Auburn Vs. Virginia, Chick-fil-A Bowl 2011: Meeting In The Middle

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - NOVEMBER 26: The Virginia Cavaliers run onto the field prior to their game against the Virginia Tech Hokies at Scott Stadium on November 26, 2011 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images)

These two teams moved quickly in different directions in 2011. Do the Hoos have it in them to make a statement win in a bowl that big names typically win?

NOTE: Confused? See the quick glossary at the bottom.

A year ago, Auburn won their first national title in over 50 years and their first Heisman in over 25 years. They were the talk of college football, for (mostly) better or (sometimes) worse. Virginia, meanwhile, was going 2-8 versus FBS teams, with five losses by double digits and an F/+ ranking of 81st. This year? Different story. The two teams are separated by one game and just three spots in the F/+ rankings. Virginia improved by four games, Auburn regressed by six. Auburn is looking for two new coordinators and fighting off "Star running back transferring" rumors, while Virginia just locked down their up-and-coming head coach with a raise and a contract extension. Auburn still has the history, the trophies and the rings, but Virginia, at least for now, has the momentum.

Team Record AP Rank 2011 F/+ Rk 2011 Off.
F/+ Rk
2011 Def.
F/+ Rk
2011 S.T.
F/+ Rk
Virginia 8-4 NR 57 55 45 95
Auburn 7-5 NR 60 64 67 6
Team Pace Rk Covariance Rk MACtion Rk Schizophrenia Rk
Virginia 33 50 39 15
Auburn 104 91 6 85

Auburn ranked ninth in the SEC in F/+, and they were outscored by 61 points in the regular season, but thanks to their continued ability to pull out wins in close games, they are bowling once again. After going an incredible 7-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less in 2010, they went 3-0 this year. That got them bowl-eligible, but a series of blowouts (their five losses came by an average of 28 points) cast a rather negative pall on the season. They play the role of the battered and bruised former champion in this one; Virginia, meanwhile, plays the contender who's just happy to be there. Motivation will play a role in this one, to be sure. Will Auburn be licking its wounds or playing angry? Will Virginia be too busy patting itself on the back?

When Virginia Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Virginia Offense 55 70 51 79 75 74 77
Auburn Defense 67 71 93 82 55 56 72
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Virginia Offense 60.1% 89 32.8% 71
Auburn Defense 65.2% 64 39.5% 81
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

Either Virginia's offense works, or it doesn't. Either Perry Jones is serving as one of the most enjoyable multi-threats in the country (rushing, receiving, punt returns), or he is rendered invisible. Either Michael Rocco is looking like one of the better pro-style quarterbacks in the country, or he is completing 50 percent of his passes. Either Kris Burd is catching eight passes or one.

In 2011, the Cavaliers were either playing well above average, or they were dreadful. And in the end, no matter how entertaining Perry Jones can be (like Alabama's Trent Richardson, Jones was UVa's No. 1 running back and No. 2 receiver, rushing for 883 yards and pulling in 416 through the air), the Cavs seemed to live and die with Michael Rocco's right arm. In the Hoos' wins, Rocco's average passer rating was 138.1; in losses: 98.4. If you can stop the pass, and if you can get in Rocco's face a little bit and/or turn him over, you will neuter the Virginia offense. The running game can be interesting, but it will not carry Virginia. They need Rocco finding Burd (810 yards, 9.2 per target) and Tim Smith (565 yards, 9.3 per target).

Can Auburn's secondary slow this unit down then? Don't count on it. In a defense, heavy conference, the Tigers couldn't keep up. They ranked 72nd in Passing S&P+, 81st in Passing Downs S&P+ and 96th in Adj. Sack Rate, and most of those poor ratings were earned with starter T'Sharvan Bell, who blew up his knee in the 10th game of the season. The last time Auburn played at even an above average level was mid-October. This has been a very poor defense ever since.

