It’s about time. We have been talking about this for just over 3 weeks now and we can finally break out our preview for the Peach Bowl. With all the turmoil this short offseason out of Auburn, you would think that the Hoos would have an advantage. But as we have been hearing for the past two weeks out of Auburn is this team is still focused, and might me more so with the subtractions of their two top coordinators and All-SEC running back Michael Dyer. So what will the Hoos see when they arrive in the Georgia Dome? Let’s get to our EXTENDED preview!!!
Coming off of their National Championship season, the Tigers finished the year 7-5 overall, 4-4 in the SEC, and 4th in the insane SEC West. Their biggest win of the year was on the road at South Carolina in October, 16-13 over the Gamecocks. They have also beaten Utah State (barely), Mississippi State, FAU, Florida, Ole Miss, and Samford. Their losses have been a who’s-who of college football this year: ACC Champ Clemson, Arkansas, LSU, SEC-East Champs Georgia, and Alabama. Not that it is all that bad, but their wins have come by 11.1 points and their losses have been by 27.8 points, and none less than 14.
Sometime you have to let a coach go to realize how good he is. Gene Chizik was the DC from 2002-2004, with the 2004 team leading the country in scoring defense, only giving up 11.3 points per game and heading to the 2005 Sugar Bowl, beating VT and going undefeated. This gave him the platform to jump to a FBS head coaching job at Iowa State. There he had a rough time, going 5-19 and never making it far out of the cellar in the Big XII North. After a 5-7 season at Auburn, Tommy Tuberville left, leaving Chizik at the top of the short list for replacements. His first year saw the Tigers go 8-5 and a win in the Outback Bowl. Last season, Auburn added a little guy named Cam Newton and...well...you know, National Champions. This season has been full of changes with the attrition from a year ago, but no reason to think he will be going anywhere anytime soon.
QB: It has been a tale of two seasons for Auburn as they have tried to find a replacement for Mr. Newton. Barrett Trotter the 6-2 Junior from Birmingham started the year, but struggled when it came to the SEC season, although the team went 5-2 when he started and 2-1 in the conference. So in came the 6-3 Sophomore from Leroy, Alabama Clint Moseley, and while he has been more efficient he only has 5 TDs to 3 INTs. Clint has been named the starter, but look for Barrett to play at some point in the game. The Tigers were 106th in the nation in passing yards with 153.4 per game and relied on the short-to-intermediate passing game, but it doesn’t mean they can’t and won’t air it out. Look for a more active role by whichever Auburn QB is in the game.
RB: We all know the story about Michael Dyer. He was the All-SEC selection at tailback with 1,242 yards and 10 touchdowns. In his absence, it becomes the Onterio McCalebb show. He is second on the team in rushing (532, 4TD) and receptions (291, 1 TD). At 5-10, 170 lbs., he is Perry Jones to a T. He will do a little of everything, and according to our sources, will continue to do the same and not be used as the exclusive running RB. The loss of Dyer should open the door for freshman Kiehl Frazier to be that pounding running back. At 6-3, 210, he has the size to push for those extra yards (272, 1TD), but was the 3rd option all season, and will see increase time on Saturday.
WR: Auburn will run a modified Pro-Set offense with 3 wide receivers and 0 regular tight ends. Not because they don’t have a good TE, they do, in Philip Lutzenkirchen (238, 7 TDs). He is 3rd on the team in yards and 1st in TDs, but his status is questionable for the game with a knee injury. So the bulk of the yards will come from starting WRs, notably Emory Blake (505, 5TDs), Travante Stallworth (214, 1 TD), and Quindarius Carr (173, 1 TD). If Philip doesn’t play, that means that 17 of the 32 touchdown scorers from the season won’t be available for the Peach Bowl, and will put a load on the other players.
