CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- To answer your question, the University of Virginia football team is for real. Just not real enough.
If you want to talk surreal, though, you've come to the right place.
In the Augustlike heat of November, playing before students dressed in shirts and ties and shorts, trying to make history on a field that had been set afire -- though not exactly like Georgia -- in what must have been a midnight prank, Virginia lost a game, a No. 1 ranking, probably a conference championship, maybe a New Year's bowl and certainly an unlikely season full of wonder and awe.
It was a weird and strange day, topped off by a weird and wonderful football game, which had some of everything, if you don't want to include defense. Somebody did burn a hole in the middle of the Scott Stadium carpet very early Saturday morning, and then two offenses burned up the rest for an entire afternoon, combining for 975 yards.
But it was more than simply a football game. It was more than one botched offensive series by Virginia (which, late in the fourth quarter, failed on four shots from the 1-yard-line) and more than a great comeback by Georgia Tech and more than a field goal with seven seconds remaining to give Tech a 41-38 victory. It was even more than an exposed Virginia defense, which didn't look sufficiently solid to support a team that would be considered for a national championship.
What was so special was that this was Virginia that was No. 1, Virginia that was being courted by all the bowls, Virginia that has, with quarterback Shawn Moore and wide receiver Herman Moore, the most exciting offense in college football.
This was Virginia, the academic school where the students for a hundred years went to games only for the chance to dress up and party and where now they were going a little bit crazy. The last time Virginia was ranked in the top 10 was 1952. In the following year, the university, reeling from this success, very nearly decided to de-emphasize sports.
"It was a almost as if people here would be embarrassed to have a winning football team," said ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan, who was once the Virginia athletic director.
That has all changed under coach George Welsh. It changed to the point that Virginia was 7-0, ranked first in all the polls, right there on national TV, playing host to hundreds of media types and before a record crowd of 49,700, looking, for all the world, like the University of Alabama instead of the University of Chicago.
And now it's gone.
"From an emotional standpoint, this is devastating," said Herman Moore, who had nine receptions for 234 yards and a game that, had the score been different, he'd want to replay every day of his life.
Herman Moore was the last Virginia player on the field. While Georgia Tech players celebrated, Moore limped off, looking forlorn. He could not believe what he had seen.
He saw Shawn Moore pass for a school record of 344 yards, and he saw Georgia Tech quarterback Shawn Jones pass for 257. He saw Virginia leading, 28-14, at the half. He saw Virginia stop Georgia Tech only once in the second half.
"We screwed up," Welsh would say. "We had plenty of chances."
"We lost this game," said defensive tackle Joe Hall. "The offense did its job. We lost it."
But the offense, which turned the ball over twice, slipped too. In the second half, when neither team could stop the other, Virginia had a second-and-one from just outside the 1. On one rush, the Cavaliers got a first down, but not a touchdown. They followed that good fortune with a run for no gain, then a motion penalty. When they got back to the 1, Moore passed for a touchdown, only to have it called back when Virginia had 10 players on the field. On fourth-and-six, Welsh called for a field goal that would tie the game at 38-38 with 2:34 to play.
Should he have gone for the touchdown? Probably not. You don't go for touchdowns on fourth-and-six.
"I hoped the defense would rise up for a change," Welsh said.
The defense didn't. Georgia Tech did fumble once on the final drive, but recovered the ball. Otherwise, the only drama was whether the field goal would be good. In the final drive, Jones completed three passes, setting up the kick that put a rejuvenated Tech team at 7-0-1.
"We still have more games to play," Welsh said. "I never bought that this was the game of the century."
Except, for Virginia, it was. This was the game that Virginia had to win to set up a probable national championship game in a New Year's bowl and make a season that no one could ever forget. It's still a great season, of course. But it's believable. What had made Virginia's shot at a national title so remarkable is that no one remotely familiar with Virginia history could quite ever believe it would happen.