Riding an impressive eight game winning streak,
the ninth ranked ACC champion Virginia Tech Hokies (10-2, 7-1) travel to the
Sugar Bowl for their first BCS game since the Michael Vick era to battle the
unbeaten, untied and thoroughly unsatisfied Auburn Tigers (12-0, 8-0). Auburn,
ranked third in the BCS formula behind USC and Oklahoma after an unbeaten
season, has been left out of the Orange Bowl despite running the table in
perhaps the top conference in the country. The Tigers are an impressive blend of
experience and youth and are led by the nation’s best scoring defense, a big
play offense with some truly outstanding players, and very good special teams.
The Tigers have also been blessed with good health this year, as 16 of their 22
starters have been able to start in every game.
As if in response to the attempted coup last year
by members of the Auburn administration, Auburn Coach Tommy Tuberville has done
a tremendous job molding his squad into a national championship caliber team and
in the process he has garnered National Coach of the Year accolades in many
circles. Tuberville hired a new offensive coordinator last year, Al Borges, and
gave him one edict – find a way to effectively get stud tailbacks Carnell “Cadillac”
Williams and Ronnie Brown on the field at the same time. Borges not only did
that, he also demonstrated confidence in previously embattled quarterback Jason
Campbell, and all three of his senior backfield stars stepped up to the plate
with All SEC seasons. There hasn’t been a more productive backfield this year
anywhere in college football.
Although many have made the observation already,
there are a lot of similarities both in terms of personnel and coaching
philosophy between the two schools. Both teams have overachieved this year and
are proof that sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its individual
parts. Both teams like to use the running game extensively to set up the pass,
and have relied on rugged defenses as the stabilizing force when the going got
tough. The coaches even share similar philosophies about special teams. On
paper, this game shapes up to be ESPN Instant Classic material.
Although still keyed by the running game, the
offense installed by Borges this year has some West Coast elements in that it is
a controlled passing attack. Auburn’s players have excelled in taking short
passes and turning them up field for significant yardage after the catch.
Statistically, Auburn averages 33.4 points per game,
eighteenth in the NCAA, with the rushing offense accounting for 189 yards per
game (25th nationally) and the passing game
generating 241 yards per contest (35th nationally). Auburn’s pass/run ratio is
heavily skewed in favor of the ground (510 rushing attempts versus 292 passing),
but the passing game is registering an extraordinarily high 9.9 yards per pass
attempt and 14.5 yards per completion. Auburn likes to run the ball
consistently, and then they use play action to make big plays in the passing
6’5”, 223 SR quarterback Jason Campbell came
of age this year under the tutelage of Borges. His statistics were worthy of
Heisman consideration, as he completed nearly 70 percent of his throws (69.7%)
for 19 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He led the Southeastern Conference
in pass efficiency and rated third overall nationally with a 172.7 rating.
Campbell is effective on rollouts and can throw
on the run. He is mobile, but is much more likely to look to throw the ball
downfield when he breaks containment than tuck the ball and run (only 52 carries
on the season for 103 yards). His 4.65 speed is sometimes underestimated by
opposing defenders because of his deceptively long gait.
As a passer, the knock on Campbell coming into
this year was that he was inconsistent. He has made much better reads this fall
which has led to his high completion percentage. Arm strength has never been an
issue for Campbell as he can make any throw necessary from the deep out to the
60 yard fly pattern. Campbell has a relatively long throwing motion and
occasionally locks into a receiver, so VT will have their chances to get to him
if they can force Auburn into must pass, third and long situations.
Auburn has the best pair of running backs in the
country, and both have first round NFL talent (although, as VT fans know,
running backs tend to slip on draft day). The 5’11”, 210 Williams doesn’t
have incredible measurables, but he might be the most instinctive runner in
college football today. He is an explosive back who is very, very difficult to
bring down in the open field. Williams runs like he is 230 pound plus pounds
with his high knee action. He also knows how to finish a run, so anyone tackling
him in the open field better come with some attitude and bring some friends.
On the season, Williams rushed for 1104 yards,
averaging 5.0 yards per carry, with 12 touchdowns. He also is a fine receiver
and he has 19 catches, fifth on the team, for 158 yards and a touchdown.
Williams returns punts and kickoffs. In terms of all around skills, Cadillac
Williams is one of the finest football players in the country.
