It may be a long way from the national championship days of yesteryear for the Auburn Tigers (7-5, 4-4 SEC), however tonight’s Chik-fil-A Bowl match-up against Virginia (8-4, 5-3 ACC) should be a great one for College Football fans, as Auburn seeks its 5th consecutive bowl victory while the Virginia Cavaliers look for their first bowl victory in 6 years.
Virginia has certainly improved over a rough 4-8 season in the 2010-11 campaign, finishing 8-4 despite a rocky finish capped by a 38-0 drubbing by the hands of in-state rival Virginia Tech. Winning 4 of their last 5 games, the Cavaliers have been exceptional this season at keeping their offense moving, getting solid play from starting quarterback Michael Rocco (%60.3 completion rate, 2359 yards, 11 TDs, 11 INTs), and hedging on a good ground game featuring a tandem of hard-running backs. Perry Jones (176 carries, 883 yards, 5 TDs) and Kevin Parks (141 carries, 661 yards, 8 TDs) have been the backbone of the Virginia offense, helping to put down 165 yards/game on the ground, and have been instrumental in helping the Cavs to generate north of 20 first downs per game, which will be a key factor in tonight’s game after a shut-out loss to Va. Tech that saw them frustrated in every possession. While Virginia does have a capable crop of receivers to help balance the offensive load with guys like top receiver Kris Burd (60 catches, 810 yards, 1 TD), deep threat Tim Smith (33 catches, 565 yards, 3 TDs), the offense starts and stops with the rushing attack and Perry Jones, who along with a solid year on the ground, also has 41 catches for 416 yards and 3 TDs through the air. Getting him to find success on both fronts will be important for the Cavaliers tonight, especially against an Auburn defense that ranks near the bottom of the SEC, allowing 29.3 points/game and gives up 405 total yards/game. With Virginia looking to have a bounce back game after getting blown out in the final contest of the year, this may be the opportunity they are looking for against an Auburn side that is nothing but a shadow of its former national title-holding self.
For Auburn, there is plenty of concern coming into tonight’s match-up, especially with lead running back Michael Dyer (242 carries, 1242 yards, 10 TDs) suspended for the contest due to a violation of team rules. Without Dyer in the line-up, the Tigers offense will likely turn to Onterio McCalebb, who has actually been quite effective in the run and pass game (102 carries, 532 yards, 4 TDs; 30 catches 291 yards, 1 receiving TD). Averaging 5.2 yards/carry, McCalebb will be the key focus of the Tigers offense, tasked with breaking through a pretty good Virginia defense that is allowing only 128 rushing yards per game and 3.7 yards/carry. With an absolutely terrible passing game that is putting up just 153 yards per contest (106th in the FBS), Auburn can’t really hold onto hopes that their befuddled quarterback line-up will be able to carry them through tonight’s game, as it’s still unclear who’ll even start tonight’s match-up. Clint Moseley looks to be the go-to guy heading in, as he took over for Barry Trotter down the stretch of the season and has been decent (%62.5 completion, 1009 yards, 5:3 TD to INT ratio), but it’s still startling how little offense for the Tigers is derived from the passing game. The Tigers have dialed up 492 rushing plays to just 269 passing plays; that offensive balance has to even out a bit tonight if Auburn is to stand a chance at competing against a pretty good Virginia defense that has something to prove coming off a blowout loss at the end of the regular season. With just two receivers over 30 catches this season, Auburn needs to get good short yardage production out of their tight end and endzone target Philip Lutzenkirchen (24 catches, 238 yards, 7 TDs), and find a way to connect to deep threat Emory Blake (30 catches, 505 yards, 5 TDs). Without finding a way to get production in the absence of Michael Dyer, Auburn’s hopes of getting enough offense to contend with what their defense gives up may simply be wishful thinking.
