Virginia head coach Mike London faces one the biggest challenges in his head coaching career: defeat the reigning national champions.
In just two short seasons, London took a 3-9 team and turned it into an 8-4 squad playing in the second highest ACC tie-in bowl for a shot at the program's first nine-win season since 2007 (which coincidentally was also the last time, prior to this season, Virginia (i) played in a bowl game, (ii) won a game in November, (iii) defeated Duke, and (iv) was ranked).
There's no doubt that the New Year's Eve contest will be an emotional one. Virginia will be facing an SEC team that, even in a down year, most would still consider to be of "SEC-caliber" -- that is, among the best in the country. The Auburn Tigers may have only finished 4-4 in the conference and 7-5 overall, but there's little doubt that they can be competitive against just about any other BCS conference team. The Tigers' lone out of conference loss this season came at the hands of Clemson, who would go on to decisively win the ACC Championship for the automatic berth to the Orange Bowl.
The SEC may be king of college football -- after all, they have won the last five (soon to be six) of the last BCS championships. But just because Auburn is of SEC-caliber, together with the size and speed that comes along with that, doesn't mean Auburn's going to run with this. In fact, there are a lot of reasons that London may get another one of his signature wins.
Consider the following:
- The coaching carousel. Earlier this month, Auburn Defensive Coordinator Ted Roof announced he would be stepping down from Auburn immediately to take over as defensive coordinator over at Central Florida. This created a small stir and perhaps a little initial confusion, but for the most part, this shouldn't have that great of a negative impact on the Tigers, if any at all. Head Coach Gene Chiznick is a former defensive coordinator and can probably run that defense in his sleep, not to mention the number of assistants he has on staff that could also give him a hand. Not too long after, Auburn Offensive Coordinator Gus Malzahn announced that he, too, would be leaving to pursue being the head coach at Arkansas State. Malzahn, however, will be still be making the calls through the bowl game. In some ways, this could be helpful for Virginia, to have a lame duck offensive coordinator on staff. Come game day, Malzahn will certainly be 100% in the game. But you have to figure that in preparing for the contest, while he'll consciously be trying to put forth 100% into the task at hand, he also has the great feat ahead of putting together a winning coaching staff to keep Arkansas State performing at the high level they are now (10-2, 8-0 Sun Belt). "Distracted" is probably the best word here.
- Auburn's offense is nothing to phone home about. The Tigers have just the 104th offense in the country, putting up 328.17 total yards per game. Of that, nearly a third (103.50) comes from tailback Michael Dyer, Auburn's leading rusher and the SEC's second leading rusher. Ten of Auburn's 16 rushing TDs this season have come from Dyer. Unfortunately for Auburn, Dyer has been suspended for the remainder of the season, including the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Whether the Tiger bench is deep enough to adequately replace Dyer has yet to be seen. Virginia's rushing defense is also 33rd in the country, giving up just 128.33 yards per game.
- Considering a less-than-perfect performance this year, Auburn fans are generally pleased with a Chick-fil-A Bowl appearance. There are some 17,000+ Tiger alumni living in the Atlanta area -- more than triple Virginia's alumni base down there. But if you're a player, how do you mentally prepare yourself for the SEC's fifth best bowl after last year preparing for, and winning, the BCS Championship? The season has to be considered somewhat of a letdown -- how much is this final bowl game worth? By comparison, the Cavaliers have proven a lot of people wrong by putting together eight wins on the season, including becoming the first team to have ever beaten both FSU and Miami on the road in the same season. Virginia also handed Miami their first Thursday night home loss, which came just two weeks after shutting down the then-undefeated Georgia Tech triple option. For Virginia, the momentum just keeps building, while Auburn appears to have headed in the opposite direction, at least this season.
The bottom line is that, while Vegas believed the game to be even, there are a number of factors that might push this to Virginia's favor. Getting this big a win would be another tick mark off London's "Milestone Accomplishments" list, if there is such a list. Defeating an SEC team in the postseason would leave just one major milestone remaining before we can all say that Virginia really is back on track: taking down Virginia Tech.
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