CHARLOTTESVILLE, OCT. 13 -- No one here tonight knew quite what to make of what in all likelihood will be Virginia's first-ever No. 1 ranking by the Associated Press on Monday. With top-ranked Michigan an upset loser to Michigan State early this evening, the second-ranked Cavaliers (6-0, 3-0 in the ACC) are left to revel in what is expected to be their new billing as the nation's top team.
Trouble was, nobody was around to celebrate with them. Today was the first day of a four-day midterm recess for Virginia students, and the normally festive postgame atmosphere was replaced by an eerie, ghost town-like calm.
One local merchant took that macabre theme a step further, constructing a Halloween store window display with 11 tombstones placed side to side, each inscribed with a Virginia opponent and mock death date. Six included the scores of the Cavaliers' games thus far; the others stood seemingly ready for five more funerals.
Burial No. 6 took place today, and what looked like a win to maintain Virginia's No. 2 ranking quickly turned into the stepping stone to No. 1 when Michigan fell to unranked Michigan State, 28-27.
The move marked the latest step on what has quickly become a magical season for Virginia, particularly for a group of fifth-year seniors who were on hand in 1986 when the Cavaliers finished 3-8.
"It's pretty scary, we're number one," said fifth-year offensive tackle Paul Collins, one of 12 players redshirted in 1986 still on the roster. "It's hard to comprehend. We've covered the whole spectrum: 3-8 to 6-0 and number one. People have been calling me tonight that I haven't heard from in years."
Virginia began the season ranked 15th, but after a victory over Clemson (then No. 9) in Week 2 jumped to No. 11. Students carted away the goal posts after the win -- the Cavaliers' first in 30 attempts against Clemson -- and whispers of a national championship began.
A rapid succession of upset losses by many of the nation's top 10 teams -- including No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Florida State by Stanford and Miami, respectively, last week -- vaulted Virginia to No. 2 in last Monday's poll. The Cavaliers likely will rise to No. 2 in the United Press International coaches' poll, behind Nebraska -- 69-21 winner today over Missouri.
Under terms of a four-year agreement with the ACC, Virginia would have to play in the Citrus Bowl if it is ranked No. 1 by UPI on the second Tuesday of November. A UPI ranking of second, third or fourth could release the Cavaliers to play in the Orange, Sugar or Cotton bowls.
Several Cavaliers spoke openly before the year about an undefeated season, perhaps the loftiest goal imaginable when Coach George Welsh inherited a program in 1982 that had two winning seasons in the previous 29 years. But the general mind-set quickly shifted to an echo of the taciturn Welsh, with players professing no goals beyond that of capturing a second straight ACC title.
"We always hold up our hands saying we're number one, now we really are," defensive tackle Joe Hall said. "We're still not sure who's good and who's not, but now it's all ours to lose."