These are the games college football programs spend years building toward, a chance to rise from the ranks of the also-rans to a place among the sport's elite. Over the past four years, Virginia Coach Al Groh has built his team to compete with Florida State, football kings of the ACC for more than a decade.
While Groh admits his team still doesn't have as much strength, speed or depth as the Seminoles, the Cavaliers might be as close to Florida State's talent as they've ever been. Tonight, Groh will find out how good his team really is when the sixth-ranked Cavaliers play seventh-ranked Florida State at sold-out Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee.
"It'll be a big test," Groh said, "a test we've been preparing for a long time."
Certainly, Virginia hasn't had this much to gain, or lose, since it was ranked No. 1 in the nation more than a decade ago. With a victory, the Cavaliers can take sole possession of first place in the ACC and win on the road against a top-10 team for the first time in school history. A win also would be just Virginia's second ever over Florida State.
"It will put us in first place [in the ACC] if we win; that's what it will do," Groh said. "What any of these games do for our program, we'll find out in December."
Tonight's nationally televised game is Virginia's most important since the then-No. 1 Cavaliers lost at Georgia Tech, 41-38, on Nov. 3, 1990. If anything, that game proved how narrow the window is for teams to move up to the elite level. Virginia was never able to recover from that loss under coach George Welsh, losing three of its last four games in 1990, and then contending for an ACC championship only once in Welsh's final 10 seasons. Since the end of the 1990 season, the Cavs have been ranked No. 10 or higher for only six weeks during the previous 13 seasons combined.
After Welsh retired following the 2000 season, Groh left the NFL's New York Jets to return to his alma mater, and after a 5-7 record in his first season as coach, the Cavaliers showed marked improvement in each of the past two seasons. But, clearly, Groh was building his program to this year, when the players he recruited became juniors and seniors. And the players have responded, running over their first five opponents by an average of 31 points. Virginia (5-0, 2-0) has never won in Tallahassee, where the Seminoles (4-1, 2-1) have gone 49-1 since joining the ACC in 1992. The Cavaliers have come close to winning at Doak Campbell Stadium only once, losing 31-24 in 1996; Florida State has won each of the other five games by 24 points or more, including a 40-19 victory two years ago.
But even Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden, who has a 13-1 record against Virginia, says this is a different Cavaliers team. Last week, Bowden watched on television as Virginia dismantled Clemson, 30-10, in Charlottesville. The Tigers are coached by his son, Tommy Bowden.
"They're not coming in here with a lucky 5-0 record," Bowden said. "They're coming in here with a team as good as any of them. . . . When I saw [Virginia] last week against Clemson, they looked as good as anybody I've seen. Virginia just looks doggone good. They are as good as they are saying."
It is only the 20th time during Bowden's 29 seasons at Florida State that a higher-ranked team has visited Tallahassee, and the Cavaliers are the first ACC team to accomplish that feat. Even so, Virginia is still looking for validation. The five teams the Cavaliers have beaten have a combined record of 10-19, and none of them have a winning record. Beating Florida State, which has won the ACC championship in all but one of its 12 seasons in the ACC, would prove that Virginia has finally arrived.
While Groh said his players are confident, he also knows they're attempting to win where no other Virginia team has won before.
"They can see their performance, so they ought to have confidence in themselves," Groh said. "By the same token, they are attempting to do something they haven't done before. We're playing a team in which we haven't had positive results, so we're just envisioning something that we want to have happen."
On paper, the teams are strikingly similar. For the first time since 1987 -- a span of 200 games -- the Seminoles have run for more yards than they've gained passing in four straight games. Florida State is led by tailbacks Leon Washington and Lorenzo Booker, who have combined to run for 829 yards in the past four games. Virginia also relies on a tailback-by-committee, with Wali Lundy, Alvin Pearman and Michael Johnson sharing carries. Both teams have big and experienced offensive lines, and each team's linebackers are as athletic as any in the nation.
Florida State's offensive plan is out of necessity; the Seminoles are playing unproven quarterback Wyatt Sexton, who will be making his third start. Senior quarterback Chris Rix has missed the past two games because of a high ankle sprain, and was on the verge of being benched before he was hurt. Virginia quarterback Marques Hagans also is inexperienced, but he has completed 70.1 percent of his passes with only one interception in 97 attempts.
For the first time, the Seminoles may have more concerns than the Cavaliers.
"They have got speed, but they are more athletic," Bowden said. "Their linemen are athletic, and their tight ends and receivers are more athletic. You can see the job that [Groh] has done there in four years with the groups that he has recruited. They are a top-five or top-six football team, in my opinion."