The Tigers did their final major tune-up for the SEC vs. ACC matchup on Thursday, a two-hour workout at the Georgia Dome before the players hit the town for an afternoon at Scottish Rite Children's Hospital followed by Go-Kart racing in Roswell.
Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who will be coaching his final game with the Tigers on Saturday evening, said it is important for him to give Auburn the best possible chance to win on Saturday night.
"I'll tell you this, it's been a great experience for me," he said. "Coaching here at Auburn has been a true blessing for me. Definitely, we want to go out on a high note."
His players have hinted that Malzahn will be less conservative with his play-calling for the bowl game than he has most of the year. Asked about that, Malzahn said, "It could be more aggressive as far as play calling goes. I'm excited. I want to give these guys the best chance of winning.
"It's been a true blessing for me to coach Emory Blake, (Philip) Lutzenkirchen, the guys that were the first class we recruited. I am going to do my best job to help these guys be successful."
Malzahn said he is enjoying his final days with the Tigers before moving to Jonesboro, Ark., to start his new job as head coach of the Arkansas State Red Wolves.
"I'm just trying to take it in," he said. "I'm extremely close to our coaches and players. I'm trying not to get too emotional. I'll wait till the end to do that. I'm trying to savor the moment."
Saturday's game will be televised on ESPN and will be just the third time the Tigers and Cavaliers have played in football with the team splitting games in 1997 and 1998. Auburn began bowl preparations earlier in the month back on campus after fall semester final exams ended.
"The good thing is we had the game plan in before we made the trip here," Malzahn said. "It has been extremely busy. I've been focusing in on Auburn in the morning practice, coming back and grading it. In the evening, thinking about Arkansas State as far as hiring the staff, recruiting. It's been busy, but a very exciting time for me."
Malzahn has experience juggling two jobs. When he was offensive coordinator at Tulsa, he coached that team's bowl game after accepting a job on Gene Chizik's staff at Auburn. He said it is challenging, but something that can be done.
"The good thing is I do have experience doing this before," he said. "When I was first hired here at Auburn...I had the same formula here. Me and Coach Chizik, we interviewed coaches in the evening. In the afternoons, I actually recruited for Auburn. In the mornings, during practice I just focused on Tulsa.
"It's good that I've had that experience before," the coach added. "It worked extremely well in that bowl and I'm hoping to do the same thing here."
Emory Blake, Auburn's leading receiver, was recruited out of Texas by Malzahn to join the Auburn team. The junior said that everything Malzahn said would happen if he came to Auburn did happen.
"I am definitely going to miss Coach Malzahn," Blake said. "He recruited me. He told me everything we would do, and we accomplished that. He told me a lot of people will know who I am, we'll win a national championship. Everything he told me we accomplished. I am very proud to be coached by him and definitely going to miss him."
Blake, who has been slowed much of the season by a high ankle sprain, said he is doing much better in practice this week. "Actually out here in Atlanta, I haven't thought about my ankle all week," he said. "That's a first for me since the injury occurred."
The Tigers come into the bowl game with a 7-5 record. Blake admitted he was hoping for a better season after winning the national championship his sophomore year.
"As for the team, of course we had higher expectations," he said. "Every team's goal should be to go undefeated and go to the national championship. For us that wasn't the case this year. I believe we played to the best of our ability and our coaches coached to the best of their ability. Here we are."
Blake said the season was a little disappointing for him personally because he was hurt, but added,. "Injuries happen and you got to bounce back."
Malzahn said he is encouraged by how Blake has performed in practice this week as the Tigers prepare for the Cavaliers.
Asked what he has seen on video after studying Auburn's bowl opponent, Malzahn said, "Virginia's defense is very sound. They're very impressive up front. They play a great run defense, especially in between the boxes. Try to keep things in front of them. They try to make you earn it-very few big plays.
"At the same time they'll pick and choose when they pressure," he added. "They do a very good job pressuring. I'm impressed. They're well coached. You can tell, the guys know what they're doing, they know the situations and they're going to make you earn it."
Tommy Thigpen, who coaches safeties for the Tigers, said the Auburn defensive staff has respect for the Cavaliers, who bring an 8-4 record into the contest.
