Today, it is easy for Atlantic Coast Conference fans to root for Virginia as it prepares to play Brigham Young Tuesday night in the All American Bowl in Birmingham. The 1987 Cavaliers represent all of the wonderful and human characteristics college athletics are supposed to have.

They are generally bright, academically minded young men, about 90 percent of whom will have graduated before the fifth anniversary of their matriculations. And their program traditionally has had the often painful task of balancing itself upon the high wire of success without a net.

This season has been particularly tenuous. Still not quite big, strong, fast or deep enough to inflict any real harm upon the big boys, the Cavaliers lost regular season games to Maryland, a team they have not beaten since 1971; No. 13 Clemson, a team they have never beaten in 27 tries that is headed for the Florida Citrus Bowl; Georgia, ranked 14th and headed for the Liberty Bowl, and South Carolina, ranked eighth and headed for the Gator Bowl. Their victories over Virginia Tech, North Carolina and North Carolina State were not secure until the final minutes.

In a relatively injury-free season during which its quarterback had the best year of his career, the offensive line played magnificently and the defense made countless big plays, Virginia has a 7-4 record (5-2, second place in the ACC and its most conference wins ever). The Cavaliers easily could have been 8-3 and ACC co-champions. They just as easily could have been 4-7, or worse.

Tomorrow, however, Virginia may no longer be Team Tightrope. The Cavaliers also may no longer be so well-liked. It seems fine for them to be successful and smart. But smart and very successful?

"We have just about enough good athletes to develop some depth," said running backs coach Ken Mack, who handles Virginia's recruiting in Washington, D.C., and Montgomery and Prince George's counties. "This {recruiting} year can get us over the hump."

"We always recruited the top players, but they weren't interested in us. They are now," said Mack.

Academics, athletics and now -- get this -- attitude.

"I think a lot of people on the team just finally said to themselves, 'Just because we're at Virginia and it's not supposed to be a football powerhouse doesn't mean anything. We can come out and win some football games,' " said fifth-year senior wide receiver Keith Mattioli, a graduate of Chantilly High School. "We were a lot better football team than 3-8 last year. We just didn't have the attitude to go out and win. We were like, 'We're Virginia, we're not supposed to win.' It was a matter of more or less deciding we can play with these people.

"I think all along we've had the talent. We started getting a lot of very good football players. We maybe don't have as many as a lot of other people have, but I think we make up for that in a lot of areas. I mean when you come to Virginia as a football player you know you're not going to an Oklahoma or a Nebraska or a Clemson or any place like that. You have your reasons for coming here. It's the type of person that you're attracted by. It's a challenge to be able to go to U-Va., and be able to compete academically and athletically."

Any school must win in order to attract very good football players. But because of the factors Mattioli mentioned, when Virginia wins even just a little bit, it attracts lots of very good players.

There still are a few holdovers from the freshman class of 1983, whose arrival was preceded by a 2-9 season in George Welsh's first year as head coach in 1982. They include Mattioli, quarterback Scott Secules (Chantilly), who has completed 174 of 296 passes (58.8 percent) for 2,311 yards and 12 touchdowns, and starting offensive linemen Chris Minear (Gonzaga), John Fetsko and Paul Sierocinski, whose unit has allowed just nine sacks.

In 1983, the Cavaliers went 6-5. Eight members of their 1984 freshman class are regulars now, including defensive end Sean Scott (Mount Vernon), a two-year co-captain who recently was voted his third team defensive player of the year award, and wide receiver John Ford, Virginia's all-time receiving yardage leader.

In 1984, the Cavaliers went 8-2-2 and won the Peach Bowl. Nine members of their 1985 freshman class are regulars, including sophomore offensive linemen Roy Brown (St. Albans) and Tim Morris, and junior linebackers Jeff Lageman (Park View) and David Griggs.

In 1985, the Cavaliers went 6-5. Twelve members of their 1986 freshman class are regulars, including starting running backs Marcus Wilson, a freshman, and Durwin Greggs (McNamara), a sophomore, and sophomore defensive backs Keith McMeans, who led the nation in interceptions with nine, and Kevin Cook, who was fifth with eight.

"As a coaching staff," Mack said, "we feel that had it not been for that setback, this year could have happened last year. "

That setback was the turmoil stirred up by the late-July cocaine distribution charges against tailback Barry Word and kicker Kenny Stadlin, who had used up their eligibility, and tailback Howard Petty, who would have been a senior. Word and Stadlin later pleaded guilty; Petty pleaded no contest.

Even now, there is little agreement about exactly how those events affected the Cavaliers last season.

"Coming off a 3-8 season, we were predicted to be down in the {ACC's} lower echelon," Lageman said. "When you're always coming into games as an underdog, you always go out there with something to prove. I think this team went out and tried to prove it every game. Last year a lot of people called us quitters. This year we stuck it out in the end of a lot of games. We never quit."

Not that there haven't been lots of opportunities.

For instance, in the two weeks before playing Wake Forest, Virginia had been defeated, 38-21, at Clemson and, 58-10, at South Carolina. The loss to the Gamecocks was particularly demoralizing. Junior Craig Fielder (McLean), whose battle with cancer had been a source of extraordinary inspiration for the team, died the night before the game.

Somehow, Virginia regrouped. With stickers bearing Fielder's initials attached to their helmets, the Cavaliers defeated the then 5-1 Demon Deacons, 35-21, at Scott Stadium. Two days later, the Cavaliers held an emotional memorial service for Fielder in Charlottesville.

"At the service I talked to his dad," recalled Scott. "And his dad said, 'Go to a bowl for Craig.' That really meant a lot to me. Here's a person who's lost his son and he says, 'Do this for Craig.' I responded to that and I think the team responded to that."

Virginia still had one more chance to fold. With bowl scouts watching them play North Carolina Nov. 13 at Scott Stadium, the Cavaliers trailed the Tar Heels, 17-7, with 4:44 to play, but rallied to win.

"These people who think you can't have academics and football," said Scott, "they're wrong."