6’1”, 231 SR Ronnie Brown is another terrific
back that made first team all conference. Brown probably has better straight
ahead speed than Williams and also runs with power. He lacks Williams’ ability
to cut in the open field, but he may be an even better pro prospect because of
his versatility. His time spent at fullback has only improved his blocking and
Brown rushed for 845 yards this year and had a
6.1 per carry average with eight touchdowns. He was also second on the team in
receptions with 34, averaging 9.1 yards per catch, and he is used extensively as
a pass receiver. Although not always used out of a split back set, Williams and
Brown are most often employed in that formation. Borges will look to isolate
both backs on linebackers and get them involved in the passing game, so both the
whips and both the backers must be solid in their coverage.
When Auburn goes to a straight I formation, their
traditional fullback is 6’2”, 237 JR Jake Slaughter. The aptly named
Slaughter is physical and a good blocker. He only has one carry on the year and
isn’t a factor in the passing game.
Speaking of the passing game, Auburn has a solid
quartet of receivers. Collectively, this is the tallest group of wideouts the
Hokies will have seen all year.
The starters are 6’2”, 198 SO Courtney Taylor
and 6’2”, 204 JR Devin Aromashodu. 6’1”, 198 JR Ben Obomanu and jumbo
Anthony Mix (6’5”, 241 JR) also see significant action. Taylor is the guy to
go as he leads the team in receptions (38), yards (650) and is second in
touchdowns with six. He has good deep speed and is the most polished of all the
Auburn wide receivers.
Aromashodu has really blossomed into a big play
guy this season. Even though he averages less than two catches per game (23
total on the year), he has generated a team leading 22.1 per catch and has three
touchdowns. Off play action, Campbell likes to look deep in his direction.
Obomanu has developed into the go to guy in the
red zone. He is third on the team with 25 catches but that includes seven
touchdowns. He uses his size well and isn’t afraid to go up and get the ball.
Mix is a possession type receiver with tight end
size. He has seventeen catches on the year and averages 13.3 yards per grab. The
Hokies must really be cognizant of tackling him because he makes a lot of yards
after initial contact.
6’4”, 258 JR Cooper Wallace is a returning
starter at tight end and a solid all around football player. While primarily
known for his blocking, Wallace was effective enough to snag 18 passes on the
season for 267 yards, a 14.8 average per catch. Wallace earned second team all
conference honors by the associated press. If opposing teams focus too much on
covering Williams and Brown out of the backfield, Cooper can hurt them in the
Auburn’s offensive line has been good this
year. The Tigers average 4.5 yards per rush, and they have only given up 16
sacks on the season despite playing some of the best defenses in the country.
The line has been even better lately, giving up just four sacks in the last six
games against the toughest teams on their schedule.
The big man up front, literally and figuratively,
is man mountain Marcus McNeill (6’9”, 332 JR). McNeill was selected as a
first team All-America in many circles, and rightfully so. McNeill has terrific
footwork and obviously is difficult to circumnavigate for pass rushers. His
massive size makes him formidable in the run game. Based on the little I’ve
seen McNeill, I think he’s the best offensive tackle VT will play all season.
I expect him to go pro and be a first round pick in April.
Although McNeill gets the headlines, the rest of
the line has also performed well. At left guard 6’3”, 302 SO Ben Grubbs has
adjusted very well to the offensive line after playing at both tight end and
defensive tackle previously. He is very tough and has better footwork than your
average guard. 6’2”, 281 SR C Jeremy Ingle anchors the middle, although
Auburn won’t hesitate to play 6’6”, 280 JR Steven Ross at the pivot if
necessary. Ingle was an honorable mention all conference selection by the media.
After being nicked at the end of the year, Ingle should be ready to go for the
The starters on the right side are 6’3”, 302
SR Danny Lindsey and 6’5”, 316 JR Troy Reddick. Lindsey started at center
last year and is a fine run blocker. He was voted second team all conference by
the coaches. Other than McNeill, he is the likely alternative in short yardage.
Reddick also started last season and shifted one spot from right guard to right
tackle. He made All-SEC Honorable Mention this year by the AP.
Auburn returned three starters from last year
along the line, and their top five players have started every game but two this
year (when Ross subbed for Ingle at center). This group has experience under
fire, and it is safe to say they will be a step up from the Miami group that VT
abused in the Orange Bowl.
