Auburn (7-5), Virginia’s opponent in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on Dec. 31, finished fourth in the Southeastern Conference’s West Division this season. The Tigers lost to Clemson by 14, to Arkansas by 24, to Alabama by 28, to Louisiana State by 35 and to Georgia by 38.
Certainly, those five teams would be considered quality opponents, but this much is clear: This is nowhere near the same caliber of Auburn squad that claimed last season’s BCS national championship.
Most notably for Virginia, the Tigers have been porous against the run (194.8 ypg allowed) this fall. In fact, Auburn ranks No. 99 in the nation in run defense. That bodes well for junior tailback Perry Jones and a Cavaliers offensive line that could use an opportunity to end the season on a positive note after consecutive sub-par performances to conclude the regular season.
Jones is 117 rushing yards shy of reaching the 1,000-yard plateau on the season, and it would seem that goal is not out of the question against Auburn. Virginia is averaging 165.3 rushing yards per game.
It’s not as if the Tigers lack defensive talent. Sophomore defensive end Corey Lemonier has recorded 9.5 sacks and five forced fumbles this season. Junior linebacker Daren Bates (96 tackles) and senior safety Neiko Thorpe (94 tackles) are solid contributors, as well.
Offensively, Auburn is led by sophomore tailback Michael Dyer, who ranked No. 2 in the SEC this fall in rushing (103.5 ypg). Dyer has tallied 1,242 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.
The Tigers average 174.8 rushing yards per game, which is critical because they haven’t gotten much production out of their passing game. Auburn has recorded more than 200 passing yards in a game this season once – in its season-opening 42-38 win over Utah State.
Sophomore Clint Moseley and junior Barrett Trotter competed to replace Cam Newton – who was vital in Auburn’s title run last season – and Trotter started the first seven games this fall. But in mid-October, Auburn Coach Gene Chizik handed the reins to Moseley, who has completed 62.5 percent of his passes. Moseley has thrown five touchdowns and two interceptions while averaging 138.8 passing yards in his five starts.
It hasn’t helped Auburn’s passing attack that junior wideout Emory Blake, the Tigers’ top receiver, has been battling a lingering ankle injury since the middle of the regular season. Blake – who sat out two games in October and did not catch a pass in Auburn’s final two regular season contests – has tallied 30 receptions for 505 yards and five touchdowns on the year.
Auburn’s offensive line, while competent in run blocking, has allowed 31 sacks this season, which is tied for No. 94 in the nation. Virginia has not been able to generate a consistent pass rush this season, but it would seem there will be ample opportunities against the Tigers.
On special teams, Auburn is fairly potent on kickoff returns. The Tigers led the SEC in kickoff return average (24.3 ypr) and returned two kickoffs for a touchdown. Freshman tailback Tre Mason was Auburn’s lead kickoff returner. He averaged 26.4 yards per kickoff return and has run one back for a touchdown this season. But he also has battled injury and a fumbling issue and didn’t return a kick in Auburn’s final two regular season games.
Instead, junior tailback Onterio McCalebb lined up to return kicks, and he proved quite capable, as well. McCalebb returned a kickoff 83 yards for a touchdown against Alabama and is averaging 32 yards per return on the season.