JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- With a police escort, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden worked his way through the crowded hotel lobby and stepped onto the escalator, drawing reverent glances and some words of caution.
"We're going to beat you," one Virginia Tech fan yelled Bowden's way.
A lot has changed in the two years since the underdog Hokies played Bowden's team for the 1999 national championship in the Sugar Bowl.
Even in losing 46-29, the Hokies acquitted themselves well, cementing their status as a schools on the rise.
And when the teams meet Tuesday in the Gator Bowl, the No. 15 Hokies will be favored to give their 22 seniors a victorious sendoff, while the No. 24 Seminoles hope to show more progress in their youth movement.
"I believe they have arrived," Bowden said of the Hokies (8-3). "They're kind of the new kid on the block, but they are on the block."
The Seminoles (7-4) have all but owned the block in recent years, playing for three straight national titles and finishing with a least 10 victories and in the top five of the final poll for 14 years in a row.
All those streaks ended this year as injuries, inconsistency by redshirt freshman quarterback Chris Rix and inexperience hurt against a difficult schedule.
The Seminoles don't expect to stay down long.
For them, the New Year's Day game is the start of the recovery, and one the players are serious about despite its lack of title implications.
"We're looking at this as the first game of next season ... where we get Florida State back on track and establish ourselves against a very good team and kind of kick-start next season," Rix said Monday.
Florida State also has an unmatched history of success in games like this, going unbeaten in its last 15 non-championship bowls, including an NCAA-record 11 consecutive victories from 1986-96.
"I've enjoyed the heck out of this week. You can be a little looser when you're not playing for the national championship," Bowden said. "We want to win just as bad, but you're a little bit more loose."
For the Hokies, the game is a chance to maintain upward momentum and to reward the most successful senior class in school history with what would be their 48th victory in 61 games.
"We had our team banquet last night and we had a little video of our seniors and fortunately we had some funny things in there because I think everybody was about ready to cry," coach Frank Beamer said. "This is a good group. We need to send them out of here on a winning note."
Linebacker Ben Taylor, the team's most valuable player, said the Hokies are still smarting from a 26-24 loss to No. 1 Miami on Dec. 1, and eager to make amends on a national stage.
"You don't want to go out on a two-game losing streak your senior year. You just don't want to have your legacy like that," Taylor said.
Rix expects the Hokies to try to fluster him early, comparing their second-ranked defense to the only one statistically better - Miami.
Virginia Tech posted four shutouts this season.
"They're very good at every position," Rix said. "Their secondary, their corners are unbelievable. Very fast. Don't get beat deep very often. And they're very aggressive. They blitz hard, they swarm to the ball and they hit very hard."
The Hokies have had their own problems on offense, with first-year starting quarterback Grant Noel coming off a 4-for-16 performance against the Hurricanes after struggling with consistency all season.
The finale, then, will be a chance to change that.
"All this time, it's kind of worked up to this last game and all the years of hard work that we put into it," senior wideout Andre Davis said. "Hopefully it will all pay off."
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