The Alabama Crimson Tide will kick off their 2013-14 campaign on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. ET against the Virginia Tech Hokies in a game that will feature players on both sides in need of a strong start to the season.
Head coach Nick Saban's squad will start its season in the hopes of completing what would be an unprecedented third consecutive national title run. As the preseason No. 1 team in the nation, the expectations are certainly there that 'Bama will do so.
The Hokies face much different prospects in 2013. Virginia Tech finished the 2012-13 season strong with three straight wins, including a season finale that saw the Hokies top Rutgers in the Russell Athletic Bowl, which helped earn them a 7-6 record.
While both teams will no doubt have different expectations, both will share the common goal of starting off the season in a good way.
Let's take a look at some key players for both teams that must come out ready to play in Week 1 in order to give hope to their respective fans for the rest of the season.
AJ McCarron, Quarterback, Alabama
Fear struck the hearts of Alabama fans on Friday night when a picture of A.J. McCarron in a walking boot was tweeted by ESPN and CSS analyst Cole Cubelic:
ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach quickly shot down any major concerns when he reported McCarron was suffering from an ingrown toenail, per ESPN.com news services. Also in that report, it's noted that McCarron had practiced all week with no problems.
According to Matt Scalici of AL.com, despite the fact that McCarron suffered a deep foot bruise during the Crimson Tide's first preseason scrimmage, it doesn't figure to still be an issue as the quarterback didn't miss practice time.
In fact, per the AL.com report, walking boots have become the norm for 'Bama players in recent years, even when an injury isn't considered serious.
No matter what, a walking boot for McCarron will leave a little concern in the back of each and every 'Bama fan's mind about his health, but a great first game will quickly put those fears to bed. Should he struggle against lesser competition and not move well, concerns will linger for the foreseeable future.
McCarron could very well challenge for the Heisman Trophy this season and his success on the offensive side of the ball will help the Crimson Tide roll to another national title. A healthy and able McCarron means Alabama is back when combined with its great defense, and that normally means BCS hardware for the defending champs.
Logan Thomas, Quarterback, Virginia Tech
After an impressive sophomore season that saw Thomas throw for over 3,000 yards, run for 469 and combine for 30 total touchdowns, the Hokies thought they had a stellar option behind center for the next two years.
However, thanks to a lackluster 2012 for the senior quarterback, Thomas is looking to bounce back and prove his college career isn't lost just yet.
Thomas did run for more yards last season, but he failed to break the 3,000-yard mark for a second consecutive season and his completion percentage went from nearly 60 percent down to 51.3. Thomas also threw six more picks and his touchdown total was slightly down from 2011.
If the Hokies hope to be more than a team hovering around .500 in 2013, Thomas must take a step forward. The good news for Thomas is that he's throwing to a slightly more experienced squad this season, which wasn't the case in 2012.
Granted, it'll be a tall order reclaiming the high expectations of this once promising quarterback against the likes of 'Bama, but a good game against the defending champs will go a long way toward restoring hope.
Thomas' all-around skills must be on full display if the Hokies are to have a prayer against the undisputed No. 1 team in the nation. If all goes well, Thomas will keep Saban and company guessing all game long and that really is the only hope Virginia Tech has at scoring points against 'Bama's vaunted defense.
Alabama's Offensive Line
The Crimson Tide have a ton of experience on their roster, but its the offensive line that has some new faces this year after losing guard Chance Warmack and center Barrett Jones to the NFL draft.
Left guard Arie Kouandjio, center Ryan Kelly and right tackle Austin Shepherd will all make their first career starts against Virginia Tech on Saturday with big shoes to fill.
After all, it was Bama's offensive line that proved to be one of the more standout features of last year's championship squad in the national title game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. In that game, the Crimson Tide's front line looked like men amongst boys in their domination of the elite Irish defense.
In fact, Alabama's unmistakable dominance of star linebacker Manti Te'o helped drop his draft stock considerably.
There's no doubt Alabama will look to run the ball early and often with T.J. Yeldon at the helm and that has been a big part of the Crimson Tide offense in years past. If Yeldon doesn't get any holes to run through in the season opener, that could cause panic that the rebuilt offensive line won't lead to the same success 'Bama's all-important running game has had as a result of great blocking.
This team's success on offense will start with a strong rushing attack, but that doesn't minimize just how well 'Bama can throw the ball. Pass and run protection will be key in helping Alabama be successful on more than just defense and will make the Crimson Tide even harder to stop in their quest for a three-peat.