CHARLOTTESVILLE, OCT.8 -- It almost has become a fear in this low-key atmosphere, home of the most unlikely of college football powerhouses, that a member of what is potentially the best squad in the 102-year history of the Virginia Cavaliers may utter one of the taboo phrases that will burst the bubble on the team's magical season.
"Perfect season" or "national championship" would make the puncture, and the Cavaliers would awaken from the impressive joyride that has taken them from a No. 15 Associated Press preseason ranking to No. 2, best in school history.
That is where Virginia finds itself today, one step behind Michigan, which climbed into the No. 1 position despite its opening loss to Notre Dame. Miami, Oklahoma and Tennessee complete the top five.
Talk of Virginia contending for a national title began after last month's 20-7 victory over then-ninth-ranked Clemson and has been magnified since by a schedule in which the six remaining opponents were defeated by the Cavaliers (5-0, 2-0 ACC) last season. But lips have become tight here following an idle weekend and a vault past former No. 1 Notre Dame and former No. 2 Florida State, losers to Stanford and Miami, respectively.
Coach George Welsh was quick to dismiss notions of a national title, continuing his now-familiar "it's too early" refrain.
"I don't even think about it," he said. "There haven't been enough games yet. We've only played five games, some teams have only played four. . . . You can lose three or four more games -- then it doesn't matter if you were 5-0 at this stage."
Players talked openly before the season about contending for a national title, deeming Clemson the only major stumbling block. Now the general mind-set has shifted to one of almost reluctant acquiescence with the polls, which last month gave Virginia its first top 10 ranking in 38 years.
"We're not thinking about the ranking right now," said cornerback Jason Wallace, "but it's nice to know that people across the country are respecting us. People just haven't had the idea that Virginia could have a strong football program."
Virginia's 5-0 start is its best since 1949 (7-0). The interval, which included only two winning seasons in the 29 years before Welsh's arrival in 1982 and a 29-game losing streak to Clemson that wasn't snapped until this season, often was most noted for Virginia's large margins of defeat -- rather than the huge victories this season.
"It's a very strange thing coming back here and not seeing us going into the third quarter 25 points down and looking to avoid a total blowout," said graduate John Casteen, just inaugurated as the school's seventh president, following a five-year term as president of the University of Connecticut. "It's taken a little time to adjust to the notion that we really are a major force to be reckoned with."
Representatives from the Orange, Sugar, and Citrus bowls will scout Virginia's game here Saturday against North Carolina State. Under terms of a four-year agreement in 1988 between the ACC and Citrus Bowl, the conference champion is obligated to play in the New Year's Day game if it is ranked No. 1 in the United Press International coaches' poll. Virginia is No. 3 in that poll, behind Michigan and Nebraska.
But a Citrus Bowl escape clause allows the ACC champion to play in the Sugar, Orange or Cotton bowls provided it is ranked second, third or fourth by UPI as of the second Tuesday in November. Should the top three UPI teams remain the same until that time, Michigan would play in the Rose Bowl, because of a Big Ten agreement, and Nebraska would play in the Orange Bowl, under terms of a contract with the Big Eight, provided they both win conference titles.
Nebraska, however, still must face No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 14 Colorado while Michigan hosts No. 11 Illinois on Nov. 10. Virginia's only ranked opponent -- No. 18 Georgia Tech -- must play here, where the Cavaliers have not lost in more than two years.
N.C. State has not beaten Virginia since 1985, although Welsh said he is concerned following a poor off-week of practice that included the loss of guard Chris Borsari for the rest of the regular season with a broken leg, and a stomach virus that reached near-epidemic proportions on the team. Sophomore Jeff Tomlin and freshman Mark Dixon will compete this week for Borsari's starting position. Everyone else, Welsh said, should play.