By CHRISTOPHER MOGOLLON
The road to the National Championship begins this Saturday, as the fourth ranked Alabama Crimson Tide meet ninth ranked Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game in Atlanta, Georgia. These two teams haven’t met in the regular season since 1979, and renew an old rivalry with both teams’ title hopes already on the line. The Tide are desperate to start the season rolling after finishing what was once an undefeated regular season with loses in their final two games of 2008. They’re expected to be title contenders again. Virginia Tech has a chance to really put themselves in the driver’s seat for the rest of the year by knocking off a highly-ranked SEC team. If they want to end up in the title hunt, they’re going to have to run the table and a victory over Alabama would be a giant first step. College football may not have a playoff bracket, but this might as well be the first round.
When the Tide has the ball
The main two offensive concerns coming into the season are replacing a three-year starter at quarterback (John Parker Wilson) and two big pieces on the offensive line (Andre Smith and Antoine Caldwell). Quarterback Greg McElroy is untested, but he’ll be taking a difficult exam this weekend. So far he’s received praise for his leadership skills. He wasn’t exactly highly touted coming out of high school but the coaches believe they have a smart and efficient quarterback. The big-play threat is sophomore receiver Julio Jones. The 6’ 4” difference-maker was the go-to guy last year for Alabama as a true freshman, leading the team with 58 receptions for 924 yards. Mark Ingram rushed for 728 yards and a whopping 12 touchdowns in his freshman season, and he’ll lead the ground game for the Tide. Expect to see some carries also for senior Roy Upchurch and true freshman Trent Richardson. If Virginia Tech loads up to stop Jones, Alabama will lean on senior wide out Mike McCoy and speedy sophomore Marquis Maze to take advantage. Tight end Collin Peek (a Georgia Tech transfer) makes his Alabama debut–he could potentially have a big receiving game.
The staple of Virginia Tech’s defensive success has been their secondary and this year should be no exception. Seniors Stephan Virgil (CB) and Kam Chancellor (S) lead an experienced unit. Virgil is a do-it-all player—he can tackle, cover, and make plays on the ball. He led the team last year with six interceptions. Watching him match up with Jones one-on-one will be very interesting. Chancellor struggled at the beginning of last season, but the way he finished 2008 has the Hokies expecting a big 2009. Tech also returns their top pass rushers from a year ago. Despite playing with an injured shoulder last year, defensive end Jason Worilds still was all-conference. He finished with eight sacks and is dangerous coming off the edge. The other defensive end, Nekos Brown, is making his third career start, but he has seen action as a back-up. With a new quarterback and offensive line the Hokies’ ability to get pressure on the quarterback could be the key to shutting down Alabama and creating turnovers. Linebacker Cody Grimm provides the Hokies with another pass-rushing threat (7.5 sacks last year). This defense had a tendency to struggle more against teams that ran the ball, and Alabama has dynamic backs that can do some damage to Tech. A key player to reversing that trend could be sophomore linebacker Barquell Rivers, who will be making just his second career start.
When the Hokies have the ball
Yes, he has yet to show any consistency as a passer, but quarterback Tyrod Taylor is a proven playmaker with his legs. He has really struggled when defenses force him to throw the ball. Taylor has improved and there’s no better stage for a breakout than this game against Alabama. If Taylor can make some good throws early, it could open up a chance for him to take off for some major ground gains. At receiver they’re young, but a trio of sophomores all gained experience last season. Danny Coale and Jarrett Boykin led the team last year in receiving. Boykin is the bigger of the two and finished the season strong. Tight end Greg Boone has good size and hands and is someone Taylor can find in big spots. Virginia Tech returns most of their line, led by tackles Black DeChristopher and Ed Wang. This line has a chance to be real good, and will have a test early going against a top opponent. Starting running back Darren Evans is out for the year, and that’s a big loss. The Hokies had the potential of having a terrific rushing attack and they still can run the football, but will have to get production from players originally expected to provide depth. Sophomore Josh Oglesby and red-shirt freshman Ryan Williams are atop the depth chart with Williams the expected starter. Oglesby has been dealing with a right hamstring injury and an infected blister on his left heel while true freshman David Wilson, who was expected to get some carries, has been troubled with a sprained left shoulder. Injuries could determine who gets the bulk of the carries.
Expect the 3-4 defense of Alabama to gear up on the run and force Taylor to throw the ball as much as possible. The run stopping defense will be led by the massive Terrence Cody. The 365-pounder will give the Hokies’ line plenty to deal with; he’s a great run stuffer and has vowed to become a better pass rusher. He and Lorenzo Washington give the front line some experience and size that should match up well against Virginia Tech’s offensive line. Freshman end Kerry Murphy will be shuffled into the lineup and is a youngster to keep an eye on. Linebacker Rolando McClain led the team with 95 tackles last season—be ready to hear his name, as well as that of his partner on the inside, Dont’a Hightower, called out plenty throughout the season. Look for cornerback Javier Arenas to make a big play, with junior Kareem Jackson (CB) and senior Justin Woodall (S) rounding out a dynamic and experienced group in the secondary. Jackson is a 194-pound cornerback that’s been playing since his freshman year.
Alabama’s run defense will be on point and hold the Virginia Tech running attack to minimal productivity. They will force Taylor to do it all himself—don’t be shocked if he has a couple of electrifying runs but falls short in the end because of the offense’s inability to do anything down field in the passing game. Expect a big game from Ingram for Alabama as the Tide run all the way to a week one victory.
Score: Alabama 23, Virginia Tech 13
Photos Courtesy of Alabama Media Relations & Virginia Tech Athletics Communications
Friday, September 4, 2009
By CHRISTOPHER MOGOLLON