Virginia making like Wake

The Baltimore Sun

College Park -- At the beginning of the season, when Maryland safety Christian Varner saw that Virginia lost to Wyoming, he, like many, wrote off the Cavaliers for 2007.

"After I saw that loss to Wyoming, I was like, 'Wow, they lost? Whoa, man, they're going to struggle this year,'" Varner said. "Even I said that, knowing how the game is."

Virginia, which was picked by the media to finish fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division, has since won six straight - the program's longest winning streak since 2002. The Cavaliers (6-1, 3-0 ACC) enter tonight's game at Maryland (4-2, 1-1) in a tie with Virginia Tech for first place in their division.

While Virginia hasn't beaten a ranked opponent, and four of its past six victories have come against teams with losing records, the Cavaliers have put themselves in a position to be this year's version of Wake Forest - the unlikely ACC champion.

"It's very possible," Varner said. "A lot of people counted them out after that loss the first game of the season. A lot of people scratched them off their list. They fought back; they scratched from the bottom of the barrel. Now they're at the top of the conference. It's very possible for them to do the same thing Wake Forest did.

"Right now they're sitting pretty. The only competition they've really got for their side of the conference is Virginia Tech. If they handle their business, they'll be in the ACC championship for their side."

Virginia coach Al Groh said he had confidence in his team from the start, but that its future remains uncertain.

"Whether we're a surprise or not, there's a long way to go to determine that," he said. "We could be a good surprise or we could be a bad surprise here over the course of the rest of the season."

"They know that there's a lot out there to accomplish, but this is a team that not just says it, but clearly understands and believes that the only way anything is going to be accomplished is to do it one game at a time."

Virginia's average margin of victory is 8.5 points, and four of its wins have come by five points or fewer. Virginia's ACC wins have come against three opponents who are a combined 3-9 in the conference. When asked this week whether the Cavaliers were as legitimate as their 6-1 record indicates, Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said: "It doesn't matter what I think.

"They're 6-1. That's pretty legit. They're young, but they've got experience. The more they win, the more confidence they get. That's how things happen."

North Carolina coach Butch Davis, whose team lost by two points to Virginia on Sept. 15, said the Cavaliers were efficient in all three phases of the game.

"They rarely beat themselves," Davis said. "Certainly, Chris Long [son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Howie Long] has got to be one of the premier defensive linemen, not only in the ACC but in the country. They do a very good job of running the football."

Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey said "only time will tell" how successful Virginia can be this year. The Yellow Jackets lost to Maryland and Virginia this year.

"I think they were picked about fourth in the division, and we know how that feels," Gailey said. "Wake knows how that feels. They obviously have played very well to this point. I can't speculate who's going to be where. They're doing something right. They're winning the close games. That's what you try to do. If you can win a bunch of them, you've got yourself a good year. So far they've been able to do that."

So much so that they have earned the No. 19 ranking in the first Bowl Championship Series poll released this week. It's an accomplishment Groh said he puts "zero" stock into.

"We believe that the only spots that are of any significance right now is if you're ranked one or two," he said. "Because if you're ranked one or two, that means just keep on winning and you'll be in the championship game. Otherwise, those things are going to change dramatically before the season is over.

"All we're really interested in doing is trying to win our division. If we win our division, then we get to be in the championship game. Everybody in our program knows the only thing that counts is what our standing is in our division in the ACC rather than where we're ranked nationally."

And right now, they're at the top.

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