NEW ORLEANS -- The opponents in tonight's Sugar Bowl have taken different roads to the Superdome. As long and arduous a journey as it has been for an upstart and undefeated Virginia Tech team playing in its first national championship game, the return trip for the Seminoles has been surprisingly bumpy.
It began last season, when Florida State came favored to beat Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz., and went back to Tallahassee with a 23-16 defeat. It continued this season when the Seminoles held onto their No. 1 ranking the entire year, remaining unbeaten despite injuries, off-field controversies and a couple of shaky performances.
Will the disappointment of last year's loss to the Volunteers play into tonight's outcome?
"That's what you hope for," coach Bobby Bowden said yesterday. "You were there last year and got beat. You know how it felt. You also know why you got beat. You look back and see why you got beat, and you try to do something about it. You learn something from that. But even if you do learn something from that, the other team can still beat you if they're better."
Florida State (11-0) will be looking to become the first top-ranked team to go wire-to-wire and the first team in school history to finish without a loss. Virginia Tech (11-0) will be trying to complete its seemingly meteoric rise from obscurity against a program widely considered the most dominant in college football during the 1990s.
But considering that his team was more impressive in beating the season's two common opponents -- the Hokies won decisively over Clemson and Miami, but the Seminoles struggled in each game -- Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said Florida State won't be thinking it can just show up and take home the trophy.
"I don't think there will be any sneaking [up] going on," Beamer said. "I think both teams will give it their best shot. But facts are facts. We are the underdog."
Slightly less than a touchdown favorite, Florida State will do its best to accomplish what none of Virginia Tech's regular-season opponents in 1999 could -- rattle redshirt freshman quarterback Michael Vick and contain fifth-year defensive end Corey Moore. They are considered the two Hokies most likely to affect the outcome of tonight's game.
Vick has been remarkably unflappable for a first-year player, and Moore has been the emotional leader of this team for much of the past two seasons. Moore's outbursts with the media here over the past week have taken the spotlight and some pressure off Vick, though Beamer said each player possesses a bit of a different personality than the one shown in public.
"Sometimes what you see and what your first impressions are is not exactly what it is," said Beamer. "With both of them, you're talking about two people who care a lot about this football team. Two very talented guys, it's not an ego deal with them. It's not about me and what I can get out of it. It's what works good for the football team. To me, they're a lot alike."
As concerned as the Hokies are with stopping Florida State's Peter Warrick, the Seminoles are just as focused on keeping Moore out of their offensive backfield and Vick out of the end zone.
"If you stand up, he can get under you, lift you up and knock you over," Florida State offensive tackle Brett Williams, a redshirt freshman, said of the undersized Moore, the Big East's Defensive Player of the Year the past two seasons. "Those guys on their defensive line are just relentless. They never stop coming."
The Seminoles compare Vick to Georgia Tech's Joe Hamilton, a quarterback who can throw and run. In a 41-35 victory over the Yellow Jackets early in the season, Florida State watched Hamilton complete 22 of 25 passes for 387 yards, while throwing for three touchdowns and running for another. The one difference is that Hamilton was a senior and Vick has played in just 10 games, having missed one with an injury.
"Vick is the major reason they're 11-0, because last year they were 8-3," said Florida State linebacker Tommy Polley, a redshirt junior and a former star at Dunbar High who led the Seminoles in tackles this season. "He's a big part of their offense. He tries to put so much pressure on you. He's just a great athlete, just like Joe Hamilton."
Whether Virginia Tech is athletic enough to stay with Florida State, as Tennessee was last year and Florida was in winning the national championship here in 1996, will be played out on the fast surface inside the Superdome. Whether the Hokies have enough bodies to play with a team that goes two or three deep at nearly every position is another question.
But one thing is certain about these Seminoles: Having overcome the obstacles presented them this season, from a few crucial injuries to the arrest of three players, most notably Warrick, to a couple of narrow victories, they are ready to put last year's defeat in the desert behind them. Their attitude was summed up perfectly -- and succinctly -- by Polley.