Virginia (8-4) vs. Auburn (7-5)
Saturday, December 31st, 7:30 p.m. (et)
The Sports Network
By Pat Taggart, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: This year's Chick-fil-A Bowl features an intriguing matchup between the Virginia Cavaliers of the ACC and the Auburn Tigers of the SEC.
The Cavaliers finished the regular season 8-4 overall and 5-3 in the ACC's Coastal Division. This is the program's 18th bowl appearance and the first under second-year coach Mike London. The 2011 ACC Coach of the Year, London has resurrected a program that was at a low-point when he took over. This year's group won four consecutive games down the stretch, including road bouts against both Miami-Florida and Florida State, before falling to Virginia Tech in the regular-season finale. Virginia is competing in the Chick-fil-A Bowl (formerly the Peach Bowl) for the fourth time, posting two wins in the previous three affairs.
"This is outstanding for our football program and our players will be elated to meet the reigning national champions from Auburn in Atlanta at the Chick- fil-A Bowl," said coach London. "No one on our roster has played in a bowl game, so what a fantastic opportunity and setting for them to do so for the first time."
As for Auburn, it hasn't been nearly as formidable as last season's unbeaten squad, but that comes as no surprise. The Tigers split their eight SEC games and are 7-5 overall under the guidance of Gene Chizik. This game marks Auburn's fifth trip to the Chick-fil-A Bowl and first appearance since defeating Clemson, 23-20, in overtime in 2007. The Tigers are 3-1 all-time in this particular bowl and they are set to make their 37th bowl appearance overall (21-15). The program has appeared in a postseason game in 10 of the last 11 years.
"We're extremely excited to be traveling to Atlanta to play a very good Virginia team in the Chick-fil-A Bowl," Chizik said. "I know our players are excited for this opportunity and I look forward to our fans helping pack the Georgia Dome on New Year's Eve."
Auburn and Virginia have split their only two previous meetings, the most recent of which took place back in 1998.
Virginia is far from explosive offensively, as the squad is averaging 23.2 ppg while gaining 396.8 total ypg. Of the 32 touchdowns scored by the offense, 17 have been of the rushing variety, and Perry Jones leads the way with 883 rushing yards to go along with five touchdowns. Jones is a versatile threat who ranks second on the roster with 41 catches for 416 yards and three TDs, and he has even thrown a TD pass this season. Kevin Parks is another back worth noting, as he has rushed for 661 yards and eight scores. Michael Rocco paces the passing attack with 2,359 yards and 11 TDs against 11 INTs, and Kris Burd is tops among the receivers with 60 catches for 810 yards.
Defensively, Virginia is permitting 343.2 total ypg while surrendering 22.2 ppg to opponents. The Cavaliers are solid against the run, yielding just 3.7 yards per attempt. The pass defense has been weak, however, as opposing QBs have six more TDs than INTs and are averaging 12.5 yards per completion. Steve Greer leads UVA with 103 total tackles, while Matt Conrath and Cam Johnson have posted 11 TFL apiece. Rodney McLeod has intercepted four passes to date, but CB Chase Minnifield is considered the top DB on the roster.
"Chase is an outstanding football player and invaluable member of our team," said London recently. "We ask a lot of him on our defense as an experienced cornerback. He always gives great effort and is a tremendous competitor."
Scoring against the Virginia defense may prove difficult for Auburn considering the fact that star tailback Michael Dyer has been suspended for the game for an undisclosed violation of team rules. The sophomore tailback was clearly the best offensive player for the Tigers this season, rushing for 1,242 yards and 10 touchdowns, but his infraction was seemingly significant enough to put his career at Auburn in jeopardy.
"If he does the things we've asked him to do, you'll see him back in a uniform," Chizik said. "If he doesn't, you won't."
In Dyer's absense, expect freshman Tre Mason and junior Onterio McCalebb to carry the load against Virginia. McCalebb ran for 532 yards and four TDs while catching 30 passes for 291 yards during the regular season. As for Mason, he never got more than four carries in a game, but did earn respect from his teammates and the confidence of his coach.
Auburn is generating 24.2 ppg and 328.2 total ypg, a far cry from the enormous numbers the team notched with Cam Newton under center last season. This season's QB duo of Barrett Trotter and Clint Moseley has struggled, and Moseley had taken over as the primary signal caller as time went along. The goal should be to get the ball in the hands of Emory Blake, as he has recorded five touchdowns on 30 catches. Philip Lutzenkirchen has seven receiving scores on only 24 grabs, but a knee injury will either limit him in this bowl game or keep him out of action entirely.
Just like the team's offense, the Auburn defense has been suspect this season. The Tigers are yielding 29.3 ppg to opponents as well as 405.8 total ypg, and they have struggled at times against both the run and the pass. Opposing ball carriers are gaining 4.7 yards per rush against Auburn, which has been victimized for 21 passing TDs while registering a mere 10 INTs. The star of the defense is Corey Lemonier, as he has 13.5 TFL to his credit, including 9.5 sacks.
It will be interesting to see how Virginia responds after getting crushed by Virginia Tech, 38-0, in the regular-season finale. The Cavaliers are thrilled to be playing in a bowl game, while Auburn may be a bit disappointed by this draw considering the success it enjoyed last season. For that reason, and because of the Dyer suspension, the edge goes to UVA.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Virginia 24, Auburn 20
12/29 10:48:32 ET