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2011 Chick-Fil-A Bowl Preview

Virginia Cavaliers vs Auburn Tigers

One of the very best non-January bowl games lacks its usual punch this season, but that won’t mean that the 2011 Chick-Fil-A Bowl will be lopsided or otherwise lacking in drama.

In past seasons, the bowl game formerly known as the Peach Bowl has been a showcase for teams that didn’t make the BCS bowl lineup, particularly on the SEC side of this ACC-SEC matchup. Tennessee, LSU and Georgia made this game in recent years when those three programs fell just short in the race for the SEC championship. The Miami Hurricanes played in the December 2004 edition of this event (which was also staged in January of 2004) when they were on the downside of their glory years. Most December bowls pair teams that don’t generate substantial national interest, but the heft of the SEC and an occasional brand-name program from the ACC (Miami in 2004, Virginia Tech in 2006 and 2009) have consistently drawn over 70,000 fans to the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Over the past eight years, only Miami’s presence in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl has dragged the attendance dipped below the 70,000 mark. This is the product of above-average matchups and an ability to find second- or third-place teams from BCS conferences.

This year, the calculus hasn’t favored bowl organizers.

Because of the SEC’s three teams at the top of the West Division (LSU, Alabama and Arkansas), the Auburn Tigers – fourth in the West – were the best available selection for the Chick-Fil-A committee. Auburn finished 7-5 this season and got blasted by at least 24 points in four of its losses. In November, coach Gene Chizik’s club fell apart, slogging through an ugly win over Samford – a lower-division opponent – while getting crushed in SEC contests against Georgia and Alabama. Georgia had made a habit out of winning SEC games by close margins in 2011, but against Auburn, the Dawgs produced a 45-7 blowout. Auburn, as a home underdog, severely tested Alabama two years ago, losing to the 2009 national champions by a 26-21 score. This year, Auburn couldn’t keep up with the Crimson Tide on home turf, losing 42-14 and scoring no points on offense. Had Auburn’s defense and special teams not scored one touchdown apiece, the Tigers would have been shut out by their archrivals from Tuscaloosa. This is a very weak team due to the loss of 2010 Heisman Trophy winner Cameron Newton and defensive tackle Nick Fairley. Auburn doesn’t meet the typical Chick-Fil-A standard of quality (and we’re not talking about food, either).

On the ACC side, the Chick-Fil-A Bowl unearthed an overachiever, but the Virginia Cavaliers – a huge surprise as an 8-4 team – aren’t a marquee draw in the Georgia Dome. Coach Mike London was clearly the best coach in the ACC Coastal Division this season, changing the subculture to a degree few thought possible. Virginia’s passing game did not strike fear into opponents these past three months, but the Cavaliers’ commitment to a physical style of play allowed their ground game to flourish behind the tandem of Perry Jones and Kevin Parks. London’s ability to squeeze eight wins out of a team with limited tools speaks to his ability, and to the future Virginia has under his leadership.

What we’re left with is a matchup that, while not sexy, should be very competitive. Auburn and Virginia should play old-fashioned slobberknocker football, trying to establish the better running game between the tackles. Virginia’s Jones-Parks combo will be countered by Auburn running back Michael Dyer. This game shouldn’t light up the scoreboard, but it should be fiercely contested from opening kick to final gun.

The Chick-Fil-A doesn’t have a blockbuster matchup. It should still witness a game that will go down to the final minutes.

By: Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer

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