Outside the great Commonwealth, eyebrows are raised. The polls, all the polls, rank the University of Virginia's undefeated Cavaliers as the best football team in the country. Fine and dandy. But are they any good? Okay, we know they must be good because they're 6-0 and are expected to finish the regular season undefeated. But are they really good ? Can they go toe to toe with Miami and Tennessee, Florida State and Notre Dame? Or are the Cavaliers just the best team in the lightweight ACC?
What you hear from the typical skeptic goes something like: Virginia hasn't played anybody. Virginia couldn't beat anybody in the top 10. The fourth-place team in the SEC is better than Virginia. If the Cavaliers played Notre Dame's schedule, Miami's schedule, or even Maryland's schedule, they couldn't possibly go undefeated.
We don't know who the best team in the country is, because there are at least five weeks plus bowl games remaining in this season. However, we do know this much: Miami has already lost to Brigham Young, which isn't even in the top 10; Tennessee has been tied twice; Nebraska's season consists of two big games and they never win both of them; Auburn has a tie; overrated Notre Dame lost at home to Stanford, which isn't in the top 40; Florida State got trounced by Miami and overrated Michigan has lost twice.
Virginia hasn't lost. Virginia has won its games by an average score of 48-11. That includes a victory over Clemson, a team ranked in the top 25 all season. Okay, the ACC isn't the SEC. Still, Virginia, more than any team in the country, deserves to be ranked No. 1.
Greg Williams, a defensive coach at Maryland, has seen several rolls of Virginia film and he said: "The ACC's reputation is the reason people are skeptical about Virginia. I'm telling you Virginia can play toe to toe with anybody in the country. Their defense is solid, but they're loaded on offense. They've got big sticks."
Tom Donahoe, a scout for the Pittsburgh Steelers, saw the Cavaliers dismantle Clemson and said: "People who are saying Virginia isn't that good are making a serious mistake. They can line up and play with anybody in the country. In my opinion, they deserve the No. 1 ranking. It's no fluke. That whole thing about Viriginia couldn't beat teams in the top 10, I don't buy that at all."
Glen Mason, coach of Kansas, is something of an expert on this topic having been blown out by both Miami (34-0) and Virginia (59-10) this season. "Everybody wants me to compare Miami to Virginia," Mason said. "It's getting around that I said Miami is much better, but that's not exactly what I said. Somebody asked me to evaluate the two and what I said was that from first man to last, I like Miami. That observation is not based on performance, but on talent. I've never seen speed like Miami's got. But if you're asking me if I think Virginia, for one game -- a bowl game or something -- can play with Miami, my answer is yes. Some people may have a problem with Virginia being ranked No. 1, but I don't."
It also would be a mistake to paint the Cavaliers as overachievers. Yes, having George Welsh on the sideline is one of Virginia's best attributes. But the quarterback (Shawn Moore), top wide receiver (Herman Moore) and starting tailback (Terry Kirby) are among the best at their positions in the country.
"If you don't put two people on that wideout, he'll beat you every time," one scout said. "And if you don't put two people on the quarterback, he'll sprint out, do some things on the run. Now you've got seven people going against their nine and they've still got Kirby."
Kirby (633 yards rushing, seven touchdowns) isn't the only threat out of the backfield. Nikki Fisher (524 yards) is averaging more yards per carry (8.9) than Kirby (6.8). Herman Moore should be first-team all-America. Shawn Moore, because he isn't a pure drop-back passer, may not be what the NFL scouts are looking for, but he is Virginia's MVP.
"He can sprint out, run the option, bootleg, play a little dropback," our scout said. "Virginia lines up in a million formations, none of which have anything to do with the play, but the variety drives you nuts. If you keep Moore in the pocket, he'll pass. If you blitz him, they run the option."
Mason said: "You're talking to a coach whose offensive was shut down by Virginia's defense, but I came away so impressed with their offense. They really know what they're doing. You're not going to find a better quarterback and receiver combination. With Miami, the scheme gets you in part but it's mostly finesse."
So, there seems to be little doubt on any front that Virginia can score. Virginia's problem, such as it is, seems to be defense. William and Mary put up 35 against the Cavaliers' defense. If William and Mary can score 35, you might suspect Tennessee could get 70. Ironically, Virginia's best pro prospect might be on defense, where sophomore Chris Slade -- remember the name -- lines up at left end. Slade is 6 feet 5, 225 and he lives in the opponent's backfield.
"The kid's a baby, but he's big time, a truly dominating force," our scout said.
Mason said: "Slade is truly outstanding, but it's not like you line up against their defense and say, 'Man, how many first-round guys do they have over there?' The strength is that they play well as a unit."
The Steelers' Donahoe said he was impressed with cornerback Tony Covington, then added, "You can have a good defensive team without stars and I think they've got that."
Yes, Virginia is lucky that its toughest games (Clemson, North Carolina State, Georgia Tech and Maryland) are all at home. And the offense has to make sure the defense doesn't have to win a game, especially Nov. 3 against Georgia Tech. The criticism of ACC football is usually legit, but not this year. I'll take Virginia, Georgia Tech and Clemson over Michigan, Illinois and Indiana. Nobody questions the validity of a Big Ten team's schedule, but an ACC school (Clemson in 1981) has won a national title since a Big Ten school (Ohio State in 1968). It will be two, deservedly, if Virginia beats Georgia Tech and Maryland, then wins on New Year's Day.