Auburn vs. Virginia: Pregame Thoughts on the Chic-fil-A Bowl
Tonight, just before we ring in the new year, the Auburn Tigers will battle the Virginia Cavaliers in the Chic-fil-A Bowl in the Georgia Dome.
I am here in Atlanta to take in the big game and woke up to beautiful weather this morning, which will be nice for fans taking in the parade and festivities this afternoon.
Looks like it will be a decisively Auburn crowd tonight from what I have seen around town, but Virginia has plenty of supporters here, too.
It should be a fun SEC vs. ACC battle at 7:30 EST tonight.
With just hours before kickoff, here are my thoughts on the big storylines for this matchup...
Auburn Head Coach Gene Chizik
Chizik is in his third season at Auburn and his fifth as a head coach overall.
He holds a 2-0 record in bowl games and has his Tigers headed to their third straight bowl.
The Tigers are the defending national champions and battled through this rebuilding season to win seven games in the regular season.
With Chizik at the helm, Auburn has a 29-10 record. He will have 30 wins in just three seasons with a win over Virginia.
Virginia Head Coach Mike London
London is in his second year at Virginia and his fourth as a head coach.
This will be London's first bowl game as a head coach.
The Cavs finished just 4-8 last season, but they rebounded with a solid 8-4 campaign this year.
London is 12-12 as Virginia's head man.
The Tiger head coach has more experience in bowl preparation and has won his last two bowl games. That should give Auburn a slight edge in this matchup.
Auburn Offense vs. Virginia Defense
Auburn's leading rusher, Michael Dyer, is suspended for this game. Therefore, the Tigers will rely on speedy junior Onterio McCalleb and talented freshman Tre Mason to run the ball at Virginia.
McCalleb, sharing carries with Dyer all season, has averaged 5.2 yards per carry. With just 19 carries this year, Mason also averaged over five yards per touch.
At quarterback, look for Auburn to use sophomore Clint Mosely and freshman Kiehl Frazier tonight.
Both of them will be looking to get the ball in the hands of Emory Blake. The talented young wide out has been limited this season and missed several games with an injured ankle. However, he is back healthy for this game and could make a significant impact.
The Virginia defense has been solid against the run all season, holding teams to just 165 rushing yards per game in 2011. I expect the Cavaliers to limit the Tiger ground attack this evening.
The Cavaliers' passing defense, on the other hand, has struggled at times in 2011. They have allowed a porous 214 passing yards to opponents this season.
Look for the rebuilt Auburn ground attack to be held in check by Virginia for most of this matchup. However, the Tigers should be able to pass the ball, including screens to the speedy backs, consistently.
Auburn, especially the quarterbacks, has struggled much of the season. That being said, the Tigers had to play against dominant SEC defenses like South Carolina, Georgia, LSU and Alabama, and they should be able to put up points against the Cavaliers' defense.
Virginia Offense vs. Auburn Defense
Virginia tailbacks Perry Jones and Kevin Parks will share carries tonight, as the Cavaliers try and expose what has been a porous Auburn rush defense.
Auburn has allowed a poor 194 rushing yards per game to opponents this season.
Virginia will be led at quarterback by Michael Rocco, who is coming off a poor performance against Virginia Tech and will try and rebound in the Georgia Dome.
Auburn's defense has allowed over 400 offensive yards per game this season and have recently pushed defensive coordinator Ted Roof to UCF. The question in this game will be if head coach Gene Chizik, who took over defensive coordinator duties, can get the young Tiger defenders to step up their game.
In the last week of the season, Virginia looked inept on offense against Virginia Tech, and Auburn's defense was pummeled by Alabama.
This will be a chance for both of these units to bounce back and prove they can execute.
I don't expect either team to look as bad as they did against their rivals, but I don't expect either unit to stand out and win the game, either.
MVP Prediction: Auburn WR Emory Blake
Blake has only played in seven games this season, missing playing time due to injury.
In the games where Blake was healthy enough to contribute, he had a touchdown catch in five of the seven outings. He averages over 17 yards per catch and is a big-play threat for Auburn.
Against a Virginia pass defense that allowed 11 passing touchdowns and over 200 passing yards in each of their last six games, including over 300 yards in two of the matchups, Blake should be able to make some big catches for the Tigers.
Blake seems to be healthy now and is primed for a big performance in prolific Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's last Auburn game.
Score Prediction: Auburn 27, Virginia 23
Look for Viginia to run the ball effectively and gain plenty of yards on offense. Yet they will continue to struggle in the red zone and settle for field goals too many times.
Auburn won't gain tons of yards on the ground, but they will be surprisingly strong through the air against a struggling Virginia pass defense that has injury concerns.
The Auburn passing game will give the Tigers the slight advantage in this game and earn them their eighth win of the season.