We are 12 days away from the Chick-fil-A Bowl, where the 8-4 (5-3 ACC) Virginia Cavaliers will take on the 7-5 (4-4 SEC) Auburn Tigers on New Year's Eve in the Georgia Dome. Last week we told you that Vegas opened thinking this was a dead even matchup, but that the odds quickly moved in Auburn's favor, -1.5. Since then, Auburn's leading rusher, tailback Michael Dyer, was suspended for the game, and their Offensive Coordinator Gus Malzahn has announced that he'll be leaving after the bowl game to become the head coach of Arkansas State. Even with this news, the line has now moved to Auburn -2.
To give us some insight on the Tigers, we're joined by Auburn beat writer Evan Woodbery, who covers Auburn for the for the Press-Register, Birmingham News and Huntsville Times.
Streaking the Lawn: Let's cut straight to the elephant in the room. Auburn Defensive Coordinator Ted Roof recently left for a similar position at Central Florida. My understanding is that this doesn't come as much of a surprise to the fans -- it's likely viewed as a bit of a blessing. Have you heard anything from the players on how they took the news and what they're doing to stay focused this month? And same general question with respect to Malzahn.
Evan Woodbery: Roof's departure was considered likely if not imminent as the season went on. Three seasons is a long shelf for an SEC coordinator with a statistically below average defense, even if one of those defenses helped produce a national championship season.
Gene Chizik is at least ostensibly taking over Roof's duties, including coaching the linebackers. Players have said all the things they usually say when a coach is replaced: "It's a business," etc. I think it helped that he found a soft landing spot at a good situation, so it wasn't a firing or anything that might have caused hurt feelings.
Auburn had also been preparing for the departure of Malzahn as long ago as 2009. Although the circumstances of his move were surprising, his eventual move to a head coaching job was not. The offense will look similar or identical for the bowl game. What it will look like in 2012 is a more difficult question.
STL: Relatedly, Auburn Head Coach Gene Chizik has said that he will be calling the defense on New Year's Eve. Any ideas on what kind of defense we can expect, and what immediate changes we'll see, if any? Prior to becoming a head coach, Chizik spent most of his career as defensive coordinator, so I expect a pretty smooth transition. Would you say that's accurate?
EW: Chizik does have a strong pedigree as a successful coordinator at Auburn and Texas, so this will be nothing new to him. There are an abundance of staff members and graduate assistants who can do some of the ancillary work like film breakdown and scouting. I'm really not sure whether we'll see any dramatic changes on defense. Chizik has always had his hands in the defense since Day 1, so I think any differences will be in the minor details that we're not likely to notice.
STL: Aside from a severe shortage of Cam Newton, what's changed between the 2010-2011 National Champion Auburn squad and this year's considerably less successful squad?
EW: Auburn lost two major play-makers on both sides of the ball in Newton and defensive tackle Nick Fairley. But just as importantly, Auburn lost a very large and talented senior class.
This year, Auburn's senior class has maybe one or two meaningful contributors. Last year, there may have been a dozen. The bulk of talented players are in the freshman and sophomore classes.
This gap in class balance is due to poor recruiting at the end of the Tommy Tuberville era and some unlucky attrition since then and was destined to rear its head in a rebuilding season in 2011. That's one of the reasons 2010 was so remarkable -- it really was a one-year window of opportunity that Auburn took advantage of beyond anyone's best expectations.
The final factor is the schedule. Auburn's schedule is most manageable in even years. In odd years, Auburn must go on the road to play Georgia, Arkansas and LSU. This year, they added tough road games against Clemson and South Carolina. That's a gauntlet that would have been tough for even an experienced Auburn team.
STL: Virginia fans are certainly hyped for the Chick-fil-A Bowl -- a bowl that the Hoos have earned this year, but that came as a bit of a surprise to most fans on Selection Sunday, following Virginia Tech's bump to the Sugar Bowl. Tigers fans, though, are coming off a wildly successful season -- this has to be a bit of a disappointment, wouldn't you say? How are fans -- and players -- taking it?
EW: From a practical standpoint, I think most Auburn fans are satisfied if not overwhelmed by the Chick-fil-A Bowl selection. Auburn has a huge alumni base in the Atlanta area, the campus is close and many fans live within reasonable driving distance of the Georgia Dome. It's a good TV slot for those who can't make the trip. So, if nothing else, it's a convenient bowl.
I think players might have preferred something a bit more exotic -- or at least a place where they could have earned some more driving money -- but beggars can't be choosers after a 7-5 season.
The biggest fear was an Auburn-Clemson rematch/prematch that no one wanted. Once that went away, the next biggest fear was probably getting obliterated by Virginia Tech. Virginia seems a nice compromise as the teams, at least on paper, should be evenly matched.
STL: Auburn's not a team we've scouted this year, and it's rare for Virginia to play an SEC team. What can the Virginia D expect to be up against, who are the names we need to keep an eye out for, and where are the biggest holes in the offense?
EW: Auburn's offensive line has struggled for most of the year, particularly in pass protection. Without any down-field passing game to balance the run, defenses have successful stuffed the box and dared Auburn to challenge it.
Running back Mike Dyer was Auburn's most productive offensive weapon and he's suspended indefinitely.
STL: How is Auburn's front seven on defense?
EW: The defensive line is young but promising. Consistency has been the biggest issue. Corey Lemonier is a good bet to be an All-SEC player by the time his career his over.
At linebacker, senior Eltoro Freeman has come on strong in the last half of the season and is probably the most active play-maker of the bunch.
STL: Alright, let's hear it. Do you have a prediction?
EW: I'll say Auburn 21, Virginia 20. I don't pretend to know a lot about the Cavaliers beyond looking at their scores, schedules and stats. Auburn has generally won the games it's supposed to win and lost (badly) the games it was supposed to lose. Vegas says this will be a close one (with the line within a field goal), and I have no reason to doubt that.
We thank Evan for joining us and answering our questions. Evan is a beat writer in the Auburn Bureau for the Press-Register, Birmingham News and Huntsville Times and you can read more of his work here.
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