EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- As Georgia Tech was straight-arming its way to an unbeaten record and a share of the national championship last season, there were as many skeptics as believers. Maybe even more.
If a 41-38, last-second victory over then-No. 1 Virginia wasn't convincing enough, then a 45-21 victory over Nebraska in the Florida Citrus Bowl might have done the trick. Oh, you're still not sure?
You are not alone.
"I heard somebody on ESPN predict that we'd lose to Penn State by three touchdowns," Georgia Tech offensive tackle Mike Mooney, a senior from Mount Airy, Md., said yesterday. "Obviously, they still don't respect us."
When the eighth-ranked Yellow Jackets meet No. 7 Penn State in tonight's 1991 season-opening Kickoff Classic at Giants Stadium, they won't be out to prove that a team coached by Bobby Ross can beat one coached by Joe Paterno.
They want to show that last season's 11-0-1 magic carpet ride was not a mirage, a brief moment in the spotlight. "It's a challenge almost," said junior quarterback Shawn Jones. "I want to prove to myself and to others that we can play on that level every year."
It won't be easy. Mooney, a mountain at 6 feet 7, 320 pounds, is the only returning starter on the offensive line. The two top tailbacks, William Bell and Jeff Wright, are out for the season; Bell and backup fullback James Reece were suspended by Ross for stealing books, and Wright broke an ankle last month.
On top of that, the only two games of national importance -- tonight and a Sept. 28 game against Clemson -- will be played in unfriendly surroundings. But Ross, entering his fifth season at Georgia Tech, said that last year's experiences will help the Yellow Jackets.
"For our team, it's been a confidence-builder," said Ross, whose team is riding the nation's longest unbeaten streak, 16 games. "I think it's been very positive. Our players are old enough and mature enough to realize that you're only as good as your next game."
Ross didn't like to see his teams at Maryland ranked among the country's elite, and that attitude hasn't changed. Asked yesterday whether he thought the Yellow Jackets were ranked a little low considering what they had done last season, and who they had coming back on defense, Ross didn't waver.
"We don't really worry about those things," said the man who was voted by his peers, as well as several others, as 1990 Coach of the Year. "You play the season to determine where you end up. That's the bottom line."
The lack of respect is evident not only in the national rankings, but also in the way Jones is regarded. Despite outplaying a more celebrated Shawn Moore in his team's victory over the Cavaliers, and starring in the Citrus Bowl, Jones barely is mentioned among Heisman Trophy candidates.
"It doesn't bother me," said Jones, who has a penchant for coming up with crucial plays in big games. "But I think a lot of guys on this team want to show that last year wasn't a fluke. Georgia Tech is here to stay."
Though Nebraska might not have taken the Yellow Jackets seriously, that won't happen with Penn State tonight. Paterno is familiar with the way Ross' teams at Maryland usually gave Penn State fits, albeit unsuccessfully. And the Nittany Lions have seen enough tape of Jones to know that he is legitimate.
"There's no question that they are a great football team," Paterno said yesterday. "They have a few players, like Shawn Jones, who can dominate a game. They have some fellows who are the best at their position that we will see this year. And I have a tremendous amount of respect for Bobby. His teams are never fancy, but they are always well-prepared."
While last season seems almost like a fantasy to Georgia Tech, reality has arrived. Not in the form of 2-9 and 3-8 seasons, the kind the Yellow Jackets suffered through in Ross' first two years. It is the flip side, the kind most coaches and players would love to have.
"We're one of 20 teams who have a chance to win the national championship," said Ross. "We went through some tough years to get here. I was called 'Coach Loss'. It's very satisfying to see our players enjoying this kind of success."
Said Mooney: "The pressure is there for the first time. People are expecting us to win most of our games. Now it's the big time. We're going to find out if we're worthy of it. Now it's up to us. We're here."
L And Penn State, at least tonight, will try to be in the way.