CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Virginia football coach George Welsh treats polls with indifference, if not contempt. So, he's not offended that four Atlantic Coast Conference teams are ranked ahead of his in the latest Associated Press Top 25.
In fact, he kind of likes it this way. If he could be king for a season, he would play the schedule and avoid the hype that goes with it.
"I would rather be in our position than to be ranked too high," he said.
But, once again, he probably won't get his wish for anonymity. The No. 25 Cavaliers seem to have most of the ingredients necessary for another bowl run. In all, 17 starters return from an 8-3-1 team, and the Cavaliers will be at home against No. 4 Florida State, No. 13 Clemson, No. 18 N.C. State and No. 24 Georgia Tech.
But Virginia has lost its past three bowl games and collapsed in 1990 after being ranked No. 1 in early November.
"If I weren't a student here," said defensive end Chris Slade, "I'd say, 'They have a program on the rise, but they can't win the big one.' I couldn't get mad at that because it's true."
The Cavaliers will open their season Saturday at 7 p.m. in Scott Stadium against Maryland, with first-year coach Mark Duffner, who has introduced the Terps to the run-and-shoot offense.
The last time Welsh saw such an offense, it was in 1987, it was wearing the colors of South Carolina and it was scoring 58 points.
"It depends on what they do," said Welsh, when asked how he expected to do against the Terps' version of the run-and-shoot. His team has been watching tape of Holy Cross -- coached by Duffner last season -- for several weeks. If the Cavaliers see something familiar on the field, Welsh said, they should do all right.
"If they do what we have practiced against, that will help us," said Welsh, who added that he expects Maryland to mix it up.
Maryland got one of its two victories last year in the season opener against Virginia, 17-6. Extra practice is Welsh's way of avoiding a repeat.
"We practiced more against the opposition this year than we ever have before," Welsh said yesterday at his weekly news conference. "We needed to do something different."
Welsh came here from Navy in December 1981 to rebuild a lifeless program. And it appears his 11th campaign will continue the process. He is sounding more optimistic than he usually does at this time of year.
He said it was not a perfect preseason, however, with injuries to two key offensive linemen and a lack of depth at wide receiver.
"What scares me the most is the injuries and inconsistency on offense," he said. "I like this team's enthusiasm. I think we can be a physical team on both sides of the ball. I hope we'll be rested and ready to go this week."
The good feeling is grounded in the Cavaliers' defense.
In 1990, Virginia surrendered 35 or more points on four occasions. The trouble hastened the departure of defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani and ushered in Rick Lantz.
Lantz instituted an aggressive 4-3 setup last year and Virginia held opponents to 10.8 points per game, the fourth-lowest figure in the country. Most of that unit is back.
Slade, called the nation's best pass rusher by The Sporting News, is the school's career leader in sacks.
"We could be a really good defense if everybody starts to play together," Slade said. "When you're playing on defense, you have a feeling about when you're doing the right things. I've gotten to the point where I'm comfortable with what I'm doing."
Virginia is also two deep at all three linebacker spots. That's a pleasure for position coach Mike Archer, former Louisiana State head coach.
Cornerbacks Greg Jeffries and Greg McClellan and safety Keith Lyle return to a secondary that only allowed one touchdown pass last year.
Slade and running back Terry Kirby, the defensive end's fourth cousin, make up what the school's publicity department calls "Crush and Rush."
One of the most talked-about high school stars before signing with Virginia in 1989, Kirby spent three years in the shadows of other offensive stars such as Shawn Moore, Herman Moore, Matt Blundin and Nikki Fisher.
Kirby never has carried more than 23 times in a game. But this year he will be the main man in the Cavaliers' offense. He needs a little more than 1,000 yards to become Virginia's all-time leading rusher.
Kirby should get the opportunities to reach that milestone because, for the third time since 1987, the Cavaliers enter a season with a relatively untested, fifth-year senior starting at quarterback. Bobby Goodman is this year's winner, and at 5 feet 11, he's unlikely to follow his four predecessors into the NFL.
Still, Virginia coaches believe in Goodman, who performed admirably in two starts last year. His arm isn't particularly strong, but it is accurate.
"I've waited my turn, and now it's here," Goodman said. "I'm going to make the most of this. This is what I came here for -- to play football and to play quarterback."