Benjamin McKenzie -- who on Thursday night will begin his second season as tormented teen Ryan Atwood on Fox's "The O.C." -- graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in foreign affairs and economics. But another orange-clad group of footballers has a stronger claim on his heart.

So I figured you were a Virginia fan, but now I hear that's not the case?

It's actually kind of split allegiances, because I grew up in Austin and I've always been a University of Texas fan first. I grew up there, my parents went to school there, my dad taught there and I always grew up going to Longhorns games on Saturday.

Are you fed up with Mack Brown yet?

You know, pretty much. . . . But he seems like a terrific guy, so I hope that one day -- maybe 2010 -- we can beat the Sooners.

Have you ever made the Hook 'em Horns sign?

Oh, yeah, absolutely, Hook 'em Horns all the time. I sit there and scream at the TV in my apartment in Los Angeles, sing the fight song, dress up in my UT garb. It's fairly ridiculous.

Did you get into Virginia sports while you were in Charlottesville?

Yeah, I love it. It's definitely a different atmosphere. It's all T-shirts and jeans at Texas. U-Va., has a different kind of aesthetic -- white-collared shirts with ties and jackets and the flasks in the back, and the girls in sundresses.

Have you been following Virginia's season?

Yeah, I actually got together with a bunch of guys out here to watch the Florida State game, which we made it through. But by the end of the second half it was really just reliving the old glory days on the grounds instead of watching the game.

And I hear you played high school football?

Yeaahhhh, I played, but at 5-9, 160 pounds the colleges weren't exactly knocking down the door. I think I got one letter from a Division III school and I wanted to frame it.

What position did you play?

I was a wide receiver-defensive back. I had blazing 4.6 speed, which is not going to get you anywhere unless you're a tight end at 6-3, 250 pounds.

Did you have a trademark skill?

I had to compensate for being small-but-slow-but-weak by being as aggressive and intense as I could. But I think all of us did, all of the little suburban white kids I was playing with, we all took it as seriously as we could. I'm really glad I had that in high school, because high school athletics -- if done correctly, if done for the right reasons -- can focus you and keep you away from the trouble you can get into in middle school and high school. Not that I didn't drink my share of kegs in the Central Texas woods.

How come Ryan Atwood's not a football player?

I know, they tried to have me play soccer for a minute, which didn't really take. I looked like I [stink] at it, because I do. I don't know why they didn't go for football. Maybe too intense. I don't know, I feel like Ryan should be playing football, there's an intensity in him that would be good for it. Kick some O.C. [behind] on the football field.

Who'll finish higher in the rankings, Texas or Virginia?

I think Texas will end up being ranked higher just because they have a softer remaining schedule. Nebraska's fallen apart and A&M isn't as strong as they used to be. It's entirely likely that Texas will win out. They damn better win out.

-- Dan Steinberg

MCKENZIE