LANDOVER, Md. - It's been a while since Virginia Tech entered a season unranked, with modest expectations. A win over No. 1 Southern California would change perceptions of this year's Hokies in a hurry.
"If we can shake things up the first game, there's no telling what the future holds for us," defensive end Jim Davis said.
The Hokies and Trojans play the first big game of the season tonight in the Black Coaches Association Classic at FedEx Field, home of the Washington Redskins.
USC opens its title defense without All-American Mike Williams. The NCAA on Thursday denied the wide receiver's request to regain his eligibility.
USC rejoined college football's elite with a national championship last season. Virginia Tech slipped out of the class of perennial title contenders with an 8-5 record.
The Hokies are entering the season unranked for the first time since 1998, the year before Michael Vick took them to a national title game.
Last season, Virginia Tech climbed to No. 3 in the polls before losing five of seven - including the Insight Bowl to California.
The luster clearly has come off the Hokies. Now they are looking to get it back, and no better way to do that than to knock off No. 1, which Virginia Tech has never done in six tries. USC is a 171/2-point favorite.
"Yeah, it's a huge opportunity for us as a ballclub to go out there and gain some respect," quarterback Bryan Randall said.
Randall has the top job to himself this season after sharing it last year with Marcus Vick, Michael's little brother who was suspended from school for getting into trouble with the law in the offseason.
No matter who has been at quarterback for the Hokies in recent years, they've had terrific tailbacks to lean on in Lee Suggs and Kevin Jones. Cedric Humes, who had 5.8 yards a carry last season, takes the top spot after Jones left early for the NFL.
The Trojans lost several stars from last season's 12-1 squad, but return quarterback Matt Leinart.
USC's biggest concern may be a series of offseason distractions - some of which are about to become in-season distractions.
Williams tried to enter the NFL draft after his sophomore year but was stymied by a court ruling. USC has receivers with speed and ability, but few with game experience.
"You can't compare anyone to Mike, but we have a lot of great young players," said Leinart, who threw for 3,556 yards and 38 TDs in his first season as a starter.
The Trojans will be without talented tailback Hershel Dennis, who has been suspended for breaking team rules.
The Trojans are breaking in four new starters on the offensive line. They are sure to be a target for a Virginia Tech defense that likes to bring pressure.
"They're a very aggressive defense, they like to blitz a lot and they use a lot of man coverage," Leinart said. "They're going to be a good test for us."