NEW ORLEANS -- What do the Virginia football team and Sweet'N Low have in common?

Neither belongs in a Sugar Bowl.

Heh, heh, heh.

That's one of the jokes going around about the Virginia football team here this week. Once the top-ranked team in college football, you would have to consult one of those Casey Kasem Top 40 polls to find the Cavaliers now. Because the bowl officials are so greedy, they jumped the gun and invited Virginia to play here before the Cavaliers' sweet season turned sour.

The bowl people weren't the only suckers. Some fool using my name wrote seven games into the season that Virginia was the best team in the country, better than Notre Dame, Miami, Colorado, Georgia Tech, Texas, Tennessee, all of 'em. As it turns out, the Cavaliers aren't even the best team in the state (they lost to Virginia Tech) or the area (they lost to Maryland).

You could make the argument (though I won't) that Virginia is one substitution from playing for the national title.

If the second tight end had been on the field when Shawn Moore threw that nullified go-ahead touchdown pass against Georgia Tech, the Cavaliers wouldn't have gone into the tank. They never would have lost to Maryland (meaning Shawn Moore wouldn't have been injured) with so much on the line, and don't even mention Virginia Tech. There wouldn't even be a discussion over who is No. 1. By beating Tennessee on New Year's night, Virginia would be No. 1.

As is, the Sugar Bowl has all the significance of an NFL preseason game. That's why the Virginia team has been the butt of jokes all week, why Coach George Welsh and his players have been forced to defend themselves all week, as people wonder why in the world they should take these 8-3 Cavaliers seriously.

"We have a lot of things to prove," tailback Nikki Fisher said. "First of all, that we are a top 20-caliber team. There have been a lot of jokes in the press, that we don't deserve to be here. When we take the field Tuesday night, that's one of the things we have to prove -- that we deserve to be here."

The offense does. With Shawn Moore back in the lineup, there's no reason to think he, Herman Moore, Terry Kirby and Fisher won't score the 40 points they averaged all season. Of course, that wasn't enough to beat three of the final four opponents. After allowing 80 points the first seven games, the Cavaliers allowed 122 in the three losses. Who's the defensive coordinator anyway, Paul Westhead?

"It's not unnatural," Welsh said Monday, "for the offensive players to say, 'Hey, what's happening on defense?' "

Asked for his explanation of the final month of the season, Welsh said, "Something happened the last week, which I can't explain."

Virginia's swoon isn't for Welsh to explain. He put together a team that could challenge for a national championship and the players let him down miserably. They're the ones with the explaining to do.

"We've fallen off the last few weeks of the season," defensive back Tony Covington said. "Hey, things fall apart sometimes. . . . After the Georgia Tech loss {which ended the undefeated season}, a lot of us lost confidence, not in ourselves but in each other. There wasn't the same intensity. There hasn't been the same intensity since the Clemson game {the second of the season}. That was the most incredible intensity I've ever been involved with. After the game I was just drained. Each ensuing week we were making more and more mistakes."

Cornerback Keith McMeans said, "We lost a lot of the fundamentals. Missing tackles, being a step slow here and there -- it all adds up. There was a lot of pressure and publicity that we weren't used to. Everything was so easy for a while. Our offense was blowing people out and {the defense} was holding people in check. All of a sudden all of the little things blew up. If we had played this game {the Sugar Bowl} immediately after the {Virginia} Tech game, we'd have been too far down to come back."

Another cornerback, Jason Wallace, had a bottom-line view on Virginia's roller-coaster season: "We've forgotten the season," he said. "It's a one-game season."

Center Trevor Ryals said, "We pretty much made up our minds before we left that we weren't going to come down here and live it up on Bourbon Street. We really want to win this one. We've had some bad things happen to our team but bad things can happen to anyone, so it's how you bounce back. We're trying to get back to our game."

Virginia will be afforded a little slack when Bobby Ross's Georgia Tech team beats Nebraska to win the national title. That and a victory over an explosive Tennessee team might make this season just a bit more palatable.

An 8-3 record and a trip to the Sugar Bowl certainly isn't a bad season; in fact, by all standards at Virginia, it's a fine one. But it's very reminiscent of the 1985 season of Maryland. After a preseason of incredible, perhaps even unfair hype, the Terrapins went 8-3 with losses in at least two games they should have won. Another wonderful story was ruined. The point is, expectations change all the perceptions.

It's a one-game season, indeed. Shawn and Herman Moore, Kirby and Fisher have the chance to show they form the nucleus of the best offensive team in the country. Who knows if the defense can hold the Vols under 50? Welsh says bowl games, because they come more than a month after the regular season ends, are more like season openers. Virginia should be so lucky.