A year ago, Auburn won the national title by completing an unbeaten season. Virginia was licking its wounds from another losing campaign.
The upstart Cavaliers may be enjoying the more accomplished season this time.
Virginia goes for its first postseason win in six years when it faces the Tigers in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta on New Year’s Eve.
Most sports books monitored by SportsOptions have installed Auburn as three-point favorites, with the total set at 48 1/2.
Auburn (7-5) won its second national championship last season, beating Oregon in the BCS title game – its fourth consecutive bowl victory – to cap a 14-0 season.
After losing a great deal of the roster including Heisman Trophy winning junior quarterback Cam Newton, the Tigers have endured an inconsistent season, finishing 4-4 in SEC play.
While the Tigers were lifting a trophy last season, Virginia (8-4) went 4-8 to finish outside the bowl picture for a third year in a row.
It’s been a different story in 2011 for the Cavaliers, who nearly reached the ACC title game before falling 38-0 to then-sixth-ranked Virginia Tech in their regular season finale.
“Last year at this time, I was packing it up and putting it away for the season,” senior wide receiver Kris Burd said. “It’s my last game coming up. It’s going to be an emotional game and I’m looking forward to it.”
Second-year Virginia coach Mike London is pleased with the dramatic turnaround.
“No one thought we’d be this far or get to this point,” he said.
Michael Rocco will be under center for the Cavaliers looking to redeem himself after a difficult performance in the loss to the Hokies. The sophomore completed 16 of 27 passes for 211 yards but with two interceptions, matching his total from the previous seven games when he also tossed 10 touchdowns.
Virginia will surely need a better performance from the offensive line, which allowed Rocco to be sacked a season-high four times against Virginia Tech while the running game was held to 30 yards.
The front five, which includes senior All-American guard Austin Pasztor, is considered among the ACC’s best, having given up just 15 total sacks while the Cavaliers averaged 165.3 yards on the ground.
They’ll now face an Auburn defense that surrenders 29.3 points and 405.8 total yards per game, second-most in the SEC for both categories.
It’ll be up to coach Gene Chizik to help the Tigers contain Virginia. He’s assumed the role of defensive coordinator after Ted Roof left to take the same position at Central Florida.
“I’m doing a good juggling act right now,” Chizik said. “Time management is something I’m trying to spend a lot of time trying to balance out right now. It’s a challenge, but I’m making it work.”
At least Chizik won’t have to worry about the offense, since coordinator Gus Malzahn is expected on the sidelines despite already having been introduced as Arkansas State’s next coach.
It’s still unclear who Malzahn will be directing in the huddle.
Clint Moseley took over for Barrett Trotter as the starting quarterback down the stretch, but now freshman Kiehl Frazier is also emerging as an option.
During a season-ending 2-3 stretch as the starter, Moseley completed 62.1 percent of his passes for 674 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions, all returned for TDs.
Frazier has been used in wildcat formations, completing 5 of 12 passes for 34 yards and two picks. He’s a more imposing threat on the ground, gaining 272 yards and a score on 60 carries.
However, Frazier has seen more time with the starting offense recently, and this could be his chance to make a case for unseating Moseley as the Tigers’ starting quarterback for 2012.
“He’s getting more reps in the regular offense, because he understands it better,” Chizik said. “He understands different concepts.”
Whichever quarterback is under center will have to contend with a stingy Virginia defense that allows an average of 214.8 passing yards, and he’ll have to do it without top running back Michael Dyer.
Dyer is suspended for the Chick-fil-A Bowl for violating team rules, leaving the Tigers without their first player to top 1,000 rushing yards in his first two seasons.
The sophomore, who ran for 1,242 yards and 10 touchdowns this season, is likely to be replaced by Onterio McCalebb.
McCalebb, a junior who is more than 30 pounds lighter than the 206-pound Dyer, ran for 532 yards with an average of 5.2 per carry and four scores. He also caught 30 passes for 291 yards and a TD.
The teams have split two all-time meetings with Virginia winning the most recent Sept. 3, 1998.
The Cavaliers’ last postseason appearance was a 31-28 loss to Texas Tech in the Gator Bowl on Jan. 1, 2008, when they blew a 14-point fourth quarter lead and allowed the decisive field goal with two seconds to play.