The week after a loss to Georgia Tech ruined Virginia's hopes for an undefeated season, the Cavaliers came back with a solid victory over North Carolina. Afterward, they claimed they had righted themselves, that they were feeling good about themselves again, that they would finish the regular season as strong as they had started it.
The college football world believed. The Fiesta Bowl called, then the Sugar Bowl called. Everything in Virginia's world was right again.
But now, after following a loss to Maryland with Saturday's 38-13 debacle at Virginia Tech, the Cavaliers are at a loss. They remain headed for the Sugar Bowl and a matchup against the Southeastern Conference champion, but their world has collapsed. No national championship. No Atlantic Coast Conference championship. Probably no top-25 ranking unless they win on New Year's Day. There's nothing wrong with an 8-3 record -- unless, of course, you began 7-0.
"I really don't know" what happened, said junior wide receiver Herman Moore. . . . "At first I thought maybe we weren't playing with enough emotion, that we weren't making the big plays like we were at the beginning. But right now I don't know what it is. Teams are coming out and they're playing better against us than teams did in the first part of the season. I think that's a big part."
Becoming the nation's top-ranked team certainly made Virginia a target. Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia Tech also are considerably better than Kansas, Navy, Duke, William and Mary and Wake Forest -- five of the Cavaliers' first seven opponents. There also were injuries to four senior starters from their souped-up offense: tight end Bruce McGonnigal, right guard Chris Borsari, left guard Chris Stearns and quarterback Shawn Moore. But there may be more.
Said senior wide receiver Derek Dooley: "We've been playing tougher teams than before, injuries, you can just go on and on. But the mark of a true champion is that they can respond to that kind of adversity and still win. We haven't done that."
"It's nothing we can work on in the gameplan," sophomore defensive end Chris Slade said. "It's nothing we can do physically. Now, it's all up in the mind. It's getting back on track mentally."
All Coach George Welsh said Saturday was that his team probably would not practice until at least Friday. "They need at least a week away," said Welsh, who added he had things to tell his players, but decided to hold most of them inside until they have reconvened. "Maybe it's psychological now," Welsh said. "It feeds on itself. The offense makes a mistake, then the defense can't hold up. Things have changed a little bit right now. We're not as good on offense and we're giving up too many big plays defensively."
Through the first seven games, only Division I-AA William and Mary scored more than 14 points against the Cavaliers, who held Clemson to seven and shut out North Carolina State.
"I know we have not been playing together like we had been," senior cornerback Tony Covington said. "We've lost that continuity. I don't know where we lost it, but we'll find it."
Even as Saturday's loss was just beginning to sink in, the Cavaliers seemed to be finding at least some perspective, some resolve.
"I'm not embarrassed," Dooley said of playing in the Sugar Bowl. "I think we started off well, and had a great thing going for a while. The thing is you always remember what happens last. Had we gone 0-3 to start off the year and then won eight straight, everybody would think it was a great season. So I think when we look back at everything later down the road, sure we're going to be hurt and sure we'll feel like we should have won these games, but we'll have to look at the big picture."
Asked how he planned to re-energize his team, Welsh responded forcefully: "I don't know, but we're going to do it."