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Gameday Preview: The Chick-fil-A Bowl

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The Good Guys: There’s a big difference between finishing a season 8-5 and finishing it 7-6.

I don’t even have to tell you what a boost the Outback Bowl victory over Northwestern at the end of 2009 was in propelling the Tigers to a national championship run in 2010. Now Auburn enters the Chick-fil-A Bowl with the same 7-5 record at the end of the regular season as it had in 2009, and with that same “8-win season” or “6-loss season” swing hanging in the balance.

But this year, Auburn isn’t going to use the momentum from a bowl game to make any kind of run at a 2012 dream season, and is instead simply playing for damage control. This year, the joy of 8-5 is far outweighed by the agony of 7-6. And the agony of 7-6—which would set a new low for a team coming off a national championship in the BCS era—and losses in four of their last six games, is exactly what the Tigers are staring down going into this bowl game.

The 2011 campaign hasn’t been a complete and total failure for Auburn by any stretch of the imagination, but with all things considered, it hasn’t been that great of a success, either. Winning the Chick-fil-A Bowl isn’t going to magically solve any of the issues the Tigers will face this spring, but losing it is only going to pile onto those problems, and it’s something that Auburn needs to avoid.

In a rebuilding year in which Auburn didn’t appear to do too much rebuilding, and in going into an offseason having lost two coordinators and more, it would be nice for Auburn finish 2011 strong, and to come away from the season with something—anything—to show for it.

The Bad Guys: At this time a year ago, while the Auburn Tigers were preparing for the big dance in Glendale and a shot at college football’s national championship, the Virginia Cavaliers were at home, out of bowl eligibility, and sitting on a 4-8 record.

Things have changed.

While Auburn fell hard from their throne this year, Virginia began to make their climb. In finishing the regular season with a strong 8-4 record, and in picking up several quality wins (Georgia Tech, Florida State). Along the way the Cavaliers have made strong strides at getting their football program back on the right track.

The Cavaliers even made a run in the ACC this year, getting themselves in position for a de facto Coastal division championship game against Virginia Tech before falling to their in-state rival to close the season. In Mike London’s second year as head coach at Virginia, he appears to have the Cavaliers back as a competitive program once again and building toward a bright future.

But for now, what would be even sweeter for the Cavaliers than an 8-win season is a 9-win season, and another high-profile victory against tough competition.

When Virginia has the ball: The first thing you’ll notice about the Virginia offense is the amount of motion and movement they use with their backs and receivers before the snap.* The Cavaliers will shift their receivers, running backs, tight ends, and just about everyone they can, and they’ll do it before just about every play.

What that pre-snap motion does is create mismatch opportunities for the offense, and makes the defense adjust on the fly and forces them to make quick decisions. It puts the defense in a position to make a mistake. From there, the Virginia offense tries to capitalize. Sometimes they’ll mix everyone around just to keep the defense on its toes. Other times they’ll send one receiver across the formation and then get the ball to him quickly before the secondary can make the proper adjustments.

Virginia is quarterbacked by sophomore Michael Rocco. Rocco is a prototypical “game manager,” in every sense of the designation. Rocco likes to find his tough wide receivers underneath, and he’ll utilize his weapons from out of the back field, as well.

His favorite target by far is senior wide receiver Kris Burd. Burd is an effort, possession receiver for the Cavaliers. He’s their main man both in terms of receptions and receiving yards this year, despite having just one touchdown on the season.

But Virginia’s most dangerous weapon is junior running back Perry Jones. Jones is Virginia’s do-everything man: he’s the team’s leading rusher, he has the second-most receptions on the team coming out of the backfield, and he even returns punts. Jones has five touchdowns rushing on the season, with three more coming as a receiver. Jones and full back Max Milien, who has 20 receptions and two scores through the air, are almost just as dangerous in the passing game as they are in running the ball on the ground.

Meanwhile, Virginia’s answer to Kiehl Frazier is freshman quarterback David Watford. Much like Frazier, the Cavaliers will put Watford in as a change of pace and as a running threat, giving them a Wildcat look from time to time, but he’s efficient as a passer as well.

You would think after having practiced against Gus Malzahn and his bag of tricks over the last three years, Auburn’s defense would be ready to handle some of Virginia’s motioning and misdirection, but this is a different kind of deception. At its core, Virginia’s offense is a simple, ground-and-pound attack with a popular pro-style passing game, but there’s certainly enough bells and whistles to keep a defense on its heels. And with it being a bowl, there really isn’t any telling what Mike London and company will have up their sleeve. Auburn’s defense had better be on its toes, and its youthful secondary better be ready to communicate.

But if Auburn can play the kind of rushing defense that we saw from them midway through the season, then they have a good chance at slowing down this Cavalier offense. Virginia has also been prone to turnovers, so Auburn will hopefully have the chance to make the most of their mistakes.

The Auburn defense matches up fairly well against the Virginia offense, but on this side of the ball, the matchup is going to come down to the chess match going on underneath the helmets.

When Auburn has the ball: Auburn is going to have to find its identity on offense early in this game.

The Virginia defense is a physical group that grinds out the game and wears down an offense, so the Tigers are going to have to find some kind of consistency in moving the football.

