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Chick-fil-A Bowl Preview: Auburn Faces Virginia and the Different Expectations

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Chick-fil-A Bowl, December 31, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

It's hard to remember that, in some ways, Auburn actually outperformed its expectations this year. Despite their position as the defending national champions, the Tigers were locks to end up fifth in the SEC West in the preseason consensus. Few preseason prognosticators were as bold as Phil Steele, but that particular magazine had Auburn falling all the way to the bottom of the division.

So in some ways, Auburn's 7-5 record and fourth-place finish in the West is a pleasant surprise. And it's not like any of the losses on the Tigers' resume are big dings on Auburn; Arkansas is the only team to beat Auburn and not go on to either play for its conference championship, the national title or both.

Still, it feels a bit like a disappointment. The Tigers came within a few minutes of losing to Utah State in the opener, and need a win in the Chick-fil-A Bowl to avoid becoming the first defending national champion in decades to lose six games the year after claiming the title. And it's not like the numbers show that to be a statistic-defying number of losses; were it not for rushing offense and some special team categories, Auburn would be awful across the board among SEC teams.

Meanwhile, Virginia was unquestionably a pleasant surprise for Cavaliers fans. The passing and scoring numbers aren't great for the offense, and the special teams could use a little work, but the other stats look pretty good when compared to other ACC teams. Virginia did not lose to a team with a losing record at the end of the season and actually beat some respectable outfits like Georgia Tech and Florida State. The Cavs weren't a great team this year, but they were a pretty good one.

And I'm not sure that Auburn really is. The Tigers certainly aren't bad -- you don't put together a .500 record in the SEC and a winning record overall by being bad -- but they might very well be mediocre. That probably won't be enough against the Cavaliers.

Virginia 31, Auburn 24