The University of Virginia, which for generations had one of the most pathetic football teams in the nation, indicated today that, for the first time since bowl games were invented in 1902, the Cavaliers would spend the Christmas holidays playing football.

Which would have left Army, having refused bowl bids in the past, as the only major college team never to have gone to a bowl -- except that, tonight, the Cadets reportedly said yes to a trip to the new Cherry Bowl.

Yes, Virginia, there is life after the regular season.

In fact, with its nine-game unbeaten streak and top 20 ranking, Virginia even has hopes of becoming a fair to middling "football power."

"We're making history today," said Athletic Director Dick Schultz, acknowledging Virginia's unofficially official invitation to play Purdue in the modest but perfectly respectable Peach Bowl in Atlanta on Dec. 31.

"And we're looking forward to making more history. This Saturday will mark the first time that a U.-Va. team has ever had the chance to play a game (versus Maryland) with the ACC title at stake."

Schultz conveniently forgot to mention that U.-Va. has clinched second place in the ACC for the first time. This is the team with an 0-24 lifetime mark against Clemson, a dozen straight loses to Maryland, three victories over North Carolina State since 1948 and none against Georgia Tech.

"Of course, if we won on Saturday, that would be even more history," said Schultz, who, in his first years as athletic director here in '81 and '82, watched his teams go 1-10 and 2-9.

Schultz, like many Virginia partisans, is having extreme difficulty absorbing the culture shock of a Wahoo bowl bid. Sunday, he actually had to choose between offers from the Peach and Hall of Fame bowls.

"We chose the Peach because we want to prove we're a big-ticket draw. Our fans can get to Atlanta and we have a lot of alumni there. We hope we can sell 12,000 to 15,000 tickets. If we do, that could help us get other bowl bids in the future, maybe make the difference some year between being picked with three losses or four losses."

Other bowls in the future? Holy whiplash. Are we talking about Virginia? Hey, these guys haven't just been bad since before the beginning of recorded time, they've been bad recently.

That's real bad and real recently.

This is the same U.-Va. team that concluded last year with a 48-0 defeat at the hands of Virginia Tech, and started this season with a 55-0 loss to Clemson.

That's 55-0, as in "Mr. Referee, could we please go back and start 1984 all over?"

That's 55-0 as, in quarterback Don (Majik) Majkowski's words, "Everybody left at halftime and said, 'Well, same old Virginia.' "

Yes, just nine weeks ago, Virginia had lost consecutive games by 103-0. The biggest back-to-back humiliations in the history of a program so woebegone that it hadn't had a record as good as its current 7-1-2 mark since Harry Truman was president.

Listening to Schultz's recitation of historic possibilities, Coach George Welsh turned from stoic to taciturn to downright glum.

"Sounds like a Civil War battle. 'History is being made in Charlottesville,' " grumbled Welsh, who loathes and despises bowl braggin' distractions.

"I don't know if we're making history or not," he continued, having gone from barely contained fury to a slow burn since Saturday, when North Carolina despoiled his universe with a last-play field goal for a 24-24 tie.

Don't try to make Welsh feel good by reminding him how, when he came here in 1981, the program wasn't just dead but locked in carbonite. Not on the radar screen. "It was a full year before we even learned how to practice," Welsh once said. "At the end of the day, I'd say, 'Oh, my God, we're getting worse.' "

Welsh doesn't know whether, five sundowns hence, he'll be handed a laurel wreath or a cigarette and a blindfold.

"I might even call Saturday a 'big game,' " said Welsh, who never admits that any game is big. "Maryland has to get (my team's) attention. We're not that dumb . . .

"What's this about 'fun?' " the perpetually sober coach said later with straight face. "Does anybody really have fun?"

Certainly, he didn't have fun Saturday, when he was steamed at Carolina Coach Dick Crum for breaking the unwritten coaching rule that you never play for a tie in college unless you have an extenuating reason.

Welsh didn't go so far as to say that Carolina kicking for a tie on fourth and goal from the nine with nine seconds left was a Crummy decision, but, he snapped, "I suppose we should take it as a compliment that, considering where their program was two years ago (in the top 20) and where ours was (2-9), that now they have to play for a tie against us and consider it an accomplishment . . .

"I have never gone for a tie."

Why?

"No fun."

It hardly seems fair that the moment the Cavaliers finally get to have some fun celebrating their first bowl bid, they have to turn around and face the biggest football game in the school's history, against a Maryland team that's just posted its most dramatic back-to-back victories since the 1950s.

After all, Virginia usually plays so well against Maryland; the cumulative score since 1973: Terrapins 342, Cavaliers 62.

"I didn't know 'til half an hour ago that we were going to the Peach Bowl," sophomore quarterback Majkowski said excitedly today. "Everything has been coming pretty fast lately. It's only the last month that our fans have been getting excited about us. At the Wake Forest game, they started a 'wave' in the stands. That's gotta be a first here. And now people I don't even know are starting to stop me in restaurants and on the street to congratulate us.

"What we have to do is realize that the chance to win an ACC title is more important, and would be more satisfying for us, than any bowl game.

"Going to the Peach Bowl is good.

"But beating Maryland for the ACC title, man, that would be great."