OL: I talk about the line this week, because they have had a rough season to say the least. They start two freshmen (LG Chad Slade and C Reese Dismukes) in a line that was T95th in Sacks Allowed and 117th in Tackle For Losses Allowed, nearly 1.5 more than the UVa line allowed all season. Now you might think that it is all due to the insane defenses they see week in and week out in the SEC, but when I talked with some Auburn beat writers, it wasn’t just against the conference foes where they struggled. Look for some opportunity here.
Overall: The Tigers are a running team that lost their leading rusher, and a red zone passing team that lost their big target. For a team that ranked 104th in total yards and 82nd in scoring offense, look for a lot of different formations outside of the typical pro-set to pick up yards. It would be naive to think they won’t move the ball, because they can, but it might be too much to do in such a short time frame.
DL: Auburn will run a base 4-3, but love to switch to the Nickel in passing downs, much like the Hoos. As far as the defensive line is concerned, they were hit pretty hard in the offseason. They start 3 sophomores and a freshman, with 0 seniors in the 2- or 3-deep. Left End Corey Lemonier is their only big playmaker on the line, and leads the team in sacks (9.5), TFL (13.5), and forced fumbles (5), but is only 7th on the team in tackles. Rushing away from the left side will be key and Rocco will need to have plenty of protection on his blind side.
LB: Here comes the big guys. All three of the starters should be playing on Sundays real soon. LLB Jonathan Evans, MLB Eltoro Freeman, and RLB Daren Bates will be massive factors in this game, with Bates and Freeman at or near the top of the team in every defensive category. Breaking this second wave and staving off the blitz will be top priority for the UVa offense if they are going to move the ball.
DB: Another young unit, but they are lead by senior S Neiko Thorpe and sophomore S Demetruce McNeal. It is unusual to see the safeties playing at a higher level than the corners, but that is what the Tigers have this year. This means that the middle of the field is usually off limits, especially deep. The Hoos will have to try to keep it outside the hashes if they want to move the ball in chunks or try to catch them in a safety blitz.
Overall: Auburn is giving up nearly 60 yards and a touchdown more a game than UVa, and that accounts for the Hoos 38 against VT. There are some soft spots on this team, but the opportunity to take advantage of those areas are few and far between, and Auburn rarely makes the same mistake twice. Yardage should not be a problem, but points? We shall see.
A vey solid unit that does not make many mistakes. Cody Parkey is their field goal kicker and is a solid 11/15 and 6/7 inside 40. The only issue has been he has not made a field goal since Ole Miss back before Halloween (only attempted one against Samford, missed from 32). His long was 43 against Mississippi State in his first kick of the year. So figure 3 points from inside the redzone for the Tigers. Their punter is pretty clutch, with an average over 40 yards and 32 of 69 kicks inside the 20 and only 2 touchbacks. While they are average in punt returns with Quan Bray or Trovon Reed, they do have 2 kick returns for TDs, one from Tre Mason, and, go figure, Onterio McCalebb. They have 4 players that average more than 20 yards a return, so touchbacks will be a key.
Keys For Virginia on Offense
- Domination at the Line of Scrimmage. Virginia is in a very good position to really dominate time of possession and the tempo of the game by running the ball behind the O Line against a relatively younger defensive line from Auburn. If they can seal the edge, especially the left edge against Lemonier, they can pick up some big yards and leave some short passing situations in the later downs.
- The Use of the Wide Receivers. The Hoos have lived off of the short crossing routes, but with the safety play they will see from Auburn, they will have to work the out and comeback routes more this game than in past games. This Auburn defense also sets up well for the quick out and bubble screens if allowed enough time to develop.
- Third Down Conversions. The Hoos aren’t the best on third down. Luckily, Auburn is one of the worst 3rd down defenses in the country (103rd). Just like in our first point, converting the 3rd and 4th downs will wear out a defense that ranked towards the bottom of the SEC all year, which will allow our defense to rest up.
