After years of complaining it did not get the national respect it deserves, Virginia Tech this season hopes to live up to the hype as it goes for its seventh consecutive bowl appearance. Coach Frank Beamer received a lucrative new contract after last season after having conversations with Clemson and South Carolina concerning their vacancies.

The school has set a record for season ticket sales, and the Hokies not only received their highest preseason ranking -- No. 13 in the Associated Press media poll -- they received one first-place vote.

There will be some skepticism about their nonconference schedule -- the Hokies open the season with home games against Division I-AA James Madison, Alabama-Birmingham and a still-rebuilding Clemson team.

But if they can win those games, then defeat Virginia in Charlottesville, there will be a lot of talk about the possibility of an undefeated season because the Hokies play the Big East's other top teams -- Syracuse and Miami -- at home.

However, much of Virginia Tech's success will depend on the development of its new starting quarterback, redshirt freshman Michael Vick. Though inexperience is bound to lead to mistakes, no one doubts his raw talent. He set school records for quarterbacks this summer with a 40-inch vertical leap and a 4.33-second 40-yard dash.

He should have another valuable asset this season -- a quality running game. The Hokies return junior tailback Shyrone Stith, who has 1,173 career yards despite starting only two games, and they are excited about redshirt freshmen Lee Suggs and Keith Burnell. Solidifying the rushing attack are fullbacks Jarrett Ferguson and Cullen Hawkins, who shared starts in 1998. Senior Ricky Hall and sophomore speedster Andre Davis lead a group of talented, but unproven, wide receivers.

Defensively there are no worries up front, where starting linemen Carl Bradley, John Engelberger, Corey Moore and Nat Williams return. Moore, last season's Big East defensive player of the year, led the conference with 13 sacks.

Starting linebackers Jamel Smith and Michael Hawkes also return from a unit that gave up just 12.9 points per game (fourth nationally). The question lies in the secondary, where cornerback Ike Charlton is the only returning starter.

Special teams, known for their ability to block kicks, are the most threatening component. Virginia Tech has blocked more kicks this decade than any team in the country, including a school-record 12 last season. Six of the seven players who got a hand on a kick last year return. So do first-team all-Big East place kicker Shayne Graham and punter Jimmy Kibble.

Players to watch.

QB Michael Vick (first year as starter)

RB Shyrone Stith (699 yards rushing, 5.3 per carry)

WR Ricky Hall (37 receptions, 650 yards, 8 TDs)

K Shayne Graham (first-team all-Big East)

DE John Engelberger (7A sacks)

DE Corey Moore (Big East defensive player of the year)

LB Jamel Smith (99 tackles)

Top Players Lost.

QB Al Clark (two-year starter)

WR Angelo Harrison (18 catches, 9.9 yards per punt return)

T Derek Smith (fifth-round draft pick, Redskins)

S Pierson Prioleau (fourth-round draft pick, 49ers)

CB Loren Johnson (first-team all-Big East)

CB Keion Carpenter (5 INTs, second-team all-Big East)

RB Lamont Pegues (745 yards)

The Schedule.

Sept. 4 James Madison, 1 p.m., no TV

Coming off worst season since 1983. JMU WR Earnest Payton had team-record 82 catches last season.

Sept. 11 Ala.-Birmingham, 1 p.m., ESPN

The option will be abandoned under Alabama-Birmingham's new offensive coordinator and former Heisman winner Pat Sullivan.

Sept. 23 Clemson, 8 p.m., ESPN

Eight of Clemson's 80 scholarship players are seniors. No starters return on offensive line.

Oct. 2 at Virginia, 6 p.m., ESPN2

Junior Dan Ellis (19 career completions, 1 TD, 2 INT) steps in for Virginia at quarterback.

Oct. 9 at Rutgers, 6 p.m., no TV

Rutgers QB Mike McMahon (2,203 passing yards) and RB Jacki Crooks (Big East's top returning rusher) lead improving team.

Oct. 16 Syracuse, Time, TV TBA

Questions linger at Syracuse's quarterback, defensive back. Dynamic WR Quinton Spotwood returns from injury.

Oct. 30 at Pittsburgh, Time, TV TBA

Pitt CB Hank Poteat led Big East with six INTs last season, but offense won't scare anyone.

Nov. 6 at West Virginia, 3:30 p.m., no TV

West Virginia will have trouble up front, as offensive and defensive lines return zero starters.

Nov. 13 Miami, 7:30 p.m., ESPN

Brutal schedule, inexperienced quarterback could delay Miami's return to early-'90s glory, but not for long.

Nov. 20 at Temple, 1 p.m., no TV

Three of Temple's four leading tacklers last season were freshmen, but rushing defense is still suspect.

Nov. 26 Boston College, 2:30 p.m., WUSA-9, WJZ-13

A 6-0 start is possible for B.C., but final five opponents had combined 43-17 record last season.

COACH: Frank Beamer, 13th season with Virginia Tech (77-59-2; 119-82-4 in 18 seasons overall).

TICKETS: 1-800-828-3244, 540-231-6731.

RADIO: WMJS-FM-92.7, WAGE-1200.


GETTING TO THE GAMES: From Interstate 81, take Exit 118 to U.S. Route 460 west. Take 460 to Route 314. Turn right on 314, which leads to the stadium. (Delays are expected on Route 460 because of construction.)