CHARLOTTESVILLE, DEC. 17 -- Final exams ended this afternoon at the University of Virginia. And while most of the students departed quickly, the football team gathered to begin preparing for the Sugar Bowl, ever wary of the lessons learned during the most educational of semesters.

Along the way, Virginia lost four offensive starters, all of whom could return for the New Year's Day game against 10th-ranked Tennessee.

Offensive linemen Chris Borsari (broken leg) and Chris Stearns (back) will begin practicing this week. Quarterback Shawn Moore, who had the cast removed from his right thumb Thursday, will try to throw by Wednesday. "It's going to be sore for a while, but I feel good about it," said Moore, who pronounced himself on schedule for full recovery by game day.

Tight end Bruce McGonnigal, who bruised his left kidney and spleen in a freak accident in October, will have a CAT scan Friday and remains questionable for the game. "I still plan on being ready," said McGonnigal. "The question is whether I can take a hit or not."

Backup Matt Blundin, a reserve forward on the basketball team who started at quarterback against Virginia Tech after Moore dislocated his thumb against Maryland, stands to lead the team in frequent flier mileage over the holidays. After football practice Thursday, Blundin will fly to Huntington, W.Va., to join the basketball team against Marshall, then return for football practice Friday. He'll go home to Pennsylvania for Christmas, fly to New Orleans the next day, and leave following the Sugar Bowl for Milwaukee, where the basketball team faces Marquette Jan. 2.

This season Virginia ran the gamut -- from a No. 15 preseason ranking to a three-week reign at No. 1 to a plunge out of the polls following three losses in its last four games. But most distressing of all remains the absence of an answer to the ever-burning question: What turned a team of Mr. Octobers into November pretenders?

"We were playing decent defense until November. We're going to try to get back to that," said Coach George Welsh in response to the most popular theory, that a defense that surrendered 124 points in November -- after allowing just 80 in the first seven games -- never emerged as an adequate counterpart to Virginia's vaunted offense. "You can't change your whole defense. . . . You don't have enough practices to do it."

"We lost a lot of our confidence," tackle Paul Collins said. "We started questioning ourselves and pointing fingers rather than just playing. Somewhere we just lost that spark."

Welsh pledged to institute curfews to head off revelry in New Orleans, wary of the distractions that befell his team last year at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla., site of the school's first-ever New Year's Day bowl appearance -- a 31-21 loss to Illinois, quarterbacked by 1990 No. 1 NFL draft pick Jeff George. Virginia's headquarters in New Orleans are just several blocks away from the French Quarter.

"It's a big temptation," said Collins, who lived in New Orleans for seven years. "A lot of guys are going to go down there and just be amazed. Last year things just got out of hand. I think we've learned from that."

Still the most daunting test will come from the Tennessee football team, the Cavaliers' last chance to salvage some consolation for the lost dream of an undefeated season and a national championship.

"We've had to deal with a lot of criticism," wide receiver Herman Moore said. "Now there's a sense among people as to whether we belong in the Sugar Bowl. That's something we've more or less thrown to the side. We know we have to play well to salvage anything out of all this."