In the final installation in our weekly series looking at UVA's Peach Bowl opponent, we'll check out the somewhat-maligned Auburn Tiger defense. It wasn't up to SEC standards; Auburn finished in the bottom half of the country in all major categories, and the result was that DC Ted Roof "left" to take the same position at Central Florida.
Auburn's defensive scheme is not complicated. Gene Chizik's roots are on the defense - he was a DC at four prior stops (Auburn included) before taking the head job at Iowa State, and he'll play that role during the bowl game as well. Chizik and Roof run a very basic 4-3 defense that's not especially different from the one run here at UVA. They spend a lot of time in Cover 2 with two deep safeties and the corners playing close to the line of scrimmage. So there isn't much that an experienced offensive coordinator hasn't seen before; Auburn depends on being able to recruit faster, better players and letting them make plays.
One media report suggests Roof was let go because Auburn has had trouble against the pass even while being stout against the run; I don't know about past years but the truth in 2011 was that more opponents than not outgained their per-game average on the ground, and the reverse was true through the air.
This defense has a few playmakers, but nobody quite like Nick Fairley, who's off to the pros. It's a very young defense. There are no upperclass starters on the defensive line and only one in the secondary. Nickel corner Jermaine Whitehead and starting DT Gabe Wright are both true freshmen; starting cornerback Jonathan Mincy is a redshirt freshman. They start five sophomores, too. The only veteran unit is the linebackers.
Probably the best player is DE Corey Lemonier, who has 9.5 sacks and 15 QB hurries, as well as 13 TFL, better numbers in all cases than anyone on UVA can offer. He's also forced five fumbles. Lemonier is absolutely the real deal. But the rest of the defensive line is so-so at best; a lot of the playmaking is done by the linebackers. OLB Daren Bates is an excellent, rangy player who has 96 tackles, and MLB Eltoro Freeman is solid too.
At cornerback is where Auburn's biggest issues lie. T'Sharvan Bell was the best they had, with two picks and seven breakups, but he wrecked his knee in the Georgia game; that's partly why there are so many freshmen in the secondary. Out of Auburn's 10 picks this year, only one came from a non-Bell cornerback, so look for safeties Neiko Thorpe and Demetruce McNeal to be the secondary's biggest playmakers. They are the second- and third-leading tacklers on the team, respectively; probably not a great sign overall for the defense, but Thorpe in particular is a player worth watching. He's one of just two senior starters on this defense (Freeman is the other.)
Statistically speaking, there's not much that jumps out. This isn't really a good defense, but it's not a terrible one. Individually, Lemonier is the only one with eye-popping stats, although Thorpe and Bates make their mark pretty well, too. They've had some really good days; wins over South Carolina and Florida were defensively dominant. But Clemson, Mississippi State, and Georgia gashed the shit out of them. Those five teams cover a pretty wide range of talent; these performances are the kind of inconsistency that shouldn't come as any surprise with so many underclassman starters.
Overall though, the results weren't good. As mentioned, the Tigers were in the bottom half of the country in everything, and second-from-last in the SEC against both the pass and the run. Only 2-10 Mississippi was worse. And even the Somalia States of their schedule moved the ball pretty well. Samford and FAU each managed over 300 yards. (We should be hoping for more than that, but this is 1-11 Florida Atlantic we're talking about.)
UVA should be well able to pick up yardage. In terms of YPC-allowed, the most similar run defenses we've faced are GT and Maryland. (Auburn allows 4.66 per carry and is 88th in the country; GT and Md. allow 4.53 and 4.68, respectively.) In both those games, UVA picked up over 200 yards on the ground and controlled the tempo this way. It's possible Auburn could jump all over the Hoos and we could have just a terrible game on offense; their defense is a little bit like playing Russian roulette. You might get your face blown off like South Carolina, but chances are you'll spin the chamber and come out OK.
A couple items to clean up the stuff I haven't addressed yet, before we go on break here:
-- In this case, stuff I've been sitting on for a long time and generally forgetting about, from lacrosse: the Nick O'Reilly suspension. Which is for the whole year. O'Reilly, you might remember, played a starring role in the NCAAs last year, especially in the championship against Maryland where he had four assists. He might well have been John Haldy's replacement on the first offensive midfield this year. So it's a little bit of a test of our depth; with Colin Briggs and Rob Emery more or less having two spots locked up on the first unit, Mark Cockerton is the next option. Coupled with the Connor English transfer, it leaves us with a very formidable top six on offense - maybe the best in the country - but not much that's proven after that. Matt Kugler is OK but no superstar, and most every other option on either attack or offensive mid has only ever seen garbage time (Pat Harbeson), redshirted (Owen Van Arsdale) or is an incoming freshman (Carl Walrath, etc.)
-- More spring sports: we're getting more baseball on TV! ESPNUVA is expanding its baseball coverage - finally, the SEC isn't the only regular season college ball on TV - and UVA is on three times this season, more than any other ACC team except FSU, which also has three dates. (In fact, only one of the baseball broadcasts doesn't feature either FSU or UVA.) The downside is that these games are all on Monday - meaning three of our weekend series are moved from Fri-Sun to Sat-Mon. It's weird, but it's a smallish price to pay for getting watch the UVA nine in action on national TV. Our Monday games against FSU, Wake, and Miami are gonna be on the tube. Excellent, excellent news. (This is one of the more palatable byproducts of the conference arms race - the games are part of the ACC's deal with ESPN.) The national exposure is huge, as is the obvious implication that Virginia is one of the marquee teams in one of the nation's marquee conferences.
-- Let us never schedule Seattle again in basketball. That is all.
-- Offensive tackle might have been a major depth issue with next year's football team. But Oday Aboushi has made it clear he's coming back, and Morgan Moses very likely will as well, so we should be in great shape. We'll have to replace most of the interior, but the pass protection ought to be excellent.
-- I know that every offseason, you hear of football players doing knuckleheaded-ass things, but the kicker is usually squeaky clean. But the home-invasion story out of Blacksburg that resulted in VT kicker Cody Journell's suspension is a pretty epic one, as these stories go. If you're gonna get charged with home invasion, "they stole our weed" is a way funnier motive than "they were calling us names." The fact that the home-invadees (one of which happens to be VT's star hoopster Dorenzo Hudson) chased down and beat hell out of Journell's chucklehead buddies is even better. I'm not even mad that Hudson didn't get charged with assault. Apparently the chucklehead buddies tried to get the police to do so, but the local constabulary usually has little interest in sympathy for people who wave pellet guns at people in order to break into their house.
Christmastime appears to be nigh upon us. I can tell these things. It's a gift. The good news for you is that I'm not traveling anywhere for the first time in a while. Instead of a week off, which I typically end up taking, I'm rolling with four days. I return Tuesday. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Bah Humbug, and all the rest to you and yours.