CHARLOTTESVILLE, NOV. 2 -- It seems almost impossible to believe that Saturday afternoon the Virginia Cavaliers will play in the nation's most important college football game of the week -- and possibly the year. An air of incredulity has enveloped the University of Virginia grounds. Everyone is ready for the 16th-ranked Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, but is everyone ready for what it all means should the top-ranked Cavaliers win the biggest game in the history of the school?
The Cavaliers (7-0, 4-0 in the ACC) know they have much to prove, and Georgia Tech (6-0-1, 4-0-1) is the team they have to prove it against.
Navy also has a chance to grab some national spotlight, as it extends the nation's longest continuous intersectional rivalry by facing second-ranked Notre Dame at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. The game will mark the 64th straight season the teams have met, with the Fighting Irish holding a 53-9-1 lead. In another local game, Howard hosts winless Morgan State. Maryland is idle.
The Virginia-Georgia Tech game does not pit No. 1 against No. 2, but it might as well, as far as the Cavaliers are concerned. Quite a few people don't believe they're for real, so beating a good team that is ranked a little low is all they can do to show they belong at No. 1.
"I've never used being No. 1 as an incentive," said Coach George Welsh. "Of course, I've never been in that position. I don't think we have anything to prove to anybody except ourselves."
This doesn't seem to be the prevailing attitude among all of Welsh's players, however.
"I always figured the Georgia Tech game would be the crucial one of this year," said wide receiver Herman Moore, who often will bump into highly regarded but recently injured (ankle) free safety Ken Swilling in one of the game's big matchups. "Even if we went 10-1, knowing that we had the opportunity to go 11-0, right now we feel like the season would be destroyed if we lost this game.
"We're in control of our own destiny, and this game means a lot," Moore continued. "If something would go wrong and we'd lose, we could go into next week feeling down and out like the season's over and end up losing another one. We want to go into the game scared, knowing that this team has the capability of taking something away from us."
Most believe that if anyone is to stop the Cavaliers before New Year's Day, it will be the Yellow Jackets, who have the ninth-best defense in the country to go against the nation's best offense. After breaking a 16-game ACC losing streak a year ago, Coach Bobby Ross's team has turned into a squad of brutal hitters.
"We've already been in games like this," said Ross, a former Maryland head coach. "There's a difference on our sideline now. If something goes wrong, the team gets mad. Before, we might have just fallen apart. Our attitude is 'can-do' instead of 'can-we-do?' "
Only a tie with North Carolina mars Tech's record. Virginia hasn't been challenged since beating Clemson in the second week of the season. Otherwise, the teams have similar offensive styles, both with quarterbacks named Shawn -- Tech's sophomore Jones and Virginia's acclaimed senior Moore.
"Offensively, we do a lot of the same things they do because we have similar quarterbacks," Welsh said. "Jones is a big-play guy."
The difference may be that Virginia is a big-play team.
But there is more to the Cavaliers than the Moores and their teammates. There seems to be a strong sense of purpose and resolve on the team that even though all this is hard to believe, it must be real and, therefore, must be played out.
"These are a bunch of guys who don't think they are the best football players in the country, but they realize the situation that got them to where they are," said former offensive lineman Roy Brown, who is finishing his graduate studies here now.
"They realize a lot of these things are subjective, but they also know they have to keep on winning. They are not giddy now, but they might be in a few weeks."
Over at Sloan's, a trendy restaurant blocks from soon-to-be-packed Scott Stadium, owner David Sloan, a Cavaliers running back when the team went 11-33 in the mid-'70s, was waxing nostalgic.
"This just doesn't happen in Charlottesville, not in Mr. Jefferson's town," he said. "We've waited a long time for this. I'm telling everyone to come back in three or four years to see if things change here because of this game. It's that big."
The Virginia game is also big for Notre Dame, which could use a Georgia Tech win to return to No. 1. But first, the Fighting Irish must dispose of Navy. The Midshipmen (3-4) will be hard-pressed to shut down Notre Dame's offense, which averages 428 yards per game behind Raghib Ismail (154 all-purpose yards per game). Navy has not beaten Notre Dame since 1963.
Howard is trying to snap a three-game losing streak, and has found the perfect opponent to do it. Morgan State has Division I-AA's longest losing streak (16 games) and has been outscored this season 304-44. The Bison will be without the services of running back J.J. Carpenter, who will miss the game with injuries to his knee, shoulder, back and hand.
Freshman Chris DuBose might replace Donald Carr as the Bison's starting quarterback, but Coach Steve Wilson said both will play.
Correspondent Pete Williams contributed to this report.