"What we're seeing is a team that doesn't allow you to do much on defense," Thigpen said. "With all the shifting and the motions, they create a lot of confusion so if you have a young team like we have it limits you. You're watching teams that play Virginia not playing much man coverage because of the shifts, motions, misfits. We have to be pretty vanilla. Communication is key.
"They take a lot of pride in running the football," Thigpen noted. "That's been Virginia's MO ever since I was in high school. I'm from Virginia so I was recruited by Virginia back in the day. It doesn't seem like they've changed much at all as far as run the ball, run the ball, play action.
"They do a tremendous job," the coach added. "Their offensive line is big, strong. It kind of looks like an SEC team. They run the ball. Take a lot of pride in running that football. For us, communication has to be right on point and we can't bust any assignments."
In other news and notes:
Eltoro Freeman and Neiko Thorpe are Auburn's only two senior starters on defense.
*Thigpen said that senior Eltoro Freeman has been impressive in practice training with Chizik, who is the interim linebacker coach for the bowl. "With Chiz working with him, I think he has a comfortable level that he feels he can ask questions on how to make the checks, what he's looking for. This is the most I've actually seen him communicate on the football field. It's been promising to watch him these last couple weeks."
*Thigpen said he believes the Tigers will be well prepared for Saturday's game. "All week long we've been studying film, just like we studied against Oregon last year," he said. "As a matter of fact, I think we're putting more time this year in preparation for Virginia than we did against Oregon.
"We started our game plan a couple weeks ago and it's continued on all the way up till last night," he added. "Our preparation has been actually better for us as a team with this young football team that we have."
*Assistant head coach Trooper Taylor said he though the Tigers looked ready to play a game based on Thursday's practice. "The special teams were locked-in today," Taylor said. "When you don't have any mistakes on substitutions and you don't have to correct anybody it really makes you feel good about what you're doing. Everyone looked good."
*Sophomore defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker said he believes the potential of the front four is "through the roof." The sophomore added, "The deal is we're trying to showcase all the talent Saturday and let everybody know what the future is going to look like."
*Commenting on Virginia's offensive line, which has started the same five players all season, Whitaker said, "It is a very big offensive line, a little like an SEC offensive line. They're very big, powerful. They love to run the rock. They like to come off the ball, use their hands. The deal is going to be stopping the run. We know what we've got to do."
*Gene Chizik and his wife, Jonna, took 20 players to The Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite Hospital for interaction with patients. Chizik and players Barrett Trotter, Corey Lemonier and Philip Lutzenkirchen were on closed circuit TV in a show called "The Zone" that was broadcast throughout the hospital. The other players went room to room to give out gifts and sign autographs.
"It's always great to be able to give back," Chizik said. "We tell our players all the time that it's not about what people can do for you, but what you can do for other people. Any time you have the chance to come to a place like a children's hospital, just for a day, just for an hour, and try to give somebody some cheer, some hope, some fun, that's what we need to do. The players were really excited about coming here to be able to give back, and I think it worked out great today."
*Since Virginia has not played in a bowl game since 2007, UVA quarterback Michael Rocco said the trip has been a lot of fun for the Cavaliers.
"It's been a great experience being here," he said after Thursday's practice. "It is my first bowl game as well as a bunch of our other players' first bowl game experience. It's just been a great opportunity to kind of enjoy the week, but also a time to focus on what we have in store for us on Saturday in a great opponent like Auburn."
*UVA second team All-American cornerback Chase Minniefield was considered a pro prospect after his junior year, but decided to return to play as a senior and noted he is glad he did. "I got a lifetime of memories," he said. "You can't trade that for nothing in the world. Lifetime of memories of winning in Indiana, after the game, the locker room celebrations, Florida State, Miami. You can't trade those for nothing in the world. I think my decision was the right decision. I had a great time this year.
"I think I played better than I did last year, honestly," the cornerback added. "I had more tackles, more tackles for loss, I had more sacks, more passes defended. I just didn't have as many interceptions. I expected that coming back to this season. Coach Reid gave me a bigger role this year. I got to go to different sides of the field, cover some of the best receivers in the ACC. I think I gave our team a chance to win because I think offensive coordinators had to prepare for where I was going to be."