The Virginia Tech football team was ranked higher after nine games in each of the past two seasons, but the Hokies find themselves in a better position this year -- alone in first place in the ACC and dreaming of playing in a lucrative Bowl Championship Series game.

The Hokies, who opened the season unranked in both of college football's polls for the first time since 1998, have climbed to a No. 15 ranking with a 7-2 record going into Thursday night's game against Maryland at sold-out Lane Stadium. If the Hokies win their last three regular season games -- against the Terrapins, at home vs. No. 18 Virginia on Nov. 27 and at No. 12 Miami on Dec. 4 -- they will win the ACC title and the BCS berth that comes with it.

"Where you finish up is what matters, not how you got there," Coach Frank Beamer said. "Where you end up is kind of the bottom line."

Beamer didn't like where the Hokies ended up in each of the past three seasons, or the all-too-familiar path each team took in getting there. In 2001-02, Virginia Tech lost four of its last six games and finished 8-4. Two years ago, the Hokies again lost four of their last six games and finished 10-4; they lost five of their last seven games last season and ended up 8-5.

Instead of playing in a BCS bowl game, the Hokies played in the 2002 Gator Bowl and the less prestigious San Francisco Bowl and Insight Bowl in Phoenix, respectively, the past two seasons.

Beamer said because the Hokies weren't expected to do much this season, their first in the newly expanded ACC, it may have lessened the pressure on his young team. Virginia Tech starts one freshman, two redshirt freshmen and two sophomores.

"We've done well so far," he said. "I think what happens is when you start out a season like last year, and you've got hope and you're up there high, when something doesn't go well, it's a little more devastating. I think we're fortunate to be where we are."

Beamer said one of the intangibles that separates this year's team from the past three is its "togetherness," and that makes his players better prepared for the pressure awaiting them.

"Every team is different," Beamer said. "Some teams fit better than others. I think the leadership on this team has been very good, pointing everybody in the same direction. They respect each other."

Beamer didn't say it, but some of his players have suggested last season's chemistry was muddled by having too many star players. Five Hokies were drafted by NFL teams this past spring, including cornerback DeAngelo Hall and all-American tailback Kevin Jones, who were first-rounders.

"This year, we don't really have the big names, as we had the last couple of years," senior quarterback Bryan Randall said. "This year, we have a lot of blue-collar guys who are making names for themselves."

Beamer said the late-season swoons of the last three seasons won't serve as motivation for this year's team. Instead, he points to the low expectations everyone else had for the Hokies at the beginning of the season.

"I think what's more of an incentive is that chart up in our dressing room that has us picked eighth out of an 11-team league," Beamer said. "That's more of an incentive."

When reporters pointed out that the Hokies were actually predicted to finish sixth in the ACC, Beamer smiled and said: "I know it's valid. I think it came off, so I know it's accurate."

That the Hokies can laugh about their circumstance this late in the season is a relief, Randall said.

"I guess it does take a lot of pressure off the team, especially the younger guys," Randall said. "It makes them work harder to get back to the top 25, where everybody wants to be. I think in past seasons, we may have taken it for granted."

Hokies Notes: Beamer said starting free safety Vincent Fuller, tied for the team lead with three interceptions, will play against Maryland despite a shoulder injury. . . . Backup fullback John Kinzer (Robinson High) is questionable to play with a pinched nerve in his neck. . . . The Hokies are 9-1 in Thursday night games televised by ESPN, winning eight in a row. Their loss was to Boston College, 20-14, on Sept. 7, 1995. . . . Thursday night's game will be the third meeting between Virginia Tech and Maryland since 1950; Tech won, 55-28, in 1993, and Maryland won, 20-13, in 1990.

Coach Frank Beamer's team can clinch the ACC title by reversing a recent trend of poor finishes.