For nearly two decades, Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer has worked to build a program that could be mentioned with college football's elite. Finally, Beamer believes he has his alma mater where it belongs, ranked higher than many of the sport's traditional powers heading into the 2005 season.

The Hokies, the defending ACC champions, are ranked No. 7 in the USA Today coaches' preseason top 25 poll, ahead of programs such as Miami, Ohio State, Florida State, Georgia and Alabama, which have much richer traditions. Virginia Tech, which finished 10-3 last season and lost to Auburn, 16-13, in the Sugar Bowl, is the preseason favorite to win the Coastal Division in the ACC's inaugural season with two divisions and a conference championship game.

"That's where we're trying to get to," Beamer said Saturday. "We've spent years trying to be what we think is a top 10 program in the country. I look at those names with us and I tell our recruits, 'Look at the names right here and there's Virginia Tech.' It's where we're trying to go. We're very, very proud of that."

But with less than a month before the Hokies' opener at North Carolina State on Sept. 4, Beamer also knows his team will have to earn its ranking quickly. Last season, the Wolfpack beat Virginia Tech, 17-16, after Hokies place kicker Brandon Pace missed a 43-yard field goal as time expired at Lane Stadium. But North Carolina State dominated much of the game, sacking Tech quarterback Bryan Randall 10 times.

"I think N.C. State is the toughest ACC team we could start out with," Beamer said of the Wolfpack, which has six starters back from a defense that ranked first in Division I-A in total defense last season, allowing only 221.4 yards per game. "They're so good up front defensively. Early in the year, your defense is probably ahead of your offense because it takes time for the offense to get its timing down."

The Hokies will have 25 more practices over the next 27 days to fine-tune their offense. Virginia Tech has a new quarterback in junior Marcus Vick, who missed all of last season while serving a university-imposed suspension, and will have two new starters on the offensive line. The defense must replace five starters, including three defensive backs.

"The hard part is not getting to the top, it's staying on top," said running back Mike Imoh (Robinson High). "We're the hunted now."

Senior cornerback Jimmy Williams, who returned to school even though he probably would have been selected in one of the first three rounds of April's NFL draft, said the Hokies are ready to accept the challenge of defending their ACC title.

"A lot of the younger guys got ACC championship rings," Williams said. "But they don't want to wear them because they don't feel like they earned them. They want to go out and get their own."

While Vick's play and the development of the offensive line and secondary probably will go a long way toward determining Tech's success this season, Beamer and his players say they also have to develop the chemistry the 2004 team had. The 2003 Hokies, who finished 8-5 and lost four of their last five games, might have been more talented, but last year's group was closer.

"It was the formula that won for us," Imoh said. "Naturally, you don't change that formula that worked for you, and everybody knows that formula was team chemistry."