Two teams, each a probable preseason top-10 sqaud, look to prove themselves as worthy national title contenders in arguably the most highly anticipated game to be played on opening weekend.
They are the Virginia Tech Hokies and the Alabama Crimson Tide, and they collide on Sep. 5 in Atlanta, Ga.
The Hokies, who just completed their fifth consecutive 10-win season, will be coming off an emotional and convincing victory against the Cincinnati Bearcats in the FedEx Orange Bowl. Frank Beamer and crew—fresh from their first BCS bowl win—will be returning the vast majority of their young starters on both sides of the ball.
The Tide had a sensational undefeated regular season, though they will be looking to ease the hangover induced by a tough postseason as they lost the SEC Championship to a powerful Florida team and fell to Utah in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. They will retain most of their starters, as well, though quarterback John Parker Wilson, senior running back Glen Coffee, two star offensive linemen, and their star safety are among those needing to be replaced.
These teams may actually be evenly matched and Virginia Tech will surely enter the game as the decided underdog...
But the Sugar Bowl taught us two things:
The first was that an underdog—seeking national recognition or even a national title—can turn that status into a motivational tool to help them win.
The second was that star Tide offensive linemen, Andre Smith and Antoine Caldwell, were holding the offense together. The Utah defense tore through the line, often unhindered, and sacked Wilson a season-high eight times. They also held the typically prolific Tide offense to less than a single yard per rushing attempt.
Utah had the 11th-ranked defense in the country. The Hokies’ defense was ranked seventh. They return seven starters. And they still have Bud Foster.
Foster’s defense has been ranked in the top 10 each of the last six years, with only last year’s squad being outside of the top five. His consistently stout line and ball-hawking backfield have been devastating to new quarterbacks.
Though probable Tide starter Greg McElroy isn’t exactly a rookie (he has a high completion rating for his games played), this is a big game to win on a neutral field for an inexperienced quarterback. I suspect that turnovers will be low but deciding.
But it’s never the Hokie defense that is in question.
For one of the few times in his collegiate career, junior Tyrod Taylor will be the more experienced quarterback on the field. Taylor sports a phenomenal 13-2 record as a starter, with a significant portion of that record coming as a true freshman. He will now train as the starter instead of the understudy—something that hasn’t happened yet in his tenure.
With a farewell to former starter Sean Glennon, Taylor will now have the ability to show the nation that 10-4 is the worst anyone will see from them under his lead, and that in full command, the notoriously tepid offense will, at the very least, be capable of putting up respectable numbers.
(Digression: offensive coordiantor Bryan Stinespring is a whole other article. But let it be said that I doubt his play calling will keep the Hokies from winning this game. Taylor makes things happen when they need to happen in big games.)
I’ve reviewed a fair amount of tape from the 2007-'08 and 2008-'09 seasons and have gathered what I believe to be the most deciding factor in Taylor’s growth as a quarterback.
In 2007-'08, he really did have a robust arm. It is obvious to those who watched him play his freshman year that he was passing to effectively the best receiver core in the country (Royal, Harper, Morgan, and Hyman), and that they were giant contributors to his success.
While this is the case, he had wonderful ball placement and could "thread the needle" or throw a bomb down field when needed. As long as his receivers continue to improve at the rate we saw last year, his arm will not be cause for concern.
The quarterback-receiver connection that was missing early last year will become non-existent as the talented group becomes familiar with the plays and the flow of the game.
A productive arm will open up what Tyrod (and Evans) showcased in his sophomore season: the run game. The kind of agility and durability that Taylor gained over the course of a year is staggering. With more practice and conditioning, I suspect that a previously oft-hurt Taylor won’t be taken down as soon as many people fear.
This, to me, is the answer to the Hokies’ offensive woes.
It would be unfair to make it sound like Alabama doesn’t stand a chance, because they most certainly do. I believe that the predictions will be split down the middle—I would not even be surprised if the Tide are favored—and that it will end up being decided by a fumble or a pick.
Both teams have excellent coaching and defense. The vast majority of the Tide defense is coming back, and as we saw last year, they wield a mighty force.
Will it be enough to make up for a patchy offense?
Will the Hokies be able to put up offensive numbers against such a stingy group that led the SEC last year in total defense?
I don’t know.
But I do know that on Sep. 5, 2009, the state of Georgia will quake.