Defense Coordinator Gene Chizik earned his stripes last year when he
orchestrated a defense that finished fifth nationally in total defense. However,
the loss of six of his front seven led most preseason prognosticators to predict
that Auburn’s defense would take a step back this year. Instead, the Tigers
took a significant step forward with a lot of new personnel, and as a result
Chizik is a finalist for the Broyles Award given annually to the top assistant
coach in the nation.
The Tigers use a base 4-3 defense with a fair
amount of stunting and blitzing. They play aggressively, yet with the exception
of the second half of the SEC Championship Game, they have played remarkably
disciplined football as well.
The Tigers are fifth nationally in total defense
(269.5 yards), sixteenth in rushing defense (106.5) and twenty-second in pass
efficiency defense. Most importantly, the Tigers are first overall in scoring
defense, yielding a paltry 11.2 points per game.
Prior to the rematch with Tennessee, Auburn had
surrendered one – yes, one – rushing touchdown on the season. UT did get
three touchdowns on the ground in the title game, but the point remains the
same: these guys get after it on defense.
Probably the biggest surprise this year is the
play of the Auburn defense line. The losses of DeMarco McNeil, Spencer Johnson
and Reggie Torbor were expected to really slow down the Tigers, but a veteran
cast led by some youthful reinforcements have given Auburn talent and depth.
Auburn led the SEC with 35 sacks this year.
The starters include three seniors and a junior.
The lone returning starter on the line is 6’5”, 273 SR defensive end Bret
Eddins. Eddins is a stay at home type that plays solidly and understands his
role in the scheme. On the year he has 18 tackles, including two sacks. The
bookend starter is 6’3”, 252 SR Doug Langenfeld and he has contributed
eleven tackles, including four for a loss and three sacks.
The backups at defensive end are fantastic and
bring terrific speed off the edge. The redshirt freshman duo of Stanley McGlover
(6’3”, 255) and Quentin Groves (6’3”, 242) combined for 15 sacks, evenly
split, which tied them for third in the SEC. Both look like stars in the making
and were freshman All-Americans. McGlover had 34 tackles, including 10 tackles
for a loss, and was far and away the leader in quarterback hurries with nine.
Groves contributed 22 tackles, with10 for a loss as well, and he had four
quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles. Both are better at this point at
rushing the passer rather than defending the run.
While both McGlover and Groves are technically
backups, they will get rotate in frequently and receive significant snaps.
Marquies Gunn (6’4”, 242 SO) will also take some snaps.
The inside guys at Auburn really have played well
this year. Defensive tackle Jay Ratliff (6’5”, 281 SR) moved from end last
year and has 34 tackles, including four for losses and five quarterback hurries.
Noseguard Tommy Jackson (6’2”, 302 JR) has had a very good season, as he is
fourth on the team with 49 tackles, including six for a loss, despite facing a
lot of traffic and some double teams inside. The media selected him first team
All-SEC, and controlling him will be a key to the Hokie running game. Much like
VT, Auburn rotates its defensive linemen and 6’1”, 296 R-FR Josh Thompson
(23 tackles) and 6’1”, 296 JR Wayne Dickens (19 tackles) will both see time.
The Auburn linebackers are led by 6’1”, 212
JR middle linebacker Travis Williams. Williams flies to the ball and he arrives
in a hurry. In that respect, he reminds me a little of D’Qwell Jackson of
Maryland. Williams led the Tigers with 76 total tackles and he also contributed
two interceptions. He was first team All-SEC by the coaches.
The strongside duties are handled by 6’4”,
244 SO Kevin Sears and 6’1”, 225 SO Karibi Dede. Sears has started every
game in which he played, but Dede has more tackles (28 versus 25) and has great
lateral movement. Sears is more of an anchor at the point of attack against
tight ends and fullbacks on isolation plays, but he came up with a very big
interception against Alabama in the red zone. Together Sears and Dede form an
The weakside was ably manned by 5’11”, 210 JR
Antarrious Williams for the first ten games this year (44 tackles, including
nine for a loss and three sacks), but a wrist injury that required surgery
forced him to miss the last two games of the season. Williams is out for the
bowl game as well.
SR Derrick Graves (6’1”, 228) was then
elevated to the starting lineup and he has experience, but he lacks Williams’
athleticism. Graves appeared to be victimized a few times in the second half of
the SEC title game when UT ran very effectively. Don’t be surprised to see VT
go right at Graves in the Sugar Bowl, or, at the very least, run some designed
cutbacks or misdirection plays on the backside to make sure he stays at home.
