In the final college football game of 2011, the Chick-fil-A Bowl will feature the Virginia Cavaliers and the 2011 national champion the Auburn Tigers.
The game will be played on Dec. 31 at 7:30 p.m. ET in Atlanta, Georgia at the Georgia Dome. The game will be televised on ESPN.
Note: Rankings used are from my national top 25 rankings.
Record: 8-4 (5-3 ACC)
Biggest win: vs. No. 24 Georgia Tech, 24-21, Oct. 15
Worst loss: vs. North Carolina State, 28-14, Oct. 22
The Virginia Cavaliers had a big turnaround season, reversing last year’s record of 4-8 to an 8-4 record this season. The Cavaliers actually had a chance to play in the ACC championship game in the final week of the regular season, but they had their chances shut down soundly in a 38-0 shutout by Virginia Tech.
The Cavaliers rank 49th nationally in total offense and 30th nationally in total defense.
Record: 7-5 (4-4 SEC)
Biggest win: at No. 10 South Carolina, 16-13, Oct. 1
Worst loss: at No. 11 Georgia, 45-7, Nov. 15
The Auburn Tigers went in a completely opposite direction than the Virginia Cavaliers this season, going from being national champions to a mid-pack team in the Southeastern Conference.
That said, while it is easy to call Auburn’s season a disappointment, they did not have a bad season upon further review. While they did lose five games, all five of those games came against teams currently ranked within the top 16, and four of those five losses came on the road.
Considering that the Tigers lost many starters on both sides of the ball, they were not the same caliber of team as last season and had to deal with as tough of a schedule as any team in the nation. The Tigers actually played five teams currently ranked within the top 11—four of those games being on the road—and they actually won one of them, a road victory over South Carolina.
Do not judge the Tigers simply by their record. They play in the nation’s toughest conference, and while they are far from the championship team they were last year, they are still a team very capable of winning big games.
The Tigers will, however, be without their best offensive player. Star sophomore running back Michael Dyer has been suspended. The Tigers rank 39th nationally in rushing offense with Dyer, but their passing game has struggled mightily, ranking 106th nationally.
Virginia CB Chase Minnifield, Senior
NFL Draft Grade: Round 2
Chase Minnifield is one of the best cornerbacks in all of college football. Minnifield has good size and athleticism, is disciplined in coverage and plays with physicality. He is the leader and star of the Cavaliers' defense.
Minnifield has three interceptions and a total of 11 passes defended this year, although opponents tend not to throw his way. With a good performance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Minnifield is a likely second-round NFL draft pick.
Minnifield will line up against Auburn’s best wide receiver, Emory Blake. Given that no other wide receiver on the Tigers has more than 214 receiving yards for the season, the Cavaliers’ pass defense should be successful if he can lock down on Blake.
Auburn FS Neiko Thorpe, Senior
NFL Draft Grade: Round 7 (undrafted)
The Auburn Tigers also have a star in the secondary, and theirs is free safety Neiko Thorpe. This season, Thorpe made the transition from cornerback to safety, a transition that has served very well for him.
Thorpe is second on the Tigers with 94 tackles, and he leads the team with three interceptions. Thorpe has good size, is a good athlete, has good ball skills and is a good tackler.
Thorpe may not have the consistency or anything special enough about his game to be an NFL player, but he has emerged as the star of Auburn’s defense this year. With an impact performance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Thorpe could make a statement to be a late pick in April.
Auburn RB Onterio McCalebb, Junior
NFL Draft Grade: Round 7 (undrafted)
The run game is the strength of the Auburn offense, but that strength is significantly weakened with the suspension of the Tigers’ best running back, Michael Dyer. Without Dyer, the Tigers are going to need Ontario McCalebb to step up in a big way.
McCalebb is not big, but he is tough and quick, and he can really be a difference maker on the field. McCalebb is a good receiver out of the backfield, and he's second on the team both in rushing and in receiving. The Tigers will need him to make plays if their offense is to have success in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Wins vs. currently-ranked teams: Virginia 1, Auburn 1
Losses vs. currently-unranked teams: Virginia 2, Auburn 0
Virginia’s rushing offense: 50th in nation, 165.3 yards per game
Auburn’s rushing defense: 99th in nation, 194.8 yards allowed per game
Auburn’s passing offense: 106th in nation, 153.4 yards per game
Virginia’s passing defense: 48th in nation, 214.8 yards allowed per game
The Auburn Tigers are far from the team they were last season, but they are still a quality team. That said, they were not a team who could consistently win games against the best teams in the country, and they had to deal with the tough predicament of playing six teams within the top 16.
The Virginia Cavaliers have had a good bounce-back season and will almost certainly be the more motivated team in this matchup; no player on the Cavaliers has ever played in a bowl game! That said, the Cavaliers are not close to being a top 16-caliber team, and Auburn is more than capable of beating them.
Neither offense is particularly explosive, but in a low-scoring game, I expect Auburn to step up in the moment and get a win in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, a game which will give the winner a chance to crack the season-ending top 25.
Final Score Prediction: Auburn 20, Virginia 17