Predicted by the ACC media to finish eighth in the conference, Virginia would become bowl-eligible on Saturday with a win at Georgia Tech. The Cavaliers would have seven consecutive victories in a season for the fifth time in the program's 113-year history. A victory would also snap a string of recent crushing losses in Atlanta and could move Virginia into the top 25 for the first time in three years.
However, Cavaliers Coach Al Groh said those are not goals his team has thought much about.
"No, our mind-set right now is to compete for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship," Groh said.
That seems possible for Virginia (6-2, 4-1), which sits in third place behind No. 11 Florida State and No. 12 North Carolina State, the two teams with undefeated ACC records. A bowl bid would be nice, Groh said, but that is not the goal he had in mind when he was hired 22 months ago.
"I haven't changed my tack on this at all," he said. "We're here to win championships. Not to finish second, not to have bake sales, not to look good. We're here to try to compete and win the championship. I think if you're in business for any other purpose, then you have the wrong target."
Beating the Yellow Jackets (4-3, 1-3) appears especially important for any conference championship hopes because the Cavaliers have one of the toughest November schedules in the country. Their final four opponents -- No. 18 Penn State, North Carolina State, defending ACC champion Maryland and No. 3 Virginia Tech -- have a combined record of 26-4.
"In terms of staying in the hunt for the championship, this is like the playoffs, because one missed step and probably our chances aren't very good," Groh said.
Few outside observers thought the Cavaliers would be talking about the conference championship at this point in the season. A low-level bowl bid seemed a more reasonable goal for a team that planned to play about a dozen members of its highly touted freshman class. Nine players expected to start Saturday had no college experience -- outside of special teams -- before this season.
Many of the freshmen have had no problem stepping into prominent roles right away. Tailback Wali Lundy leads the team in rushing yards and in receptions and is fourth in the conference with 124.8 all-purpose yards per game. Outside linebacker Darryl Blackstock has eight sacks, more than any other freshman in the nation and as many as anyone in the ACC. Left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson, tight end Heath Miller and defensive end Brennan Schmidt also have quickly become solid starters.
With a cast of veterans that includes senior co-captains Billy McMullen and Angelo Crowell and junior quarterback Matt Schaub -- who is on pace to set the single-season program records for completions, attempts, passing yards, touchdown passes and completion percentage -- Virginia righted itself after opening the season with consecutive losses to Colorado State and Florida State.
They are doing more of what Groh calls "things that make you win" and fewer of the things that "can cause you to lose." In five of the past six games, for instance, Virginia has had fewer turnovers than its opponent.
"If you turn the ball over, you're going to lose. That's the way it is," said senior inside linebacker Merrill Robertson, who played the best game of his career in last weekend's 37-27 win against North Carolina.
To extend their win streak to seven, the Cavaliers will have to win at Georgia Tech, which they haven't done since 1994. The Yellow Jackets have also played a roll in snapping a pair of Virginia winning streaks, both times by the score of 41-38. One such loss knocked the 1990 team -- the last Cavaliers team to win seven consecutive games -- from the top spot in the national rankings and began a season-ending streak of four losses in five games. In 1998, the Cavaliers were 5-0 and ranked seventh in the nation before losing on a missed field goal at Georgia Tech.
Then again, none of Virginia's current players played in those painful losses. On a team with a second-year coaching staff and only three fifth-year seniors, the institutional memory barely stretches back to cover the 35-0 loss at Bobby Dodd Stadium in 2000.
"It was pretty painful to watch us play as poorly as we did," said Schaub, who was a backup on the sideline that day. "It was a big game for us down there and we just didn't do anything well in all aspects of the game. Hopefully, this year we can turn that around."