By Jeff White
ATLANTA — Auburn University’s football team capped the 2010 season by beating Oregon for the national title.
The University of Virginia’s first season under Mike London ended less auspiciously. UVa lost by 30 points to Virginia Tech on Nov. 27, 2010, to finish with a 4-8 record.
A year later, Virginia’s fortunes have improved markedly. London is the ACC coach of the year, and the Cavaliers will cap his second season by sharing a New Year’s Eve stage with the defending national champions.
UVa (8-4) and Auburn (7-5) meet at 7:30 p.m. in the Chick-fil-A Bowl at the sold-out Georgia Dome. ESPN will carry the one football game scheduled for prime time Saturday night.
“Only show in town!” London told his players Friday afternoon before their final walk-through of the season. “Only show in town!”
Not since 2005, when the Wahoos rallied to beat Minnesota in the Music City Bowl, have they ended a season with a victory. Win or lose Saturday night, UVa will finish above .500 for the first time since ’07, so this will be remembered as a successful season. A victory, though, would be huge for a program looking to build more momentum for 2012.
“It would send us in the right direction,” All-ACC defensive tackle Matt Conrath said. “The way the season has been, I think it would be a fitting note to go out on.”
Conrath is among the many seniors preparing to suit up for the final time as Cavaliers, a group that also includes defensive tackle Nick Jenkins, defensive end Cam Johnson, linebacker Aaron Taliaferro, cornerbacks Chase Minnifield and Dom Joseph, safeties Corey Mosley and Rodney McLeod, offensive guard Austin Pasztor, center Anthony Mihota, wide receivers Kris Burd and Matt Snyder, fullback Max Milien, punter Jimmy Howell and kickers Robert Randolph and Chris Hinkebein. (Minnifield, a two-time All-ACC selection, is dealing with an undisclosed injury and will be a game-time decision Saturday.)
“This being our last year, it’s definitely a special thing for us to come this far, after all these ups and downs,” Taliaferro said.
UVa’s fifth-year seniors were freshmen on the team that lost to Texas Tech in the Gator Bowl on Jan. 1, 2008, but none of them played in that game. They came into 2011 determined to avoid a fourth straight losing season.
“We weren’t going to go out that way,” Conrath said. “We were going to go out playing in a bowl game, and we accomplished that this season.”
UVa’s accomplishments have been many. On Sept. 10, the ‘Hoos won 34-31 at Indiana, their first road victory under London. On Oct. 15, Virginia upset then-No. 12 Georgia Tech at Scott Stadium, overpowering a defense overseen by Al Groh.
On Oct. 27, on ESPN’s Thursday night showcase, UVa knocked off ACC rival Miami. Victories over Maryland and Duke followed, and then Virginia edged Florida State 14-13 in Tallahassee. That made UVa the first team ever to win at Miami and FSU in the same season.
One regular-season game remained, against Virginia Tech at Scott Stadium. A victory would have sent the ‘Hoos to the ACC championship game, but the Hokies dominated throughout and romped 38-0.
“It was a tough loss,” UVa quarterback Michael Rocco said Thursday. “It was a complete surprise to a lot of us how the game ended, how we played during the game. I know right after the game a bunch of the guys were saying, ‘I wish we could get out there and do it again, it would be a completely different outcome.’
“You can’t do that. We moved on. We watched the film, learned from our mistakes, moved on.”
The Cavaliers arrived in Atlanta on Monday and spent much of the week competing against the Tigers in various off-the-field contests, from go-kart racing to milkshake-making. The main event comes Saturday night, when UVa faces an Auburn team that’s endured a tumultuous five weeks since closing the regular season with a 42-14 loss to its hated rival, Alabama.
Early this month, defensive coordinator Ted Roof, a former Duke head coach, left Auburn to take the same position at Central Florida. (Head coach Gene Chizik also will oversee the Tigers’ defense Saturday night.)
Then All-SEC tailback Michael Dyer was suspended for the bowl game for violating a team rule. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn then accepted the head job at Arkansas State, though he’ll call the plays for Auburn at the Georgia Dome.
“There have been some distractions,” Chizik said Friday. “There have been some things that have been tough. One thing I have to say about our young guys is they’re very resilient. A lot of our young guys were around last year when we had to deal with a lot of adversity and different distractions as well on a championship run.”
The regular season was also rocky for Auburn, which switched quarterbacks in late October. Even so, London remains wary of the Tigers, and understandably so.
“I know people talk about how many losses they have,” London said, “but you look at who they lost to.”
Indeed, all of the teams that beat Auburn are ranked in the latest Associated Press poll: No. 1 LSU, No. 2 Alabama, No. 7 Arkansas, No. 14 Clemson and No. 18 Georgia. Then again, none of those games were close. The Tigers’ average margin of defeat this season is 27.8 points.
“They talk about the SEC as a mighty, powerful conference, but I think we’re up for the challenge,” Minnifield said.
“We just gotta come out there and play fast,” said sophomore Morgan Moses, UVa’s starting right offensive tackle. “We can’t wait until the second or third quarter to come out and play, because we are playing a good team. We’re playing last year’s national champion.”
The Georgia Dome, home of the NFL’s Falcons, seats 71,228, and the crowd may include more Auburn fans than UVa supporters Saturday night. Still, London believes the experience the Cavaliers gained in their regular-season wins at Indiana, Miami, Maryland and Florida State will help them handle the atmosphere.
