danny Ford said, "We caught Virginia on a bad night."

On offense, the Tigers (2-0 this season and 32-2-2 since the start of the 1981 national championship season) ran well. Stacey Driver (75), Steve Griffin (67) and Terrence Flagler (66) combined for 208 yards, and quarterback Mike Eppley threw for two touchdowns.

On defense, the Tigers' speed and quickness was more apparent than on offense, as Clemson intercepted three passes and recovered two fumbles. Perry was credited with 10 solo tackles. Ferguson, who hesitated at times in deciding whether to throw or run, could only say, "I knew they were pretty quick, but I didn't know they were that quick."

This game was out of reach so early that midway in the second quarter, with his team down, 17-0, Virginia Coach George Welsh ordered his players to go for a first down on fourth and eight from the Clemson 38. Ferguson's pass was intercepted.

Welsh replaced Ferguson (five for 12 for 68 yards, two interceptions and five sacks) with another sophomore, Don Majkowski. But he had little success, too. By halftime it was 27-0 and Ferguson started the second half.

When Welsh named Ferguson the starter earlier this week, he said the edge was very slight.

"He was under too much pressure to tell how well he did," Welsh said. "I think he held the ball too long a couple of times, but he didn't get any help from the rest of the offense, and that was what we were hoping for."

Virginia's problems extend beyond the selection of a quarterback. In their second season under Welsh, the Cavaliers apparently turned the corner to competitiveness last season, when they were 6-5 and returned a number of starters, including nine on defense.

But Virginia has been outscored, 103-0, in its last two games and hasn't scored in nine quarters, dating to the next-to-last game of 1983. "We have to take a hard look at some things that we're doing, and at some people," Welsh said. "Nothing's set for sure. Nothing's in concrete. If you get a performance like that, I can't dismiss it.

"I was really disappointed in our football team. I don't know what happened. Some of our good players didn't play well, and that was the disturbing part. We have 15 or 16 starters back, and we only got good play out of a couple . . . We're not nearly as smooth as we were at this time last year. Something's wrong, and we have to find out what it is."

The outcome tonight was apparent so quickly that Ford is certain to be criticized for playing his starters too long and running up the score at the end (the final touchdown was scored on a five-yard pass from reserve quarterback Anthony Parete to starting wide receiver Ray Williams). Clemson threw 13 of its 23 passes after leading by 34-0.

"I have no explanation," Ford said. "Our people wanted to play. We had good field position and you're supposed to try to score. Our kids worked too hard this week to come up here and lie around on the football field."

Welsh, when asked if Clemson ran up the score: "I have no idea. He (Ford) can do what he wants to. When you're sitting on top of the world, you can name the score, I guess."

That seemed the case tonight. Welsh had hoped that if his veteran defensive unit could hold Clemson early, Ferguson and the Cavaliers' offense might gain a little confidence. It didn't work that way.

After taking the opening kickoff, Flagler and Kenny Flowers consistently -- Clemson averaged 6.4 yards per offensive play -- ran the ball until the Tigers had third and five at the seven. With one of its few good pass rushes, Virginia forced Eppley to scramble and throw an incomplete pass. But Donald Igwebuike kicked the first of his two field goals (from 23 and 31 yards) and seven extra points.

Perry started making his presence known on Virginia's first possession. "There's just nothing you can do," said Harold Garren, Virginia's 236-pound center. "He was just quicker than I was . . . Did it seem like he's two or three people out there? Yes, definitely, it takes that many to block him."

Although it took Clemson until its third offensive possession to score a touchdown -- driving 63 yards in 10 plays, with Flagler going over from the one for the first of his two scores -- once the Tigers got going it was all over for Virginia.