Auburn coach Gene Chizik will guide the Tigers’ defense during today’s Chick-fil-A Bowl against Virginia.
ATLANTA — One year after winning college football’s biggest prize, Auburn is in scramble mode.
One year after winning only four games, Virginia is on the rise. The Cavaliers have doubled their wins from last year.
The Tigers, who beat Oregon in last season’s national championship game, are unranked and having to plug holes for tonight’s Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Auburn running back Mike Dyer has been suspended by coach Gene Chizik for unspecified rules violations, and there’s no guarantee he’ll return in 2012. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof has left for the same post at Central Florida. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is coaching his final game with Auburn after being hired Arkansas State’s head coach.
Auburn also is expected to use a tandem of running backs to replace Dyer, the Southeastern Conference’s second-leading rusher. Junior Onterio McCalebb and freshman Tre Mason are expected to share the carries.
Chizik, the former defensive coordinator at four schools, including Auburn and Texas, has taken over the defense for the bowl.
“It’s kind of like getting back on a bike and getting used to it,” Chizik said. “One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most is getting back in depth with the players.”
In depth and intense.
Chizik has spent the last month making sure the defensive players understand mistakes will not be tolerated.
“He’s very detail oriented,” said safeties coach Tommy Thigpen. “He’s going to ask a question to the player, and you better have an answer, especially if you’ve been over it. If he asks you that question on the field, you don’t answer it correctly, you have to deal with it.”
Thigpen said Chizik’s lesson to players and assistant coaches is the same: “Makes guys accountable.”
“When they leave the meeting room, you can see the guys scrambling through their notes, trying to make sure when they go on the football field that they are doing exactly what he told them to do when it transfers over to the field,” Thigpen said.
“It’s been intense. When guys make a mistake, you can see them running over to make sure that he knows that they made the mistake but they know exactly what they did.”
Added Thigpen: “It’s been fun to watch.”
Auburn (7-5) was outscored 246-160 in Southeastern Conference games. The Tigers’ rushing defense ranks only 98th in the nation.
Chizik said he is thankful he didn’t have to find an immediate replacement for Malzahn, who has started recruiting players and assistants for Arkansas State staff while preparing Auburn’s offense.
“Gus has a lot of irons in the fire right now,” Chizik said. “It’s tough serving two masters, so to speak. He cares enough about the players and he cares enough about Auburn to stay here through the bowl game and I’m very appreciative of that. He’s been very focused when it’s time to focus on Auburn and us being very competitive in the game.”
Auburn needs to beat Virginia to avoid having its wins total from its 14-0 national championship season cut in half.
Second-year coach Mike London led the Cavaliers (8-4) to road wins over Miami and Florida State. Virginia won four straight before finishing its regular season with a 38-0 home loss to Virginia Tech.
Virginia is making its first bowl appearance since the Gator Bowl after the 2007 season. No current Virginia player has played in a bowl game. Only a few fifth-year seniors, including receiver Kris Burd, were on the 2007 team, but they didn’t play in the bowl game.
“I’ve been around in the good; we went to the Gator Bowl the first year,” Burd said. “I’ve been around for the bad years we’ve had. Wins aren’t easy to come by, especially in a conference like the ACC. Coach London came in and rejuvenated things around here, got the community behind us again.
“Coach London is passionate about his job and we’re very passionate about him. With us being passionate as a group, it leads to a lot of wins.”
Virginia has several key seniors, including cornerback Chase Minnifield, defensive end Cam Johnson, offensive guard Austin Pasztor and Burd. There is also youth with sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco and freshman running back Kevin Parks, who has combined with junior starter Perry Jones for 1,629 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns.