NEW ORLEANS, DEC. 31 -- Virginia's grand preseason visions of a national title and an undefeated season have been long forgotten here. Self-respect is the main motivation for the Cavaliers Tuesday night in the Sugar Bowl.

Virginia (8-3), by virtue of an informal bid offered before it dropped its final two games to Maryland and Virginia Tech, will face 10th-ranked Tennessee (8-2-2) at the Superdome in a game lacking in luster if not in tangible incentives.

"It would have been better for us if Virginia had been highly ranked," said Tennessee offensive tackle Charles McRae. "We'd have had more to gain that way. The national championship picture is out for both teams. We've had our chance at that and it's gone. Now it's a battle of pride."

Tennessee, the Southeastern Conference champion, brings its own baggage of broken dreams into the game, including the loss of 1989 all-SEC tailback Chuck Webb to a knee injury in game two against Pacific and a Nov. 10 loss to Notre Dame that ended any hopes of a national title.

Still, the Volunteers have been quick this week to pronounce their success against a schedule that included five bowl teams -- and likely a sixth if Florida was not on probation -- as evidence against a relatively low ranking.

"I don't think anybody has anything to make apologies about whatsoever," Tennessee Coach Johnny Majors said. "We're a very few feet from contending for a national championship. But we're not, and we have to deal with that."

For Virginia, the game will provide the last chance to salvage a consolation prize from a lost magical season that included a three-week reign as the nation's No. 1 team, a first-ever victory over Clemson, and the unlikely goal of a national championship for a team that had never appeared in a bowl until 1984 and was 3-8 as recently as 1986.

Thirteen Virginia seniors will start their final games, including quarterback Shawn Moore, who was named the starter Sunday after a prolonged rehabilitation from a dislocated thumb injury six weeks ago. The game also may provide the last amateur showcasing of redshirt junior Herman Moore, who will announce within two weeks his decision on whether he will enter this year's NFL draft.

Both coaches have pledged that the teams will strike mirror images of each other, which would seem likely since Majors and Virginia's George Welsh have been friends since the mid-1970s when Welsh was at Navy and Majors coached Pittsburgh. Their wives have remained close and assistants from Tennessee and Virginia have visited each other on several occasions to compare offensive schemes.

"We do a lot of the same things," Welsh said. "Our philosophy is a lot alike on offense. But sometimes these games go the other way and the defense takes over."

The game will mark the first time two former Sugar Bowl participants have coached against each other. Welsh and Majors have designed balanced attacks centered on big-play receivers and ball-control running games.

The tradeoff for Virginia has been a defense composed of lesser athletes, although Welsh insists it hasn't been by design. But a 41-38 loss to Georgia Tech after a 7-0 start only confirmed what Welsh preached earlier:

The Cavaliers' defense was not the counterpart to what was for much of the season the nation's top offense.

Two more defeats followed, including a 38-13 drubbing against Virginia Tech Nov. 24 that left defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani with five weeks to find some answers.

Welsh said the changes will include more blitzing by defensive end Chris Slade, Virginia's leading pass rusher who said at a Charlottesville news conference two weeks ago he was bewildered over not being allowed to rush the quarterback more often during the last month of the season.

"Tomorrow night we'll be a better football team than we were the last couple weeks of the season," Welsh said. "Bowl games to me are like opening games. I think most coaches feel that way. You don't know what to expect. You have more time for the defense to practice against a particular offense. That should help the defense. That doesn't mean it will."

To a man, the Virginia defensive players insist their renewed intensity will serve as adequate preparation for Tennessee, which balances its attack around tailback Tony Thompson (1,261 yards) and explosive wide receiver Carl Pickens (53 catches, 917 receptions).

"All of a sudden all of the little things blew up," Cavaliers safety Keith McMeans said. "If we had played this game immediately after the {Virginia} Tech game, we'd have been too far down to come back. The break may be the difference. We know we can play with them."