For Auburn head coach Gene Chizik, tonight’s battle is going to be a tough test for one of the best coaches in College Football. With both coordinators leaving town, (offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is at least finishing the season, defensive coordinator Ted Roof is already gone to coach Arkansas State), Chizik will have his hands full juggling the double duty of head coach and defensive coordinator. However, his presence around the defense might not actually be a bad thing, considering the Tigers really can’t get too much worse in that department. Defense has to be key for Auburn’s chances at success tonight. They know offensive production will already come at a premium without their leading rusher and a credible passing game, so the biggest step-up in performance must come from the Tigers defensive line, and shutting down Perry Jones must be tops on the list. If Jones is allowed to be a major presence in both the running and passing games, it’ll be a long day for the Auburn defense. Virginia’s offensive line is quite good, allowing just 15 sacks on the year and playing all 5 starters for each of the 12 games this seasson, however, if Auburn’s defensive line can take a page from Virginia Tech, who limited Jones and the Hoos running backs to just 30 yards on 26 carries, Auburn could balance this game out quite well. While it won’t be realistic to expect Auburn to completely shut down the Cavs as the Hokies did, keeping Virginia under 100 yards rushing on the night would go a long way in giving the Tigers a chance to stay competitive.
Virginia on the defensive end simply has to do a good job of limiting a break-out performance by running back Onterio McCalebb, and keep the Auburn quarterback (whomever it may be) frustrated by bringing the pressure. Auburn is going to have to run to win, so the Cavs will need to focus on clogging the lanes, and forcing the Tigers to go to their air, where they aren’t nearly as comfortable. Seeing a continuation of their strong red zone form is a must as well; allowing just 31 scoring plays on the year (21 TDs, 10 field goals) to rank 6th nationally, the Cavs will be up against a pretty productive red zone offense from Auburn, which has converted 31 red zone trips into 19 touchdowns. Holding a few Auburn drives to field goals will certainly be essential to Virginia’s bottom line, especially because Tigers touchdowns come fairly infrequently (they are ranked 82nd in the FBS with just 24.3 points/game).
Betting Lines for Auburn vs. Virginia at Oddsmaker Sportsbook
This game has a lot of people see-sawing on picking the winner, with many citing Auburn’s poor defense and loss of lead running back Michael Dyer as a cause for taking Virginia tonight. However, the bookmakers seem to disagree with that analysis, and give Auburn -145 odds as a favorite tonight on the money line at Oddsmaker Sportsbook, while Virginia comes in as a +125 underdog. That’s certainly appealing for Virginia pickers, as is the favorable +3 against the spread at -110 odds for the Cavs, if you’d like a little cushion with your underdog wager. Virginia certainly has a good shot at winning tonight’s game, and it’ll be a tough pick to take Auburn and hope they can hold on against the spread (-3, -110 odds) or straight up, but with Auburn fully accustomed to big games under the national spotlight and Virginia not having a single starter who’s made a postseason appearance, the Tigers might just have enough confidence and familiarity in big games to give them a distinct advantage in this match-up. For the final look at the betting lines in tonight’s game, the 49 points for the over/under looks to be a bit high with two relatively mediocre offenses. Despite Auburn’s terrible defense against top opponents, I think they’ll step up to the plate against a slow moving Cavs offense, and keep this game under 49 in a close contest.
Our Pick To Win:
I’m going Auburn in this contest, and here’s why: Virginia, though having a defensive advantage and a better running back, is going to be nervous heading into tonight’s game, and will be up against a team with great history in bowl games, and an outstanding head coach that knows what it takes to beat the best teams in the nation. Auburn’s defense isn’t so bad if you take away the games in which they played Top 25 teams with great offenses, of which Virginia is neither. In their last 5 wins, Auburn allowed just 14.4 points per game, and their big losses this season came at #15 Clemson, at #1 LSU, at #10 Arkansas, at #15 Georgia and at home to #2 Alabama. That’s an absolute helluva schedule for any team to win, let alone a young Auburn squad, and I think it masks the potential Auburn has in a game like this one against an up and coming program that hasn’t proven itself on the national stage this season. With that in mind, Auburn finds a way to win a scrappy, low-scoring game tonight on the back of a better all-around game plan from Gene Chizik. Virginia will likely be leading at some point in this game, and should have lots of good talking points to carry over into next season, but the Tigers will prevail on a clutch turnover or two, and walk out of the Chik-fil-A Bowl with a 24-21 win.