By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When he went to bed late Saturday night after watching the ACC championship game, UVa football coach Mike London wasn’t ready to rule out Atlanta as a postseason destination for his team, even if Nashville appeared to be a much more likely landing spot.
By the end of practice Sunday afternoon, however, London still had not heard anything definitive. So before dismissing his players, he told them the Cavaliers could end up in Nashville or Atlanta — or even El Paso or Charlotte.
“I just said, ‘There’s a bunch of different scenarios,’ ” London recalled in a phone interview late Sunday night.
UVa’s preferred scenario — a New Year’s Eve game in Atlanta — became reality Sunday night after Virginia Tech, to the surprise of many in the college football world, received an at-large invitation to the Bowl Championship Series.
Tech, which Clemson crushed in the ACC title game, was expected to land in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Instead, the Hokies are headed to the Sugar Bowl to face Michigan, and Virginia will represent the ACC in the Chick-fil-A.
“It’s a great opportunity for [Tech], but it also opened up an opportunity for us,” said London, the ACC coach of the year.
UVa (8-4) will face defending national champion Auburn (7-5) at the Georgia Dome on Dec. 31 at 7:30 p.m. in a game that ESPN will televise nationally.
“My phone’s ringing off the hook,” London said. “Playing New Year’s Eve, you can’t get any better than this. It’s outstanding.”
Had the Sugar Bowl not spurned Boise State and Kansas State in favor of Virginia Tech, UVa would be bound for the Music City Bowl. The Wahoos’ staff, in fact, had already begun breaking down videotape on Mississippi State, which will represent the SEC in Nashville.
“We were ready to go to the Music City,” London said.
That Virginia is instead headed to the Chick-fil-A (formerly the Peach) for the fourth time in school history struck London as fitting. Other possibilities for the Atlanta bowl were Florida State and Georgia Tech, teams that UVa defeated during the regular season.
“This validates the fact that they’re looking to reward the football players,” London said. “And this was a reward for settling it on the field and playing the games. The bowl opportunity for this fit the season we had.”
Virginia, which went 4-8 in 2010, its first year under London, was picked to finish fifth in the ACC’s Coastal Division this season. The ‘Hoos ended up second, behind Virginia Tech, and earned a bowl invitation for the first time since 2007.
The Cavaliers’ feats this fall included road wins over ACC rivals Florida State and Miami, both on national television. UVa never had won in Tallahassee until this season. Now comes another opportunity for Virginia, against a perennial power.
“If you talk about the program taking steps,” London said, “this is another one: playing the defending national champs on national television. We’re looking forward to it. It’s only going to help us in recruiting.”
UVa and Auburn have met only twice in football. In the 1997 season-opener, the Tigers, then coached by Terry Bowden, beat George Welsh’s Cavaliers 28-17 at Scott Stadium. A year later, UVa opened the season by winning 19-0 at Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium.
The Cavaliers went 5-3 in ACC play this season, and the Tigers were 4-4 in the SEC. Both ended the regular season with one-sided losses in rivalry games: UVa, 38-0 to Virginia Tech; Auburn, 42-14 to Alabama.
London said he expects wide receivers Matt Snyder and E.J. Scott to play in the bowl game. Injuries and illness sidelined both players for part of the regular season. Snyder is a team captain who started four of UVa’s first six games before getting hurt.
The team, which went through a light practice Sunday afternoon, is off Monday and Tuesday. The Cavaliers return to practice Wednesday.
Atlanta was the site of Virginia’s first bowl appearance. On New Year’s Eve in 1984, UVa beat Purdue 27-24 in the Peach Bowl.
In the 1995 Peach Bowl, UVa defeated Georgia 34-27. Three years later, in what was called the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, those teams met again, and this time the Bulldogs edged the ‘Hoos 35-33.
Auburn’s most recent appearance in the Chick-fil-A came in 2007, when the Tigers beat Clemson in overtime.