ATLANTA — One year after winning college football's biggest prize, Auburn's fall has been painful.
The unranked Tigers will finish the season Saturday night against Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Star running back Mike Dyer has been suspended, and there's no guarantee he'll return next season. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof has left for the same post at Central Florida, and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is coaching his final game with Auburn after being taking the head coaching job at Arkansas State.
Roof's exit cleared the way for coach Gene Chizik to take over the defense and demand accountability for a unit that gave up 38 or more points in each of its five losses.
Auburn (7-5) was outscored 246-160 in Southeastern Conference games. The Tigers' rushing defense ranks 98th in the nation.
Chizik is the former defensive coordinator at four schools, including Auburn and Texas. He has embraced his temporary return to the role.
"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," safeties coach Tommy Thigpen said. "Chiz is this way. 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."
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.
By contrast, Virginia (8-4) already has doubled its victory total from last year's 4-8 finish.
Second-year coach Mike London led the Cavaliers to road wins over Miami and Florida State. Virginia won four straight before finishing its regular season with a devastating 38-0 home loss to Virginia Tech.
Virginia is making its first bowl appearance since playing in 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.
Auburn also is expected to use a tandem of running backs. Junior Onterio McCalebb and freshman Tre Mason are taking over for Dyer, who was suspended by Chizik for an undisclosed violation of team rules.
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