Don’t be surprised if R-FR Montavian Collier (6’2”, 208) sees some snaps
if Graves struggles.
Auburn’s secondary was expected to be the
strength of the defense this year and it hasn’t disappointed. Three starters
returned, and two of them earned All-America honors.
6’1”, 200 SR Carlos Rogers won the Thorpe
Award as the nation’s best defensive back and with good reason. Rogers brought
his best game every week and was a shut down corner. According to Auburn’s
calculations, Rogers only had 65 balls thrown at him the entire season,
resulting in 18 completions. When you consider he had 10 passes defensed and two
interceptions, he defended almost as many passes as he had completed on him
during the season.
Rogers also is aggressive in run support and is a
sure tackler. He had 41 tackles on the season, including five for a loss. I
expect him to play aggressively against VT’s young wide receivers, and they
should be prepared for him to be physical when they try to release. Although I
believe he is more consistent and had a much better season, Rogers plays a
similar style to Antrel Rolle of Miami.
The other corner is also a name familiar to
Virginia Tech fans, former Hokie commit Montavis Pitts. Pitts is a stellar
athlete as he has great size (6’3”, 198 SO) and is perhaps the fastest
player on the AU team. However, he is still raw technique wise and tends to lose
concentration. He has been tested often this year and opponents have had some
success. I expect VT to challenge Pitts in the passing game when the decide to
go up top.
Auburn’s safeties, Junior Rosegreen (6’0”,
198 SR) and Will Herring (6’4”, 222 SO) are both returning starters.
Rosegreen struggled and took a lot of heat for some mistakes his first few
years, but the error prone youngster has had a very good senior campaign.
Rosegreen was named first team All-SEC and made numerous All-America teams. He
was third on the team with 52 tackles and led the team with five interceptions.
He is a good tackler and is solid in coverage. He does occasionally overpursue
in the running game. He will end up in coverage on the VT tight end a fair
amount, and that matchup will be one to watch.
Free safety Will Herring is larger than the
majority of Auburn’s linebackers, and he is the last line of defense.
Surprisingly, at least for a good defense, he is second on the team with 57
tackles. He also has three interceptions. Herring covers a lot of ground in the
passing game and does a great job of patrolling the middle. He probably is more
effective in zone rather than man coverage.
Auburn’s Special Teams
Auburn has visited VT on a couple of occasions to
talk about special teams, and this is one case where the pupil may have
surpassed the teacher (at least this year). 5’11”, 168 SO Kody Bliss has
been a solid punter as he has averaged 42.3 yards per kick. The coverage has
also been very good, as Auburn nets 37.4 yards per punt. The average return
against the Tigers is less than seven yards, and they have blocked two punts on
Although he only has twelve attempts on the year,
6’1”, 200 SO John Vaughn has made nine of them. Vaughn is 50 of 51 on extra
point attempts. Vaughn also appears to be solid, although he certainly has not
had as much work as Brandon Pace.
Kickoff specialist Philip Yost (6’1”, 194 SR)
registers touchbacks on over half of his kicks (40 touchbacks out of 74 kicks),
so there haven’t been a lot of return opportunities. When opponents do take
the kick back, they average under 20 yards per return (19.9 officially).
Williams shows his versatility by doubling as the
primary punt and kickoff returner. Cadillac averages 11.7 yards per punt return,
and 18.8 per kickoff. He is capable of making a big play, but, frankly, his
kickoff numbers are slightly down because he simply hasn’t had many chances.
Because of their scoring defense, Auburn has only returned 14 kickoffs on the
entire season. The other deep safety on kickoffs likely will be Aromashodu (28.3
yards on three returns). Both Williams and Aromashodu are very good in space.
The Tigers are going to come to the Sugar Bowl
looking to win the special teams battle. Much like VT, Auburn uses its best
players on special teams. In addition to Cadillac, both Ronnie Brown and Carlos
Rogers (tied for the team lead with eight special teams tackles) see significant
time here. A big play in this third of the game could be the difference.
Without a lot of household names, particularly on
defense, Auburn has had a magical season. At the risk of overstating the
obvious, this is a very, very good football team.
Looking at the matchups, I believe that VT will
have the capability of controlling the AU running attack. The two best defenses
that Auburn faced, LSU and Alabama, both held the Tigers in check on the ground.
Against LSU, the Tigers ran 39 times for 140 yards, and against Bama Auburn had
41 carries for only 74 yards.
