Coming into this season, few people predicted we would be here right now. A
Peach Chick-Fil-A bowl berth? Really? Against the defending national champions? This has certainly been a crazy season, filled with ups and downs and ups and downs. Strangely, this bowl game just feels right. George Welsh's first bowl game was the 1984 Peach Bowl, so hopefully this is the beginning of a similar reign for coach London.
From the perspective of Auburn, this has to be somewhat disappointing. After losing a talent like Cam Newton, they knew this would be a down year, but to go from winning a national title to playing Virginia in a mid-level bowl game is quite a fall. Auburn will also be playing this game without their defensive coordinator (former Duke head coach Ted Roof, gone to UCF to be their defensive coordinator) and their leading rusher (Michael Dyer, suspended for violating team rules). Furthermore, their offensive coordinator, Gus Malzahn, has taken the head coaching job at Arkansas State. While Malzahn will still coach the bowl game, chances are his focus is elsewhere.
One key factor in this game will be motivation. The Hoos have had a great season, and are thrilled to be playing in the Chick-Fil-A bowl. Auburn has had a down year, and this game means little to them. Still, both teams would like to use this game to build some momentum for next year.
Virginia on Offense
Virginia's offense spent much of the season ranked in upper 3rd of the nation, but fell down the rankings some after facing 2 of the best defenses in the nation in their final 2 games. Still, they 50th in total offense with nearly 400 yards per game. This is quite a turnaround for a team that struggled to break 300 just 2 short years ago.
After facing those 2 great defenses, the Hoos are probably happy to be facing a team like Auburn. Auburn has a lot of talent on defense. But by and large, they have struggled to keep teams off the scoreboard. Their defense ranks 78th in the country, and gave up nearly 30 points per game.
Auburn's defense was well-balanced, meaning that they were equally inept against the pass and rush. This matches up well for a Hoos team boasting a well balanced offense. As always, the Hoos will attempt to run the ball to set up the pass, and Auburn will focus first on stopping that ground game.
That task will begin with a very young Auburn front 4. They lost 3 of the 4 of the starting DLs from last year's national championship team. The sole returning starter is sophomore DE Nosa Eguae. Opposite him is fellow sophomore Corey Lemonier, who is far and away Auburn's best lineman, finishing the season with 9.5 sacks, 13.5 TFLs, and 5 forced fumbles. Lemonier is, certainly, the main focus of the offensive line on any play. He is much better rushing the passer, but he will also stick his nose in against the run. Eguae is a bigger DL and better at the point of attack. Considering that OTs Morgan Moses and Oday Aboushi struggled this year against faster DEs, keeping track of Lemonier is a big concern. Look for the Hoos to run at Lemonier early, hoping to slow down his pass rush. If we can catch him upfield and get a big run behind him, hopefully he'll be a step slower afterwards.
In the middle, Auburn will start sophomore Jeffrey Whitaker at one spot with freshman Gabe Wright, who took over the starting spot from sophomore Kenneth Carter for the last 4 games of the season, at the other. Both White and Whitaker are prototypical DTs, at about 6'2" about 315 pounds. Both are still learning their positions, but they can take up space and make it awfully difficult to run in between the tackles. Luckily for the Hoos, running inside isn't really a strength, anyway.
As you would expect from an SEC team, the Auburn LBs are fast. None of them are particularly big though. The two OLBs are juniors, Jonathan Evans on the weak side and Daren Bates on the strong side. Bates is the one to watch, as he leads the team in tackles and has chipped in 2.5 sacks, 7 TFLs and 3 passes defended. Evans missed some time this year, but he is healthy now. The MLB is senior Eltoro Freeman, although sophomore Jake Holland will see snaps there as well. Holland began the season as the starter, but lost that job to Freeman. As I mentioned, all the LBs are on the small side, with Bates checking in at barely over 200 lbs. We may have success with the trap plays we have used this season, if we can get our OLs out in front of Perry Jones or Kevin Parks, they can run off those blocks. The Auburn LBs aren't going to fight through an Austin Pasztor block, they will look to run around that block.
