Nearly everywhere the Virginia Tech coaches look during practices they see the dreaded f-word -- freshmen -- and that has ominous implications for tonight's game against top-ranked Southern Cal at FedEx Field. Inexperience is part of the reason preseason expectations are lower than usual for the Hokies, who are 17-point underdogs tonight and missing from the top 25 polls before a regular season game for the first time in almost six years.

Twenty-four of the 74 players wearing Virginia Tech uniforms will be playing in their first collegiate games. The only backups behind quarterback Bryan Randall -- Sean Glennon (Westfield) and Cory Holt -- are freshmen. So are the top reserves at two linebacker positions, Xavier Adibi and Vince Hall, and three cornerbacks, Roland Minor (H.D. Woodson), D. J. Parker and Brandon Flowers. Neither fullback, redshirt freshman John Kinzer or sophomore Jesse Allen, has suited up for the Hokies.

It's much worse at wide receiver.

"Where it's scary is not so much that they've not caught passes," receivers coach Tony Ball said, "but in that entire group, there's only one that really knows how to prepare during the week for an opponent. That's my challenge."

The player with game-preparation experience is redshirt senior Richard Johnson, a starter for a handful of games during three seasons but mostly hampered by injuries. He had 13 catches last year, but that makes him the most productive returning receiver by far now that Justin Hamilton (23 catches) has been moved to tailback.

The top two flankers, Josh Hyman and Eddie Royal (Westfield), are freshmen. So is Josh Morgan (H. D. Woodson), a key reserve behind redshirt junior Chris Clifton (three catches last season) and Johnson at split end. Royal also is listed as the top option on punt and kickoff returns.

The Hokies are putting freshmen in such key roles for two reasons, Coach Frank Beamer said: necessity and talent. He knows about the impatience of fans, who along with the coaches were disappointed by last season's underachieving team, but said: "The reality is, if you're playing as well as you can play at that particular time, then I can accept whatever the results are. I expect improvement, if we stay healthy."

The biggest fear for Hokies coaches and fans is Randall getting injured. Glennon has been on campus only since the second semester of summer school. Significant improvement has come, but as quarterbacks coach Kevin Rogers said, that is relative. Rogers has been working on a package that Glennon or Holt could handle.

"It's long been proven that quarterbacks can't win games by themselves," Rogers said, "but they sure as heck can lose them."

Among the young wide receivers, the talent is obvious. At 5 feet 10 and 172 pounds, Royal is the fastest and most elusive Hokie. Ball said Morgan's receiver skills "are probably better than anyone on the team." Beamer said that yet another freshman wideout, Justin Harper, "may pass [Royal and Morgan] when it's all over."

Ball acknowledges he has a gifted young group. But he says of Royal: "He does things naturally, changes directions naturally. But what he's going to find out is that there are corners who, if he's not doing things right, won't let him get open. He's got to understand how to use the field and how to use his body once he gets the ball so he can be even more dangerous."

Morgan enrolled at Tech in January after a semester at Fork Union Military Academy and impressed Ball during spring practice. He caught a 20-yard touchdown pass during one scrimmage, had three catches for 45 yards in another and caught a six-yard pass and ran for six yards on a reverse in the Maroon-White game. A few weeks later, he was in the hospital with a broken bone in his foot.

"I was lifting weights at Howard [University], and someone dropped a dumbbell on my foot," he said. "I'm almost 100 percent now."

Ball and Beamer also were impressed that Morgan blocked four punts at Fork Union.

Morgan and Royal are excited about playing such a significant game at FedEx.

"Like a homecoming," Royal said as he and Morgan chatted briefly with Beamer after practice last week.

Both will have plenty of support at FedEx. Morgan estimated he would have about 20 family members in the stadium and Royal added: "At least 100 to 200 [family and friends] have said they have tickets."

Even though their high schools played important games before passionate crowds, neither has experienced anything close to the more than 91,000 fans expected to attend tonight. Royal will have attention riveted on him during punt returns.

"You're nervous and you're excited, a bunch of emotions are going on," he said. "But you've got to be focused, know what you're doing, try to block out the crowd."