The problem with making the Tigers one
dimensional is that their one dimension is still very good. Campbell was lights
out in his last two games against Alabama and Tennessee, completing over 75 % of
his passes (45 of 59) for 598 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions.
I cannot imagine Campbell throwing the ball at anywhere near that clip against
the VT secondary, but the fact remains that he is playing fantastic football. As
good as the Hokie defense is, Auburn is going to score some points.
On offense, the Hokies need to start the game by
challenging Auburn on the ground to find out whether Tennessee’s success in
the title game (24 rushes for 228 yards) was just a product of an emotional
letdown or whether the Tigers really are struggling with trying to replace
Antarrious Williams. VT will also have to work in the short passing game to the
tight ends, while using play action to go at Pitts.
It goes without saying that turnovers and special
teams breakdowns are the quickest way for either team to lose this game.
There are a couple of miscellaneous factors that
I believe are working in Virginia Tech’s favor. In my opinion, the Hokies come
into the game with the psychological edge given Auburn’s natural letdown after
not making the national title game. While confident, I think the Hokies are
still looking to get some national respect out of this trip to the Sugar Bowl.
I also think Auburn has shown some defensive
vulnerability in their last few games, as Alabama led Auburn 6-0 after one half,
and, frankly, the lead should have been more, while UT controlled the action in
the second half of the SEC title game. Keep in mind Alabama was playing with its
second string quarterback, and UT was down to their third string signal caller.
Meanwhile, VT is playing its best football of the
year with the Miami win being much more impressive than the final score
indicated. If VT can run the ball, and I think they have a chance to, they can
win this game. I anticipate Bryan Randall having a good game with the optimum
The final point I’ll mention is that Auburn has
only had three games all year within 17 points – a nip and tuck 10-9 win over
LSU, a 21-13 win at Alabama, and the 38-28 SEC title game win over UT. Although
the scores of the latter two games were close, neither team was a truly
significant threat to come back late in the game against Auburn because neither
had a viable passing game. VT does bring a solid, if unspectacular, passing game
to the table, and they have had an awful lot of experience (and success) in
close games this season.
It could be that I’m just too partial to this
VT team to be objective, but I’ve picked them in every game since West
Virginia and I’m going to ride this horse until it drops. In a game that is a
little higher scoring than the experts think because of the conditions in the
Dome, VT prevails.
Prediction: VT 24, Auburn 23
Will Stewart's Take: Those of you who have read my
last couple of predictions know where this one's headed. This is a VT team that
knows how to win. Does that mean they'll win everything? Not necessarily. The
1996 VT team knew how to win, too -- and closed that season very strong -- but
still didn't have enough for Nebraska in the Orange Bowl that year, despite Jim
Druckenmiller playing an incredible game.
Maybe that will be the case with this Sugar Bowl against
Auburn. Maybe the Tigers will just be too much for the Hokies. We'll see. Auburn
better come ready to play, though, which means that they'll have to put aside
all those peripheral issues -- finishing 3rd in the BCS, not getting to go to
the championship game, Coach Tuberville being linked with the LSU vacancy -- and
concentrate on the team lining up across from them the night of January 3rd.
And they better take VT seriously, too. Despite what the
Hokies have done in the last ten years, I think there's a tendency for storied
programs like Auburn, who have been a major thread in the fabric of college
football for decades, to view the Hokies as a johnny-come-lately not worthy of
proper attention. That too is a mistake. Just ask Texas (1995), Alabama (1998),
LSU (2002), and Texas A&M (2002, 2003). That's not to say that all of those
teams took VT lightly, but it is to say that the Hokies have a remarkable record
of success in the last 10 years against more tradition-laden teams from strong
conferences. Among teams of that ilk, only Nebraska (1996) and Florida State
(1999, 2001) emerged from out of conference meetings with the Hokies unscathed.
(Count Cal if you want to, but I don't; they don't have the history of
accomplishment those other teams have.)
This should be a good one. Hokie fans, don't get your
gobblers in a wad if Auburn comes out and hangs 10-14 quick points on the
Hokies. Bud Foster's defense has reeled early in more than one game this season,
only to pull its feet back under it and get stronger as the game goes on. (Don't
you love that?) Likewise, the offense has shown itself to be patient and
opportunistic, striking late in key games this season. So don't let the first
quarter or so of action let you feel as if that's how the whole game is going to
go, whether the first quarter goes well for VT or not.
Lastly, repeat after me: I BELIEVE.