His offensive coordinator is of the same mind.
“I have no worries about handling the noise,” Bill Lazor said Thursday. “I think our guys have done well on the road. If there are more fans for the other team, we’ll just try to silence them.”
Not since the 2005 season, when the Cavaliers beat Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, have they played indoors. Virginia practiced at the Georgia Dome on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.
“Playing in a dome is definitely a little bit different than playing outside,” said Burd, UVa’s top wideout. “From a receiver standpoint, [on] a deep ball, you’re not looking up at the sky judging it, you’re looking at a ceiling. It’s a lot different.
“At the end of the day, it’s still football, though. I approach it the same way I would if we were playing outside.”
UVa fans associate this city with postseason success, and with good reason. Atlanta is where Virginia played in its first bowl and earned its first bowl victory — both in 1984, when the game was known as the Peach Bowl. Overall, UVa is 2-1 in this bowl, with both of the other games against Georgia.
In 1995 the Cavaliers, whose seniors that season included London’s brother Paul, beat the Bulldogs 34-27 at the Georgia Dome. In a rematch three years later, Georgia edged UVa 35-33.
If the ‘Hoos are to improve their Peach/Chick-fil-A Bowl record to 3-1, they probably will need to be more productive in the running game than they were against FSU and Virginia Tech. Auburn ranks 98th in rushing defense (194.8 yards per game) among the 120 teams in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision.
Among ACC teams, the Cavaliers finished the regular season fourth in rushing offense (165.3 yards per game) and have three talented tailbacks in junior Perry Jones, redshirt freshman Kevin Parks and true freshman Clifton Richardson. But Virginia rushed for only 78 yards against the Seminoles and 30 against the Hokies.
“We need to get back to our ground-and-pound game,” said junior Oday Aboushi, who starts at left offensive tackle. “One of the key things to win a game is establishing the running game. That’s what we’re going to try to do right off the bat, and build off of that.”
Milien said: “It’s definitely been a big emphasis. We know that when we have the running game going, things usually turn out well. So we feel like as a unit that we have to do better.”
Coming off its third straight losing season, UVa was picked to finish fifth in the ACC’s six-team Coastal Division this year. If others doubted the ‘Hoos, they never lost faith in themselves, and their reward was an invitation to a highly regarded bowl game.
“I feel proud for the players, because they’ve earned it,” Lazor said. “I think as a team we’ve come a long way from when Coach London took over the program.
“It’s easy in human nature to get a negative attitude when you’re losing. When the focuses continue to be on building the program the correct way, I think it’s been really special for me to watch that the players continue to believe. They believed in Coach London.
“I think confidence is something that’s hard to fake. You really have to earn it, I believe. Over time they have. The No. 1 factor in my mind is they believed in Coach London.”
And now one game remains, one final opportunity for UVa before the calendar flips to 2012.
“We’re just trying to leave Atlanta with another statement,” Moses said.
END OF AN ERA: Frank Quayle announced this week that, after 29 seasons as the color analyst on radio broadcasts of UVa football games, he’ll leave the booth for good after the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Play-by-play announcer Dave Koehn has worked with Quayle, one of the greatest players in UVa history, for four of those seasons. He’ll miss his partner.
“When I think about Frank,” Koehn said Friday, “one of the things that comes to mind first is a game we were doing at Scott Stadium. I was kind of immersed in what was going on on the field and looking at my notes, and all of the sudden I look up and I see the videoboard’s got this footage of Frank back in the late ’60s, just running through people, and all of the sudden I look down at the stands and people are clapping, looking up at the press box.
“I looked over at Frank and saw him in that light. It was pretty cool, because I’ve only known him as the analyst, and I’ve only known him for the three years I’ve been here, but I thought that was one of the neat things I got to see.”
Asked Friday about Quayle, London said, “I know Wahoo Nation is particularly thankful for Frank’s years of service as a player, as a commentator and as a Virginia fan. We wish the best for him. I’ll probably call him up and ask him for any comments he has about games he’s watching.
“Frank, we appreciate you so much for what you mean to the University of Virginia community and all you’ve done. Good luck and well wishes to you and your family.”
Quayle, an electrifying tailback at UVa, was named ACC player of the year in 1968 after rushing 175 times for 1,213 yards and catching 30 passes for 426 yards. His No. 24 is retired at Virginia.
MOVING ON: The team is scheduled to fly home Sunday. Monday will find Gordie Sammis at his new job in New York City.
Sammis, a former UVa offensive lineman, has been one of London’s graduate assistants for the past two seasons. He’s worked this season with the offensive line and the tight ends, and he’ll have a similar role at Columbia University as a full-time assistant coach.
Columbia’s new coach is Pete Mangurian, for whom Lazor worked at Cornell. Mangurian spent time with UVa’s coaching staff early this year in Charlottesville, and Sammis comes to Columbia highly recommended by Lazor and London.
At Columbia, Sammis will coach the tight ends and assist with the offensive line coach.
“Gordie’s done a fantastic job for us,” London said Friday, “as a player and the last couple years as a coach. It’s a perfect situation for him, going to Columbia, coaching for Pete Mangurian, who is a great offensive line coach. I couldn’t be more happy for Gordie to get this opportunity.”