Virginia Tech opens its season against No. 1 Alabama, the two-time defending national champion and a heavy betting favorite to dispatch of the Hokies with ease.
One of the many reasons for that line is Alabama's offensive balance, which might be the best in America. In addition to a much-improved passing game, the Tide have their always-dominant running game in working order, led by All-American candidate T.J. Yeldon at running back and a talented (though unproven) offensive line.
With star corner Antoine Exum doubtful (ACL recovery), Virginia Tech will likely have trouble slowing down Alabama's passing game. If and when that's the case, its only hope of surviving a massacre will be limiting the Tide's rushing attack.
But as Sean Bean would no doubt remind us, one does not simply limit the Tide's rushing attack.
Rely on Experience Up Front
Alabama, traditionally a run-first (and -second) offense, actually has one of the most dangerous pass attacks in America this year. You already know about AJ McCarron and Amari Cooper, but beyond them guys like Christion Jones, Kevin Norwood, Kenny Bell, Chris Black and O.J. Howard provide an embarrassment of weapons.
Virginia Tech's secondary—at least in its current, decrepit state—has no chance of stopping that unit without help. The Hokies need to provide support in the passing game, bearing it in mind on standard downs as well as passing downs. They can't provide too much support to the run game, lest one of their young corners be left on an island and burned.
So stopping Alabama's run game, from a schematic stand point, will rely on strength and experience in the trenches. It's the one place where Tech can validly assert it has an advantage; which doesn't necessarily mean it does, but the matter is certainly up for debate.
Talented as the Tide's offensive line is (and always has been) (and always will be), Virginia Tech's projected starters up front hold a major edge in experience:
Those averages are also a bit skewed, since Arie Kouandijo, Ryan Kelly and Austin Shepherd saw almost all of their reps in garbage time. But even with that bias, Alabama's linemen are less than half as experienced as Virginia Tech's core four.
The Hokies need to trust that unit (and all the bodies behind them) to hold up against Alabama's rushing attack. They need to get a good drive off the line, or at the very least refuse to get pushed back.
Those veterans need to plug gaps and occupy blockers, freeing the lane for one of the non-coverage 'backers—someone like All-ACC senior Jack Tyler—to come in and make a tackle.
Taking the fight to Alabama is almost always a bad idea; but as the Tide breaks in a new offensive line, getting them in the season-opener might be a good (or at least reasonable) place to do so. It's the lesser of many evils.
Convert Offensive Third Downs
Because Alabama has such a deep stable of running backs, it's able to take advantage of tired defenses. Last year, T.J. Yeldon mixed in with Eddie Lacy and now, with the latter gone, blue-chip guys like Jalston Fowler and Derrick Henry wait in the wings.
It's very hard—nearly impossible—to stop those backs with a defense that's sucking oxygen. In order to do so, one would need a profoundly deep front seven. And the best way to avoid such fatigue is converting third downs on offense.
Alabama rushed for more than five yards per carry against seven BCS schools last year. Here's how those teams fared on offensive third downs:
LSU is an obvious outlier, but their numbers are slightly skewed by sample size. Alabama only ran 25 times against the Tigers—by far its lowest of the season—and gained 31 percent of its rushing yards on two long carries. That might have thrown off the results.
Past that one blip, it's pretty universal: Teams that struggled to stop Alabama's running backs also struggled to convert third downs. A three-and-out is the cardinal sin an offense can commit against the Tide, throwing its defense back on the field before it's ready.
By contrast, three teams held Alabama below four yards per carry last season. Here's how they fared on their offensive third downs:
Hokies fans are (with good reason) wary of trusting Logan Thomas on third down. His tenure in Blacksburg has been plagued by inaccuracy, and against a defense this precise, inaccurate is the worst thing a quarterback can be.
But the teams that stifled Alabama's running game last year averaged a 50-percent conversion rate on football's most important down. Last year, Virginia Tech converted just 38 percent of its third downs—78th in the nation and more like the teams on the first table than the second.
If Thomas doesn't hit his marks, Tech's defense will be in trouble.
Don't Try to Conserve Energy
There's a faulty assumption about Alabama's offense—that because of its physical nature, it wears you down over the course of a game. Most believe it's important to keep something in reserve, manage their finite energy quotient, and keep the fourth quarter in the back of their mind.
But that's a fool's chore. Every down should be played like it's 4th-and-goal in the BCS National Championship. There can be no plays off and no on-field breathers. If there is, especially early in the game, Alabama will run right through you.
Here are the Tide's quarter-by-quarter splits from last season:
Those numbers aren't skewed by situation, either: Alabama's yards per carry when leading by 15-plus points was 5.61—higher than its normal fourth-quarter average. Garbage-time rushes didn't hurt its late-game efficiency; it actually helped.
Which is all to say, fairly conclusively, that Alabama's rush offense was better in the first half than the second last year. It got off to fast starts, bullying opponents out of the gate and setting the tone for the rest of the game.
Virginia Tech cannot allow that to happen. It needs to morph its first-quarter adrenaline rush into a stronger push. If it can set a tone against Alabama's running game in quarters one and two, it might fuel them in quarters three and four.
Fatigue might be an issue, at which point the Hokies will have to rely on their second string. Redshirt senior Tyrel Wilson provides a proven body at end, and across from him, redshirt sophomore Dadi Nicolas might actually draw the start over J.R. Collins.
They will both be vital bodies in the second half, as might youngsters like Woody Barron, Alston Smith and Nigel Williams at tackle.
Derrick Hopkins and Luther Maddy can't play every single snap up the middle, especially if they are—as they should be—going balls to the wall early on.