CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- The traffic started to build tw hours before kickoff. The stadium was filled to capacity, even though the students were on fall break. The team could be No. 1 in the country this week.
L Are you sure we're talking about the University of Virginia?
Though club ties, khakis and Ray-Bans still are the attire of
choice, things are changing. Not quite State College, Pa., or Ann Arbor, Mich. -- and certainly not Clemson, S.C. -- this once genteel college town has been suddenly, and shockingly, transformed.
"It's a lot different than I can remember," said Caleb Pennock, an usher who has been coming to and working at Virginia football games since 1964. "When you walk around town, everyone is talking about the football team."
It hasn't reached the point where victories are dissected, or players criticized. And there were few complaints about the way the unbeaten No. 2 Cavaliers tore apart North Carolina State (4-3) yesterday, 31-0, before another sellout crowd of 44,300 at Scott Stadium.
But it's getting there.
Consider that before last month's coming-of-age victory over Clemson -- the first win by the Cavaliers over the Tigers -- there was a Friday night pep rally attended by about 13,000 people. Consider that five of the six home games will be sellouts.
And consider this: With top-ranked Michigan's 28-27 loss at home to unranked Michigan State, Virginia should be ranked No. 1 in the nation for the first time in its football history. It has been a quick rise to the top this season for the Cavaliers and their fans, who still were trying to fathom what is taking place.
"The excitement and enthusiasm has poured over into a lot of areas," said Kim Record, Virginia's associate athletic director for marketing and promotions. "Our students are proud of their team. The attention we're getting nationally is unbelievable. It's better than I have ever expected."
So are the Cavaliers. But with each victory -- Virginia is 6-0 going into Saturday's game at Wake Forest -- comes more attention. Yesterday's game drew reporters from as far north as Philadelphia and as far south as Atlanta. There is talk of the Nov. 3 game here against Georgia Tech being put on national television.
It doesn't seem to bother Virginia, or at least its players. Before Michigan lost, head coach George Welsh was dismissing all talk of national championships and undefeated seasons the same way his team dismisses the opposition. Welsh clearly is not interested in the hype.
Asked if the Cavaliers are playing like a top-five team, Welsh scowled. "I don't want to get into the rankings," he said. "We've played only three games in the league and have six games left [overall]."
But the players do not inhabit Welsh's tunnel. They realize that there is going to be more attention, and with it, more pressure. "We really don't like to talk about it, but the underlying fact is that [pressure's] there," said Joe Hall, a senior nose guard from Fort Washington, Md.
The difference in attitude is also noticeable to those who have been here for a while. In past seasons, the game during fall break was a notoriously poor draw, no matter who was coming to town. Hall can see a change in his fellow students.
"They're starting to lose their ties and are coming to the games dressed in orange," said Hall, a fifth-year player.
Andrew Young was standing in the packed student section yesterday, wearing a T-shirt rather than a striped tie. He has been on campus five years and is now in the graduate program. When the rankings came out last week, and Virginia was behind Michigan, which at that time had lost once, he could sense some disappointment.
"I think some people felt we should have been No. 1," he said. "But most people were happy being No. 2. As long as we stay undefeated and play this way, I don't think you'll see too many unhappy people."
It isn't complacency as much as perspective. This is, after all, still Virginia, Mr. Jefferson's university. If they held a pep rally last week, it might have had to be done between midterms in the library.
Though the atmosphere at games is still more reminiscent of the Ivy League than the Southeastern Conference, even the ever-so-polite fans are starting to cheer for things other than the obvious touchdown or big run.
Yesterday, they went wild with every sack made by sophomore end Chris Slade -- he had 4 1/2 -- and again after Jason McMeans' interception in the closing minutes, which helped preserve the shutout. Nothing seems to go unnoticed anymore -- not even Welsh's high-five of Herman Moore after the senior wide-out broke an 83-yard touchdown catch-and-run. It was Moore's second touchdown of the game, his ninth of the season, and the longest of his career.
But there was more talk afterward about Welsh's uncharacteristic high-five. Did you really give a player a high-five, George? "Probably," said Welsh, a little embarrassed that he had been caught. "But it was a big play."