CHARLOTTESVILLE, AUG. 31 -- Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, sit the expectations of the 1990 Virginia Cavaliers. Their quest for an undefeated season and recognition among the nation's elite teams begins in Lawrence, Kan., Saturday against the University of Kansas.

The Jayhawks, along with Navy, William and Mary and Virginia Tech -- collectively 21-22-2 last year -- give 15th-ranked Virginia a less-than-imposing quartet of non-conference opponents, a welcome respite from a schedule that over the last three years has included the likes of Notre Dame, Penn State, Louisville and South Carolina.

Kansas faces top-ranked Miami and highly regarded Louisville this fall. With Big Eight conference games against fifth-ranked Colorado, No. 7 Nebraska and No. 22 Oklahoma, the scheduling of Virginia for the first game makes the prospect of improvement on last year's 4-7 record dismal.

Still, the conditioning the Jayhawks receive from the Big Eight's big three makes games against top 25 teams so routine that Kansas Coach Glen Mason, queried on the possibility of Virginia looking past his team to next week's showdown against Clemson, responded, "We're not looking past Virginia to Oregon State."

The arrival of Oregon State next week could be considered cause for anticipation for Kansas, which hasn't had a winning season since 1981 and finished the 1980s at 38-68-6.

Mason is just 5-17 in his two seasons, but his last two recruiting classes were ranked among the top 30 nationally by one publication, and he loses only nine seniors after this season. That gives some hope to a program that finished last in the Big Eight in both scoring and total defense a year ago, losing to Colorado, Nebraska and Oklahoma by a combined score of 145-37.

"I don't think they're {Virginia} as strong defensively as the likes of Nebraska, Colorado and Oklahoma," said Mason. "They'd be at least fourth {in the Big Eight}, closer to the elite teams then the rest of us on the bottom."

A stellar defense may be all that separates Virginia, which averaged 411 yards and 29 points a game offensively last season, from the nation's top teams. Two new linebackers start for the second straight year, and nose guard Ron Carey will miss at least Saturday's game recuperating from knee surgery. Back-up Matt Quigley will make his first collegiate start in Carey's place, along with freshman linebacker P.J. Killian and either James Pearson or Yusef Jackson -- both sophomores.

"The only time I'd be high on a team is if I had a great defensive football team," Virginia Coach George Welsh said. "If you have a great defensive football team, you're always going to have a chance."

Mason insists the Virginia newcomers won't prompt him to give additional carries to tailback Tony Sands (1,109 yards in 1989), even if his quarterback, sophomore Chip Hilleary, threw all of nine passes last season in five games as a backup.

"Just because their middle guard is out isn't going to change our approach at all," Mason said. "You don't attack one guy, especially that position."

Virginia, which finished last season 10-3, starts this year as a favorite to win its first outright ACC title, after sharing first place with Duke.

The Cavaliers, who have yet to defeat Clemson in 29 tries, face the Tigers in Charlottesville next week with hopes of snapping a losing streak that began in 1955, the same year Welsh finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting as a Navy quarterback.

Virginia began promoting quarterback Shawn Moore for the Heisman last month, but Welsh said Virginia's balanced offense might not allow Moore the opportunity to throw for the massive statistics of Houston's Andre Ware, last season's winner. Moore may not even play the entire game Saturday, since Welsh has said the Kansas heat and Memorial Stadium's new AstroTurf could force him to use two full units.

Some Cavaliers point to next Saturday's game with Clemson as this year's only avenue to the upper echelon of college football.

"We're hungry this year. We've got everything going our way," defensive end Chris Slade said.

That kind of statement makes Welsh nervous, what with memories of the 36-13 loss to Notre Dame in last season's Kickoff Classic and an opening-day struggle against William and Mary two years ago still on his mind.

"When we got the {Kansas} game on the schedule, they thought we weren't going to be as good as we are, and I didn't think they were going to be as good as they're going to be this year," Welsh said. " . . . We certainly can't think about the second game; otherwise I think we have problems."

Clemson opens its season at home Saturday against Long Beach State, coached by George Allen, who will be handling his first collegiate team since 1956. The 49ers (4-8 last season) figure to have a tough time against the 10th-ranked Tigers, guided by first-year coach Ken Hatfield.

Only six other teams among the top 25 will be in action Saturday. No. 7 Nebraska hosts Baylor, No. 8 Tennessee entertains Pacific, No. 13 Texas A&M travels to Hawaii, No. 16 Brigham Young plays at Texas-El Paso, No. 18 Pittsburgh hosts Ohio University and No. 25 West Virginia takes on Kent State, which went 0-11 last season.