CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. — CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Virginia is ranked ahead of Oklahoma in the national college football polls. The Cavaliers have won more games than the Sooners during the past three seasons.
Yet Virginia players and coaches admit that a victory against Oklahoma in Sunday's Gator Bowl would rate among the Cavaliers' most significant triumphs ever.
"I think it would be as big as any because the name is Oklahoma," offensive coordinator Tom O'Brien said. "There might not be 10 programs in the country with the name of Oklahoma.
"You read through their press guide, and they're in the top 10 almost every year. I don't know if we at Virginia can aspire to that. I don't know, with our commitment to academics, if we can be in the top 10 every year. But it would be a great win. We'd be in the top 25 three straight years."
In the wake of NCAA sanctions and the forced resignation of coach Barry Switzer after the 1988 season, Oklahoma is "only" 23-10 the past three years. Virginia is 26-9-1.
The Sooners, 8-3 this season, are ranked 20th entering the Gator Bowl, while the Cavaliers (8-2-1) are 19th.
But Oklahoma has tradition: six Associated Press national championships, second only to Notre Dame's eight; 29 previous bowl appearances; Heisman Trophy winners in Billy Vessels, Steve Owens and Billy Sims.
Coach Bud Wilkinson's Oklahoma teams won an NCAA-record 47 consecutive games between 1953 and '57. Since 1967, the Sooners have failed to finish in the top 20 only three times. They placed no lower than seventh in the 10 seasons between 1971 and '80.
Virginia, conversely, lost 28 consecutive games between 1958 and '61, and the Cavaliers have been ranked in the final polls only three times.
"It definitely would help our recruiting a lot," tailback Terry Kirby said of a possible victory. "It would send a message that Virginia is up and coming because in the last two years we've won a conference championship and been to two major bowl games. What more could you ask for? It wasn't really expected of Virginia to be in major bowl games. Now you're going to see it every year."
The Cavaliers have not fared well in previous encounters with the game's royalty. They lost 68-0 at Texas in 1977, 36-13 to Notre Dame in 1990 and 23-22 to Tennessee in last season's Sugar Bowl. They split games against Penn State, losing 42-14 in 1989, winning 14-6 in 1990.
But Virginia has six victories against teams ranked higher than Oklahoma: No. 15 West Virginia in 1965, No. 12 West Virginia in 1984, No. 15 North Carolina State in 1986, No. 12 Penn State in 1989, No. 9 Clemson in 1990 and No. 18 N.C. State this season.
The most significant were the upset of West Virginia in '84 and the triumph against Clemson last season. The Mountaineers were 7-1 and coming off victories against Penn State and Doug Flutie-led Boston College when the 5-1-1 and unranked Cavaliers went to Morgantown, W.Va., and rolled 27-7 to all but clinch their first-ever bowl bid.
Last season's 20-7 victory against Clemson was Virginia's first in the series after 29 consecutive defeats and helped propel the Cavaliers to No. 1 in the polls for three weeks.
Virginia defeated Purdue in the 1984 Peach Bowl and Brigham Young in the 1987 All American Bowl, but neither team was ranked.
"Last year when we were so close to beating Tennessee, we all got the feeling we have the type of program that can beat anybody," tailback Nikki Fisher said. "If we win, the sky's the limit after that point . . . We've been going to bowls, but we need to win."
Virginia coach George Welsh isn't so sure, despite last season's Sugar Bowl defeat and a 31-21 loss to Illinois in the Florida Citrus Bowl two seasons ago.
"I don't know if we have to win," he said. "I always feel the same way about these kind of games. I think it's good for our program, good for our players.