As the Alabama Crimson Tide and Virginia Tech Hokies prepare for their mega nonconference matchup at the Georgia Dome Saturday evening, you'd be hard-pressed finding two national powers that need a win more—albeit for completely different reasons.
The Hokies head into the 2013 college football season unranked in either the Associated Press or USA Today football coaches poll. It is the first time since 2004 Virginia Tech hasn't garnered enough media support for a preseason nod and just the second instance in the past decade-and-a-half.
The voters' trepidation comes with good reason. Frank Beamer's squad is coming off a 6-6 regular season that saw it need overtime to defeat Rutgers in the Russell Athletic Bowl to clinch the Hokies coach his 20th consecutive winning season. Unable to find a semblance of consistency on either side of the ball, Virginia Tech got handily beaten by almost every above-average squad on its schedule a year ago.
With Beamer at age 66 and well over two decades into his run in Blacksburg, this squad needs a strong start to the season to reinstill some confidence from a shell-shocked fanbase.
Meanwhile, it was just another ho-hum season in Tuscaloosa a season ago. The Tide patty-caked their way to a yawner of a 12-1 record and BCS National Championship, their second straight. Just another trophy for Nick Saban to add to his mantle as a bored landscape stared on in helplessness.
Or at least it felt that way at times.
Save for a loss to Texas A&M in what will forever be known as the crowning of Johnny Football, college football's most dominant program again eviscerated its competition with jarring precision. The Tide participated in just three contests that were decided by fewer than 19 points—one of those not being their 42-14 romp over Notre Dame in January.
Beamer. Saban. Two college football legends whose programs couldn't be heading in more opposite trajectories—at least for now. With Saban's Tide again sitting atop every preseason poll and national championship favorites list, Beamer has an opportunity on a neutral field to pull off the unthinkable.
With just a day remaining before both sides' 2013 season gets underway, let's check in with the most compelling pregame storylines for Alabama and Virginia Tech.
When: Saturday, Aug. 31, at 5:30 p.m. ET
Where: Georgia Dome in Atlanta
Betting Line: Alabama -20.5 (Vegas Insider)
Alabama: The Talent Is There, but Is the Motivation?
With a 20-point cushion in the eyes of the oddsmakers, it would take a borderline miracle for the Tide to lose their opening game. They received 116 of the possible 122 first-place votes between the AP and coaches polls, with Ohio State being the only other school to get multiple nods.
Considering Virginia Tech shows up in the "also receiving votes" section of both polls, a three-touchdown spread indicates just how much faith the betting world has in the defending champs.
You don't have to delve very far into this depth chart to see why. A.J. McCarron returns under center, attempting to become the first quarterback in NCAA history to win three consecutive titles as a starter. He's evolved slowly from a wet-behind-the-ears game manager, to elite college quarterback, all the way to possible Heisman contender as he enters his senior season.
The 22-year-old signal-caller was a bastion of efficiency last season, throwing for 2,933 yards and 30 touchdowns against three interceptions. He completed 67.2 percent of his passes as well and was the nation's leader in passing efficiency.
Couple McCarron's continued improvement with 2012 breakout freshman T.J. Yeldon's ascent to the starting running back spot, and the Tide might have their most talented offense of this entire run.
And then there's the defense. Returning seven starters from a defense that was far and away the best in the nation metrically, poking holes in this roster composition means picking the thinnest of nits. The offensive line will be weakened with the loss of a bunch of NFLers, obviously, but if Saban has proved anything it's that there is always a star waiting in the wings.
It's easy, then, to be a bit overconfident heading into the season. Winning three national championships in four years and being the overwhelming favorite to win another is enough to make even the most self-conscious person fill to the brim with boisterous confidence.
Just don't let Saban hear you say that. Warren St. John's brilliant profile of the Alabama head coach for GQ illuminated many things about his personality and the way he wants to be perceived, but more than anything it proved he's a man hellbent on winning.
He hates national championship games because they take away from recruiting. He keeps a close circle of friends, not because he's anti-social but because his push for greatness allows him little time for interactions. And, above all else, there is seemingly only one cuss word in the Saban household: complacency.
"The thing that amazes me about him is that he doesn't let up," former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said, per St. John. "People start winning, they slack off. But he just keeps jumping on 'complacency, complacency, complacency.' Most coaches don't think like that."
It's true. In June, Saban showed his players tape of the Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas fight from 1990 to help motivate them and keep them away from complacency. Tyson was infamously knocked out by Douglas at the peak of his powers, with many saying he failed to prepare or respect his opponent.
The question is whether Alabama can do the same.
Virginia Tech, despite its rich history, is a borderline Buster Douglas in this scenario. If the teams play this contest 100 times, the Tide likely win 95. But with possible revenge looming next week against Texas A&M, it'll be interesting to see just how fired up Saban can get his Tysons before the game.
Virginia Tech: Will Logan Thomas Begin Righting the Ship?
A year ago at this time, there were few quarterbacks in the nation receiving more national attention than Logan Thomas. The Hokies' dual-threat burst onto the scene as a sophomore, combining a massive frame and athleticism to make one of the most physically gifted signal-callers in the nation.
With prodigious arm strength, elite running ability and a year's worth of starting under his belt, Thomas walked into 2012 with a drove of Heisman hype. There were comparisons to Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III and others who wound up holding the bronze statue and becoming top-five NFL picks.
Twelve months later, Thomas heads into his senior season without even the slightest guarantee he'll get drafted at all. Almost nothing went right for the 6'6" Lynchburg native last season, as he took major steps back as a passer and was only intermittently effective on the ground.
Thomas threw for 2,967 yards and 18 touchdowns against a whopping 16 interceptions, completing only 51.3 percent of his passes. Those numbers were down across the board from his breakout sophomore season, and there were plenty of calls for a benching when the Hokies started 4-6.
Beamer never succumbed to those pressures, a decision that will either pay massive dividends or sink the entire 2013 season.
Thomas spent his spring and summer completely rebuilding his game. Virginia Tech brought in new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler to revive the flailing attack, with his most important project being the Hokies quarterback. Loeffler's staff spent countless hours working on tightening his footwork, teaching him to drive the ball forward rather than the all-arm motion many fans saw in 2012. He emphasized reading the defense and using his head rather than physical tools.
In an interview with ESPN's Heather Dinich, Thomas detailed the hard work that went into fine-tuning his mechanics:
I used to step away from my target, and that would cause my ball to float or dive into the dirt. We've cleaned it up to where I step to my target, through my target, and everything is driven and way more accurate now. All of my receivers who were here before can definitely tell a difference. In the past three days of practice, they've said, 'You've been as accurate, and your ball has been as hard as it ever has before.' It's nice to go out there and just do what you want with the ball and not worry about where it's going to end up.
We'll see this season whether any of those changes worked. But there is no better Week 1 test Thomas could have possibly hoped for than the Tide. Alabama will be among the nation's best defenses again in 2013. This should be the most difficult attack he faces the entire season, which could either lead to a disastrous performance or a confidence boost that could carry him back into the elite conversation.
Either way, we'll get a good idea just how improved Thomas really is Saturday.
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