- Advantage In The First Half. More than 60% of all the points given up by Auburn is in the first half, with close to 40% coming in the second. Virginia is notorious for the first half point explosion and the second half cool down. The Cavs will need to put points up early and can’t rely on the 2nd half to comeback from a big hole.
- Watch Out for the Big Turnover. Auburn is neutral on the season in the turnover department, which means they take away as many as they give up. Now figure that LSU and Alabama (among other SECers) did a number on them, so they made it up in the other 6 or so games. And since we are not one of those named teams, we will have to watch out for a quick edge rush and a cheating safety.
Keys For Virginia on Defense
- Pressure. Pressure. Pressure. If Auburn is going to use their players in the roles they are accustom to, they will be more of a passing team instead of the run. This will force the O-Line to play a zone coverage with no TE, and will be susceptible to the blitz or the line stunt. With as many WRs as the Tigers will trot out, the Hoos will have to find a way in with the 4 man rush to pressure an average quarterback into bad decisions.
- Account for Everyone in the Passing Game. This team loves to throw to the running backs out of the backfield and McCalebb is eying a big game being ‘the man’ for Auburn. If their big tight end can’t go, look for the Hoos to see 4 or 5 wide receiver sets with the RBs split out as well. All can catch and 4 of their top 5 pass catchers have touchdowns longer than 32 yards.
- Watch Out for the ‘Trick Play’. We call them trick plays, but in the SEC, it’s just another day at the office. The Hoos will see formations and plays they have not seen ever, but are common place in the SEC. Halfback pass, flee flicker, double end around. Look for them all this game. But if the Hoos can stay at home they should be decent shape.
- Step Up the Safety Play. I know I have been harping on them all year, but if there is a group that needs to stay focused it is this group. Auburn is not extremely fast, but they have been known to get behind even the best defenses this year. If they can keep them in front, it can cut out a very quick strike Auburn team and force some longer late downs.
- Stop the Initial Offense. All of the above: the tricks, the formations, the yardage, the points, all come out early. Auburn’s big quarter is the first, where they have 107 of their 291 points on the year. Virginia is one of the stingiest teams in the first with only 17 points, but one of the worst in second quarter points with 113. Getting through the first half should settle down this team and make it a good fight down the stretch.
Ah, the end of the year. Final prediction. I can’t remember how good I have been this year, but I would figure I’m below .500. But can you blame me. When the Hoos look good, they have a bad week. When they look bad, they have a great week. When they could never win in Florida, they do it twice in the same year. It has been a tough team to peg all year. We all know the strengths and weaknesses of this team, and alway have thrived when the target is off their back (and it’s not just football, but that’s another article).
So in times like these, I turn to the pros, mainly the oddsmakers. Well they have been no help to me so far. The line started at even, or as they call it “pick ‘em”, in favor of Auburn, which is as close as you can get. The initial line move went in favor of the Tigers to 1.5 points, not completely uncommon, with the early money on the big names. But what has been shocking is the line moved twice after that, to 2 points, then 3, even after all the changes to Auburn coaches and personnel. Unheard off with all things equal, which mean late money must be coming in as more people see an advantage. On top of that, the odds line is equal with the ‘power line’, which is a baseline non-monetary driven line, similar to the computer poll in the BCS, which accounts for stats and historical data, but does not account for personnel changes. What does this all mean? The betting public thinks the Tigers will win by 3, and the computers think the Tigers will win by 3. And with the over/under at 48.5, they say the final will be 26-23 Auburn.
You can knock it all you want, but that is about the line where the Hoos will lose this game. They rarely beat a team when their opponent scores over 24 points. Last time was Indiana this year. The time before that: Minnesota. . . in the 2005 Music City Bowl. And only 4 times since 2002. Get the picture? I think the Hoos can score in the 20s, but I’m still weary that the defense will hold them under 20, especially with the prospect of turnovers for a short field. I wouldn’t be a good Wahoo without picking the Hoos in this one, but if that happens, it will be close. UVa 24, Auburn 23.