The first test for the defending national champions happens to be one of the most difficult when the Virginia Tech Hokies and Alabama Crimson Tide meet on a neutral field in the Georgia Dome.
Head coach Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide are seeking an unprecedented third-consecutive national championship, while 27th-year head coach Frank Beamer and the Hokies are looking to overcome a wealth of injuries.
This is not a typical Week 1 warm-up contest. Both sides are superbly talented, and it is a contest fans of the sport in general should not miss. Here are the biggest matchups to keep an eye on Saturday evening.
When: Saturday, Aug. 31, at 5:30 p.m. ET
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Ga.
Live Stream: Watch ESPN
Radio: Free Football Radio
Logan Thomas vs. Alabama's Secondary
The hopes and dreams of Hokies football in general rest on the shoulders of quarterback Logan Thomas.
Last season Thomas completed just 51 percent of his passes but mustered 2,976 passing yards, 18 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. A superb athlete, Thomas also added 524 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns.
For Thomas and Tech to be successful against a loaded defense, he's going to need meaningful runs when things are covered down the field. Thomas is well aware, as he has studied up on how to defeat the Crimson Tide per Mark Heim of AL.com:
They took what the defense gave them, but a lot of Texas A&M's big plays were just (quarterback) Johnny Manziel making plays with his feet and finding an open receiver...Two of their last three losses were against scrambling quarterbacks in Johnny and (former Auburn quarterback) Cam Newton, and those guys being able to make plays down field with things broke down.
Thomas certainly has those skills and is now armed with the knowledge. Alabama is without star cornerback Geno Smith thanks to suspension, but Tech lost its staring tight end Ryan Malleck for the season with a labrum tear.
Both sides are handicapped, but it's Thomas who will have to overcome against an elite defense.
T.J. Yeldon vs. Virginia Tech's Hobbled Defense
According to Andy Bitter of the Roanoke Times, Virginia Tech plans on running a lot of nickel defense against Alabama in an effort to prevent quarterback A.J. McCarron from having his way through the air.
Therefore, it is the ground game to watch for the champs, not the aerial attack.
Alabama is more than up to the task of taking advantage of pass-prevention formations thanks to star running back T.J. Yeldon. He toted the rock 175 times last year and tallied 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns with 6.3 yards per carry.
The Hokies are dealing with serious health issues at the worst time. All-ACC corner Antone Exum will miss the contest, as will starting linebacker Ronny Vandyke, who is out for the year per Bitter.
Virginia Tech does return plenty of talent such as linebacker Jack Tyler, who notched over 100 tackles last year. Alabama could struggle to run after losing three starters on the line to the NFL (Chance Warmack, Barrett Jones, D.J. Fluker).
If the new-look line cannot get a push against a damaged defense, Alabama will be forced to throw, which plays right into the Hokies' game plan.
Trey Edmunds vs. Alabama
Against Alabama, it's the Trey Edmunds show for Virginia Tech.
Edmunds, a redshirt freshman, will take his first college handoff against the monster Alabama defense thanks to injuries and suspensions at running back.
J.C. Coleman, the team's leading rusher at the position a year ago, is questionable for the contest and has been for quite some time after having both ankles injured in practice. To make matters worse, redshirt freshman Joel Caleb is suspended for a violation of team rules. Finally, Tony Gregory re-tore his ACL and will miss the year.
As if things could not get any worse, the Hokies are starting a freshman at tackle in Jonathan McLaughlin. Keep in mind Alabama also led the nation in run defense the last two seasons.
It's pretty simple—Edmunds will have to get rid of the butterflies quickly and combine with Thomas to give the Hokies a respectable ground game. If not, Alabama can sit on the pass and take advantage.
Final Score Prediction: Alabama 24, Virginia Tech 13.
Follow B/R's Chris Roling on Twitter for more news and analysis @Chris_Roling