Who: Auburn Tigers vs Virginia Cavaliers
Where: Georgia Dome (Atlanta, Georgia)
When: Saturday, Dec 31st at 7:30 PM EST
Auburn Tigers (7-5 overall, 4-4 in SEC)
Most impressive victory: 16-13 at South Carolina (Oct 1st)
Worst loss: 45-7 at Georgia (Nov 12th)
Notable alumni: Vince Dooley, Kevin Greene, Bo Jackson, Erk Russell, Pat Sullivan
After winning the National Championship last year, Auburn predictably fell off a bit this year. Not only did they lose the two best players on their team (Cam Newton and Nick Fairley) but they also came into the season as the least experienced team in the FBS. The season started out shaky with a frantic come from behind win against Utah State and in their third game of the season came their first loss since November of 2009. Auburn went on to lose four more games and they got drilled in every one of them (Arkansas, LSU, Georgia and Alabama).
Auburn struggled all year to find a leader at QB as they tried Barrett Trotter, Clint Moseley and Kiehl Frazier. None of them proved to be the answer (at least for this year). The production lost from Cam Newton was clear as the offense lost 17 points per game and their yards per play decreased by over two yards. Michael Dyer still had a nice year as he gained 1242 yards. He didn't find the going quite as easy without Newton but he was the go-to-guy on offense for Auburn. Emory Blake, Onterio McCalebb and Philip Lutzenkirchen all proved to be solid players this year but they struggled to pick up the overall production that was lost from last years team. To make matter worse for the Tigers, Dyer has been suspended for the bowl game.
Auburn also took a step back on defense and it ultimately led to DC Ted Roof leaving to take a lesser job at UCF under former boss George O'Leary. The biggest difference was Auburn's inability to stop the run. The Tigers went from being the best in the SEC against run last year to being next to last in the league. In their losses, Auburn gave up 221 yards per game on the ground.
Virginia Cavaliers (8-4, 5-3 in ACC)
Most impressive victory: 14-13 at FSU (Nov 19th)
Worst loss: 38-0 vs Virginia Tech (Nov 26th)
Notable alumni: Katie Couric, William Faulkner, Tina Fey, Bowie Kuhn, Ralph Sampson, Matt Schaub, Mike Slive
Under second year Head Coach Mike London the Cavs saw a four game turnaround this year but finished the season with a blow-out loss at the hand of their in-state rivals. Virginia struggled to open the season with losses to UNC and Southern Miss and then beat Idaho by one point in OT. After starting 4-3, the Cavs seemed to figure it out as they beat Miami and went on a four game winning streak until falling to the Hokies in the finale.
Virginia's strength is on defense where they ranked in the top half of the conference in points allowed, rushing defense and passing defense. One area the Cavs exceled in was opponent third down conversions as they were second in the league (behind VT) allowing just a 33% success rate. Auburn is going to want to run the football and Virginia did a good job this year stopping the run as they allowed 128 yards per game although they did give up 180 in their last two games of the year (one of which was a win).
On offense, Virginia will be balanced as they ran the ball around 54% of the time this year. Soph QB Michael Rocco struggled early in the year (1 TD vs 7 INT in first 4 games) but improved as the year went on (8 TD vs 3 INT in last six games). The Cavs have two RBs (Perry Jones and Kevin Parks) that can run the football and they have a very capable senior receiver in Kris Burd (60 receptions).
Kevin: It has been a rough year for Gene Chizik and the Auburn Tigers. Not only did they take some lumps on the field but there has been some turnover in the coaching staff and the prize jewel Gus Malzahn has left to unexpectedly take the Arkansas State job. Malzahn will be coaching in the bowl game but it remains to be seen how effective he will be since he's juggling two jobs. I think Virginia will be solid and well coached and I have a feeling that Auburn will come out and really struggle to move the football without Michael Dyer. Look for Virginia to take this one in a low scoring game.
Virginia 16 Auburn 10
Jay: Under normal circumstances, this is a no-brainer Auburn pick for me. Auburn is extremely athletic and talented, if very young and a bit stupid, while Virginia is a solid, unremarkable team that managed to get ahead of schedule on Mike London's rebuilding plan. And Auburn typically beats the teams they can out-athlete. But with all the recent coaching unrest on the Plains and the loss of their best player for this game, I'm having to reassess. The simple fact is that the Tigers have only beaten one team with a winning record from an AQ conference all year, that being South Carolina in a game in which they were led by Michael Dyer's 41(!!!) carries for 141 yards. And should you need to be reminded, he ain't playing on New Year's Eve. So while the Cavaliers will struggle with Auburn's defensive speed, I think they'll be able to eek out a few more points than the Dyer-less Tigers, who haven't scored more than 17 points against an AQ-opponent with a non-losing record since the third week of the season.
Virginia 20, Auburn 17