NEW ORLEANS, JAN. 2 -- Perhaps these narrow, last-second defeats wouldn't have been so painful if the University of Virginia football team knew it was a cinch to pass this way again. The Miamis, Notre Dames, Penn States and Oklahomas can eventually shrug off a heartbreaking loss and get ready for the next chance.

Do we really know Virginia will get another such chance very soon? A chance to challenge for a national title and play on New Year's night? The Cavaliers were too busy pondering another close, come-from-ahead defeat to consider such questions in the wake of the 23-22 Sugar Bowl loss to Tennessee at the Superdome.

Virginia's fourth defeat of the season was no different than the first and second, the ones that turned their chase for a national championship into a fight for national acceptance.

Tennessee came from 16 points down to win. With 31 seconds left, Tony Thompson's one-yard dive gave the Volunteers their first lead of the game. Tennessee scored 20 points in the fourth quarter, but it would be unfair to blame this loss completely on the defense, which had to accept most of the blame for losses to Georgia Tech, Maryland and Virginia Tech.

Quarterback Shawn Moore, his dislocated right thumb hindering his ability to throw, failed to complete any of his eight passes in the second half. Wide receiver Herman Moore, arguably the best player on the field for either team, caught only two passes in the first half.

Once again, Virginia was left to consider what might have been. If Shawn Moore had been healthy, "I think we definitely would have won," cornerback Jason Wallace said. "Some key pass plays that are usually on the money, in the bank, we missed . . . Especially on third down in the third quarter that would have changed the complexion of the game. He was doing a lot of other things that helped emotionally carry this team on, but just came up short."

Coach George Welsh played Moore because he threw well in practice and because Moore is quite capable of moving the team even without completing passes, as he did during two long third-quarter drives, one that ended in a goal-line interception by Tennessee.

Welsh lamented not having the chance to kick a field goal, which would have given the Cavaliers a nearly insurmountable cushion. Moore said he could feel "the weakness in my thumb," but didn't want to blame the loss on that. "It was frustrating," he said. "It took away from doing some things we ordinarily do."

The season, after the loss to Georgia Tech, became a lesson in frustration. As hard as the Cavaliers tried to change the direction of the season Tuesday night, they were unable. The Cavaliers held the ball 13 minutes longer than Tennessee, converted a much higher percentage of third downs (58 percent to 36 percent) and rushed for nearly 100 more yards.

The game plan was sound. Instead of hitting with big strikes, they tried to keep the ball on the ground and control the clock. "It was a great game plan and they executed it to near perfection for a while," Tennessee Coach Johnny Majors said.

But the season started rolling the wrong way for the Cavaliers that afternoon when Georgia Tech came to town and they weren't able to stop it. The Volunteers made every play and every second count in the fourth quarter of what Majors called the best comeback one of his teams has had in his 23 years of head coaching.

Welsh will have to wait until another time for such a feeling.

Shawn Moore leaves, but Terry Kirby is a sophomore, Nikki Fisher is a junior, Gary Steele is a sophomore, which means the Cavaliers will return their three best running backs. The big question mark is Herman Moore, one of the five best players in the country, according to many NFL scouts.

Moore, a redshirt junior, has a decision to make. Healthy, scouts feel he is a can't-miss pro. In a relatively poor draft, which this one is, Moore probably can not go wrong by coming out of school early.

Last year's 10-2 season combined with this season's big exposure early should help the coaches recruit some speed on defense, where it is sorely needed. Pass rusher Chris Slade, who slowed considerably after starting like a house afire, will have to learn how to play an entire season.

Virginia's cupboard won't be bare. But as the Cavaliers found out this season, more than talent has to be in place to turn a dream season into reality.