Obviously, that all begins with the running game, and with Mike Dyer suspended, it all begins with Onterrio McCalebb and freshman Tre Mason.The challenge for whoever emerges as the featured back in this game will be in grinding out tough yards on early downs, and running the ball downhill between the tackles. Both McCalebb and Mason have proven their big-play ability, having both scored on kickoff returns for touchdowns this season, but against Virginia they’ll have to show that they’re capable of the tough runs on first and second down, as well.

Virginia’s defense is strong up front and plays with a tough-as-nails consistency, but they’re just as susceptible to the big play through the air as anyone. Unfortunately, Auburn hasn’t shown much in the way of big plays in the passing game over the last few games. But the Tigers will definitely benefit from the return of Emory Blake, who is seemingly back at full strength for the first time since his injury against South Carolina early in the season.

The Cavaliers employ a basic 4-3 defense, highlighted by its secondary. Senior strong safety Rodney McLeod is a leader on their defense, and has four picks on the season while racking up 55 tackles. Virginia’s other star in the secondary is freshman corner Demetrious Nicholson, who has two interceptions, 56 tackles, and has only gotten better as the year has gone on. Virginia’s leading tackler is junior linebacker Steve Greer.

When you look at this Virginia defense, not too many players in particular jump out at you, but what the Cavaliers will do is play strong for 60 minutes, and provide a constant test, which could spell trouble for an Auburn offense that has been more than inconsistent at times this season.

The battle on this side of the ball should simply come down to how well Auburn has been able to fix the leaks in their offense during bowl practice as compared to the back stretch of the season. Unfortunately for Auburn, with their leading rusher suspended for the game and their offensive coordinator having one foot out the door, that may not be the most favorable matchup for the Tigers.

Special Teams: As mentioned before, running back Perry Jones returns punts for Virginia, but it’s freshman wide receiver that handles kickoff return duty. The Cavaliers have yet to score on a punt or kick return this season, but they did allow a punt to be housed on them, by Idaho, earlier in the season.

Virginia’s punter is senior Jimmy Howell, and place kicking for Virginia is senior kicker Robert Randolph, who is a decent 15-for-22 on the season.

All told, with Cody Parkey finding his touch here late in the season, and with Mason and McCalebb returning kickoffs for the Tigers, and with Parkey booming kickoffs through the end zone on the opposite side, Auburn should actually have a rather distinct advantage when special teams are on the field.

Reason for Worry: Auburn doesn’t appear to be very prepared for this game, neither in its personell nor with its coaching staff, which is short a defensive coordinator and has a borrowed offensive coordinator who is spending half of his time dedicated to his next job. Meanwhile, Virginia is a program that is still on its climb and has all cylinders running. Going into this game tonight, Virginia appears to be in its prime and building for the future, while Auburn is backpedalling into the bowl game, fueled on fumes from the past.

Reason for Confidence: If nothing else, at least Auburn has been here before. After a season with as tough of a schedule as the Tigers have had to face, they certainly don’t face any kind of shortage on experience against quality competition. And, a season removed from winning last year’s BCS national championship, they’re certainly used to getting their opponent’s best shot, which is exactly what they’ll get from Virginia. They’re even a little used to the Georgia Dome after having played there last year. If nothing else, Auburn will be able to lean on the fact that they’ve been here before, and even if the Tigers are playing their worst, they won’t fall apart. You might not could say the same about their opposition in this bowl game.

Three Wishes

1. Find the end zone. Auburn can’t let scoring opportunities slip away in this one, and with you never knowing how the Tigers’ offense is going to run series to series, they can’t go trading touchdowns for field goals. Scoring was something that Auburn seemingly just forgot how to do late in the season, but the Auburn offense is going to have find ways to get the ball across the plane in this one.

2. Establish an inside running game. Auburn doesn’t need McCalebb or Mason to be someone they’re not, and they don’t need to kid themselves into thinking that somebody like Onterrio McCalebb is going to be able to grind it out with tough running between the tackles all game long. But Auburn needs to have some kind of inside game, if only to keep the defense honest and to allow McCalebb and Mason to get their big chunks of rushing yardage on the outside edge.

3. Force turnovers. Aside from just taking what the Cavaliers give them, Auburn needs to look to force Virginia’s hand, and bring the ball back to their offense as often as they can. With 3rd-down stops being at a premium for the Tigers all season, winning the turnover battle would help Auburn’s chances in this one tremendously.

The Prediction

In the end, there isn’t much that we’ve seen over the last few weeks that shows that Auburn is very prepared to win this game, and they certainly haven’t done much of anything to have improved themselves or to have taken too many strides forward since falling to Alabama 42-14.

Meanwhile, Virginia is nothing to scoff at. The Cavaliers are coming into this Chick-fil-A Bowl with more momentum, with more to prove, and most likely with much more motivation.

And it’s not encouraging when the only true statistical advantage Auburn has over Virginia is in its running game, and that’s an advantage that instantly went out the door with the suspended Mike Dyer.

Auburn matches up well enough in this game, and they should do a good enough job containing Virginia’s rushing attack defensively and in finding ways to make a few plays on offense, but Auburn just doesn’t seem prepared to win.

If they can get a more-than-solid Chick-fil-A Bowl victory under their belt, it would do wonder for the Tigers in erasing 2011 and moving on to 2012. But if they can’t, we could be in for a long offseason.

The Final Score

Auburn 24, Virginia 29

*Okay, so maybe it’s the first thing you’ll notice because it happens before anything else, because it’s pre-snap. But that’s not the point.

Photo via Todd Van Emst.

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