As with the LBs, the Auburn secondary is full of speedsters. But, that is really about all they've got. The best cover man they have is T'Sharvan Bell, but he is out after tearing up his knee. Replacing Bell in the lineup is freshman Jonathon Mincy. Mincy saw time throughout the season, but he is raw and doesn't have the size, experience nor ability that Bell has. Opposite Mincy will be sophomore Chris Davis. Davis is also on the small side, but Davis has more experience. Neither Mincy nor Davis have an interception this year. Rarely will you start a game this late in the season with 0 combined picks from your starting CBs. The Tigers will play a lot of 2-deep zone and rely on keeping players in front of them and making tackles. Davis, in particular, is a good tackler, and will come up strong in run support as well. The return of senior WR Matt Snyder could be a big help, because he can use his size and route running ability to make some big plays in the middle of the field.
While Auburn has some question marks at CB, their safeties are solid. Senior Neiko Thorpe was 2nd in tackles and led the lead with 3 interceptions. Thorpe has bounced between CB and S throughout his career, but is locked in at safety now. He will be all over the field, playing the run and the pass with equal effectiveness. Opposite Thorpe is sophomore Demetruce McNeal, who was third in tackles (although a ways back from Bates and Thorpe). McNeal has had a little bit of an up and down year, but he's capable of making big plays with his outstanding speed. Both Thorpe and McNeal are tall, but neither is big. Again, this means that running to the outside with power sweeps and some traps could be successful, if we can get the blockers out in front.
Again, Auburn is likely to play a lot of zone coverage. Their secondary isn't bad, but they aren't outstanding either. Lemonier had nearly half the team's sacks, so they will rely heavily on him to rush the passer. This defense is fast, but I believe we can run to the edge. We need to make sure we have blockers on the edges though, if we try. Against the pass, it isn't going to be easy to beat them deep, because their DBs are all very fast. But, we should be able to hit on crossing routes and seam routes, which seems to be Michael Rocco's strength anyway. Our RBs are all good receivers out of the backfield, and that can be a big weapon. Max Milien, in particular, has a big year at FB making big plays in the passing game. That is something that could be useful against the deep zone we are likely to see. Against a defense as fast as Auburn's, we aren't likely to get tons of YAC yards in the defensive secondary, but if we can get a Milien or Jones the ball in space on screens or flares, they should be able to make things happen upfield.
Virginia on Defense
A year ago, Auburn used the 7th best offense in the nation to win a national title. That offense was led by Newton, who is now plying his trade for the Carolina Panthers. Unfortunately, they have not been able to find a worthy successor. Two QBs pretty much have split the game snaps, and neither one has truly impressed. As a result, they run the ball nearly twice as often as they throw it. The offense is a spread offense, usually with at least 3 WRs. They will run or pass on any play, regardless of down and distance. This year, that offense is ranked 107th in the nation. The ground game is reasonably successful, but their passing game is almost non-existent.
The two QBs who will see a majority of the snaps are sophomore Clint Moseley and junior Barrett Trotter. True freshman Kiehl Frazier is the QB of the future, and has seen time in every game this season. Frazier is the closest the Tigers come to replacing Newton, but he is still very raw as a passer. Moseley is the projected starter for this game, but we are likely to see all 3 QBs. Moseley possesses a strong arm although it can be wild. He isn't much of a running threat, but he is a dangerous passer. Trotter, on the other hand, is more of a runner, although he is still more of a passer than a runner, which is partly due to a couple of knee surgeries, which have cost him a step on the ground. As I said, I expect Moseley to start, but I wouldn't be too surprised if we saw a lot of Frazier, as Auburn is likely using this game as a stepping stone to next season.
If the Tigers run the ball twice as often as they throw it, they obviously have some talented RBs, right? Of course. The problem is that, as I mentioned above, their most talented RB and leading rusher, sophomore Michael Dyer, has been suspended and will not play in the Chick-Fil-A bowl. Dyer rushed for nearly 1300 yards and 10 TDs this year, so losing him will hurt. Still, his backup is Onterio McCalebb, a talented junior who rushed for over 500 yards and over 5 yards per carry. They will miss Dyer, but not too much. McCalebb is much smaller than Dyer but is the team's fastest player, so expect Auburn to focus on perimeter runs. This will put a lot of pressure on our DEs and OLBs to keep contain on the edges. It will also force CBs Chase Minnifield and Demetrious Nicholson to be ready to come up in run support.