When Auburn Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Auburn Offense 64 49 58 44 19 28 32
Virginia Defense 45 29 34 19 44 17 46
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Auburn Offense 73.9% 23 35.4% 29
Virginia Defense 59.8% 13 31.3% 58
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

When Auburn has the ball, there will be all sorts of contrasts at play. Auburn has been rather inefficient for the season, and Virginia has made a lot of offenses inefficient. Meanwhile, Virginia has allowed a few too many big plays, and Auburn has been reliant on big plays. Expect Auburn to fall into quite a few second- and third-and-long situations, and expect them to convert quite a few.

Of course ... everything about Auburn in that last paragraph involved Gus Malzahn as offensive coordinator and Michael Dyer (1,242 yards, plus-7.0 Adj. POE) at running back. Malzahn has now been doing double duty as Arkansas State's head coach, and Dyer is suspended. That puts a lot of pressure on Onterio McCalebb (532 rushing yards, plus-2.4 Adj. POE to make plays, and it means likely starting quarterback Clint Moseley (794 yards, 63-percent completion rate, 7.6 yards per pass, five touchdowns, three interceptions) doesn't have his safety valve. It does, however, appear he'll have at least a mostly healthy Emory Blake at his disposal. The Tigers' No. 1 receiver by far, he has been plagued by ankle injury but still led AU with 52 targets, 30 catches and 505 yards in 10 games.

For Virginia, then, it comes down to the big plays. They'll make their share -- the Hoos have made 83 tackles for loss, led by tackle Matt Conrath (11) and end Cam Johnson (11) -- especially against the run. And even the cornerbacks will get into the act; Chase Minnifield has seven tackles for loss himself. But there will be pressure on the pass defense to come through. UVa ranks just 84th in Adj. Sack Rate, and it shows on passing downs. If Moseley is calm and on his game, he should eventually find some open receivers downfield.

The Verdict

Virginia by 0.6.

The Cavs hold an edge on both sides of the ball, but special teams skew drastically toward Auburn, and if this game is close, one has to still believe the Tigers are likely to stay calm and make plays. It's what they do. But it's what Virginia did in 2011 as well (5-1 in one-possession games). This is a great opportunity for the Hoos to make a statement, not because Auburn is an amazing team this year, but because they are still a name brand, because they have only won nine games in a season once in the last nine years, because this is still an ACC vs. SEC matchup, and because this is still the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Florida State, Virginia Tech, LSU (twice), Auburn and Georgia, all big names, have won the last six Chick-fil-A Bowls. Do the Hoos have it in them to steal a close game from the close-game champions?

--------------------

A Quick Glossary

Covariance: This tells us whether a team tends to play up or down to their level of competition. A higher ranking means a team was more likely to play well against bad teams while struggling (relatively speaking) against good ones. (So in a way, lower rankings are better.) For more, go here.

F/+ Rankings: The official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

MACtion: This is a look at how closely teams are associated with big-play football (like those high-scoring, mid-week MAC games). Teams that rank high on the MACtion scale play games with a ton of both big plays (gained and allowed) and passing downs. For more, go here.

Pace: This is calculated by going beyond simply who runs the most plays. Teams that pass more are naturally inclined to run more plays (since there are more clock stoppages involved), so what we do here is project how many plays a team would typically be expected to run given their run-pass ratio, then compare their actual plays to expectations. Teams, then, are ranked in order from the most plays above the expected pace, to the least.

Passing Downs: Second-and-7 or more, third-and-5 or more.

PPP: An explosiveness measure derived from determining the point value of every yard line (based on the expected number of points an offense could expect to score from that yard line) and, therefore, every play of a given game.

S&P+: Think of this as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

Schizophrenia: This measures how steady a team's performances are throughout the course of a full season. Teams with a higher ranking tend to be extremely unpredictable from week to week. For more, go here.

Standard Downs: First downs, second-and-6 or less, third-and-4 or less.

Success Rate: A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.

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