Posted by Jerry Hinnen
AUBURN WILL WIN IF: Gene Chizik still has some of that old defensive coordinating magic tucked away somewhere. With the exception of a handful of games during his team's 2010 national title run, Chizik -- a Broyles Award winner as a DC with a long and exemplary track record at both Auburn and Texas -- has never been able to translate that acumen to his defenses as a head coach, either at Iowa State or Auburn. That continued this year, as the Tigers slumped to a 79th-place finish in total defense, their formerly stout rush defense (which led the SEC in 2010) plummeting to 98th nationally.
With the Auburn offense an out-and-out shambles by season's end (the Tigers failed to score more than 17 points against any SEC team outside the state of Mississippi) and Gus Malzahn unlikely to fix it while splitting time with his new head coaching duties at Arkansas State, Chizik's winning formula will have to be the same as it was in his team's midseason upset of South Carolina and defeat of Florida: a stifling defensive effort paired with just enough points to get by. In up-and-coming defensive end Corey Lemonier and fiery senior linebacker Eltoro Freeman, Chizik has some of the pieces necessary to reprise those game-winning performances from earlier in the year. With Ted Roof out of the picture and the Dec. 31 date giving him plenty of time to work with his defense, this is Chizik's chance to prove he can still make a difference on the defensive side of the ball; if he's not up to it, it's highly doubtful his team will be up to winning the game, either.
VIRGINIA WILL WIN IF: they take advantage of their opportunities. There aren't many teams with a wider gap between their FBS rank in total offense and scoring offense than the Cavaliers, who finished a respectable 48th in yards but managed to come in 88th in points. The culprit's an easy one to spot: Virginia converted just 21 of its 42 red zone possessions into touchdowns, a 50 percent mark that placed them 105th nationally. Starting running back Perry Jones (883 yards) and sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco (2,359 passing yards, 7.3 an attempt) have been capable when it comes to moving the chains, but aren't much for the big play; Jones has only five touchdowns on 176 attempts, Rocco 11 TD throws (to 11 interceptions) on 325 passes.
Given Auburn's defensive frailties, Rocco, Jones and the Cavs are likely to move the ball and add a few more red zone possessions to their total of opportunities. But if they don't cash in, the game could devolve into the kind of diown-to-the-wire white-knuckler in which Chizik's teams have had so much success.
THE X-FACTOR: A major reason Auburn won those slugfests with the Gamecocks and Gators, or its season-opening shootout with Utah State? Its special teams, which feature Ray Guy award finalist Steven Clark at punter, dangerous kick returners Onterio McCalebb and Tre Mason (who each have a return for a score this season), and touchback machine Cody Parkey handling kickoffs. According to Phil Steele's special teams ratings, Auburn finished the year eighth in the kicking game and Virginia 91st. If those numbers prove accurate, the Cavs could have a hard time overcoming what might be a decisive Tiger advantage in field position.