When Trotter or Frazier (mostly Frazier) are on the field, we need to be ready for the QB read-option. This was a play that Cam Newton ran very successfully last year, as well as a play that we have struggled with in the past. These are plays that are designed to get the running back outside into space, and McCalebb can do the rest. Again, DEs Cam Johnson, Jake Snyder, and Brent Urban will need to keep their contain on these misdirection plays.
Along with losing Cam Newton, the Tigers also lost their top 4 receiving threats from a year ago. This has left junior Emory Blake as the only WR with any experience. Blake is big and fast, and is the type of receiver we have had trouble keeping tabs on this season. Blake leads the team in receiving yards, and is tied with McCalebb for the team lead in receptions. Third on the team in receptions is junior TE Philip Lutzenkirchen. Lutzenkirchen is actually listed on the depth chart as an H-back, but will line up all over the place, in the backfield, as a normal TE or split out as a WR. He has good size, good hands and enough speed to beat a LB. The Hoos will have to keep an eye on him on passing downs.
The other two starters at WR are senior Quindarius Carr and junior Travante Stallworth. Carr is a big play guy, but is raw and caught just 8 balls all season. Stallworth is a little bit like our two freshman WRs, in that he's a quick little jitterbug type, who will catch short passes and make plays after the catch. Stallworth has 13 receptions on the season.
The Tigers OL is also a big of a work in progress. Their two bookend tackles are seniors A.J. Greene on the left side and Brandon Mosley on the right. Those two guys are both very good (especially Greene, who will play on Sundays). In the middle, the Tigers have some question marks. The center is true freshman Reese Dismukes. Dismukes enrolled last spring, so he has put in a full year, but he is still really learning the position. The two guards are junior John Sullen and freshman Chad Slade. Sullen goes about 330 lbs and Slade about 310, so they are both huge. Both of them are maulers who can lock onto a defender and push him back, but both can be beaten by speed rushers. DT Will Hill could have a lot of success by beating those guys to his spots.
A good way to shut down the Auburn spread read-option based offense is to get inside penetration. If guys like Matt Conrath and the aforementioned Will Hill can do that, we should have success. If we allow McCalebb to get outside into space, he will burn us with his speed. When Moseley is on the field, the read-option is much less of a concern, so we'll probably play a more conservative defense, and make Moseley find his receivers in front of the defense. When either Frazier or Trotter is out there, it'll probably be more man coverage on the outside, as we will use more players to contain the ground game. Either way, the most important thing is the ground game. Auburn wants to keep moving the football on the ground, and pass with play action. If we can consistently get them into long yardage situations, we will be successful.
When I first saw the matchup, I thought we had little chance. I hadn't seen much of Auburn this year, but I know they are usually an SEC power, and they will have the speed and athletes typical of those programs. However, once I looked at some more details, I saw a team with definite weaknesses. They really can't move the ball through the air, and the interior of their OL struggles. So they rely almost exclusively on trying to get outside the tackles on the ground. Our defense has been pretty good this year at keeping teams away from those areas.
Auburn's defense is good up front, but their secondary isn't great, especially on the outsides. We will see a lot of zone defense from them, so Rocco will have to be patient and keep finding the underneath receivers.
One concern I have is special teams. Auburn has one of the nations' best punters in Steven Clark, and our punt return unit has been a weakness all season. Frankly, I will be happy if we fair catch every punt successfully. Any return yards are a bonus. Auburn's offense figures to struggle, so turning it over on a punt would be disastrous. Auburn is also good on kick returns with McCalebb and fellow freshman RB Tre Mason. Each of them have taken a kick back for a TD this year. Sophomore PK Cody Parkey is also very good.
Again, my initial reaction was that we might get slaughtered. Certainly, our offense has fallen off a cliff the past two games, facing very good defenses. The Auburn defense isn't in that class, but they are fast and talented. The game figures to be low scoring, and with points at a premium, special teams plays can be a big factor. The spread is Auburn by 3, which seems reasonable. Auburn has more speed and talent all over the field. The mitigating factors are the motivation and the status of Auburn's coordinators.
Prediction: Auburn 23, Hoos 21