Much of the trip to Florida State this weekend will be familiar for Virginia's football team. Same flight, same field, same stadium full of fans clad in garnet and gold, chanting and chopping as one. Same reigning ACC champions on the home sideline.
The biggest difference will be the Cavaliers themselves. Undefeated after five games, they are ranked sixth, the highest they've been in 14 years. They bear little resemblance to the out-gunned, overwhelmed bunch that lost in Tallahassee two years ago by a deceptively narrow 40-19 margin.
Florida State, which still has lost only once to Virginia, scored the first 33 points that August afternoon and emerged with a rushing total that neatly summarized the game: 397 yards. The Cavaliers used 19 talented but raw freshmen, including 12 members of the touted recruiting class that had arrived on campus just a few weeks earlier.
"On that particular day," Virginia Coach Al Groh said flatly, "Florida State was significantly bigger, stronger, faster and more experienced."
Virginia's young defense allowed Greg Jones, Florida State's bruising tailback, a career-high 173 rushing yards. Three other Seminoles ran for at least 50 yards, helping the team average 6.6 yards per carry.
"It was crazy," recalled Cavs defensive end Kwakou Robinson, who that day was playing in his second college game. "I mean, their line was huge. Their running back was huge. Greg Jones, he's a big dude."
At least nine Cavaliers limped home with significant injuries. Others such as rookie linebacker Darryl Blackstock, run over by Jones on one memorable play, wounded only their pride.
But now Blackstock and classmates such as D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Brennan Schmidt, Brian Barthelmes, Heath Miller and Wali Lundy are third-year starters for the Cavaliers. Marques Hagans, a first-time starter that afternoon in Tallahassee, has been better than any other ACC quarterback this season.
The gap between the teams is smaller than it has been in years, as evidenced by this week's national rankings. For the first time in 13 games against FSU, Virginia will be the higher-ranked team, having leapfrogged the No. 7 Seminoles (4-1, 2-1 ACC) after their uninspired 17-13 win against the same Syracuse team the Cavaliers (5-0, 2-0) trounced a week earlier.
"I feel like our talent level is pretty equal to theirs," senior right guard Elton Brown said.
Those rankings suggest this could be one of the biggest games in the 115-year history of the Virginia football program. Only twice before -- in 1947 and 1952 -- have the Cavaliers been one-half of a matchup of top-10 teams. And though they profess little interest in national polls at this point in the season, Groh and his players recognize the importance of this game as it pertains to their goal of winning the ACC championship. Virginia and Miami are tied for the conference lead, with FSU a half-game behind after its season-opening loss to the Hurricanes.
"I'm looking at this as the biggest game of my life," said senior center Zac Yarbrough, who grew up near Orlando. Beating the Seminoles "would do a lot for our confidence all the way around. I think it would show everyone that we can play with the best."
While they express confidence, the Cavaliers make sure to emphasize their respect for the Seminoles, who look as big, fast, strong and experienced as they did in 2002 and last season, when they scratched out a 19-14 win in Charlottesville after Virginia faltered on a handful of key plays.
"They're still, I think, significantly faster than we are," Groh said, "but historically this has been one of the faster teams in the country. They're able to recruit to that, so they're able to stay fast."
Yet in that regard, as many others, the Cavaliers are far better off than they were on their last visit to Doak Campbell Stadium.
"In the past they were more athletic. They were deeper," senior tailback Alvin Pearman said.
"Now we can trade punch for punch with them across the board. We know that, and I think they know that."
Cavaliers Notes: Starting fullback Jason Snelling likely won't return "for a while," Groh said, because of the ankle sprain he suffered against Clemson. His backup is fifth-year senior Brandon Isaiah. . . .
Virginia began working wide receiver Fontel Mines (collarbone), offensive guard Ian-Yates Cunningham (back) and tight end Jon Stupar (foot) "back into the operation" in practice Monday, Groh said. "What that means [for their availability Saturday] I don't really know until I see some performance." . . .
Freshman defensive end Chris Long also is out indefinitely because of mononucleosis. . . . Ferguson, the left tackle, was named ACC offensive lineman of the week after helping the Cavaliers amass 464 yards, including 239 on the ground, against Clemson. . . . Virginia's Oct. 23 game at Duke will begin at 1 p.m. It will not be televised.