In one of the most high-profile Week 1 games of the college football season, the Alabama Crimson Tide will play the Virginia Tech Hokies. Alabama, the two-time defending national champions, look to start their season strong, while the Hokies are in search of an upset to right the ship.
The question, though, is which stars must shine for Virginia Tech to pull out a landscape-altering victory?
If this were 2011, there would be mountains of hype for this game, as Virginia Tech was once a perennial Top 10 team. Unfortunately, the Hokies went from appearing in the 2012 Sugar Bowl to a seven-win season in 2012-13.
It's safe to say they've lost their luster.
That said, Virginia Tech isn't void of hope, as it closed out its down year with a bowl victory and the legendary Frank Beamer is still head coach. With defensive stars returning and offensive players looking to bounce back from a tumultuous 2012 campaign, anything is possible.
It'll take a performance for the ages to get it done, but never say never.
Position: Defensive End
2012 Season Statistics
43 tackles, 27 solo, 11.0 TFL, 5.0 SACK
During the course of his three-year career at Virginia Tech, defensive end James Gayle has tallied 16.0 sacks. Against Alabama, Gayle will need to put on his best sacking shoes and up that number a bit.
With SEC analyst Cole Cubelic reporting that Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron is in a walking boot, Gayle will have the green light to attack.
And with an inexperienced Alabama offensive line, things could get interesting.
Gayle has no trouble getting into the backfield, racking up 11.0 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks in 2012. Not only has Gayle been effective in getting after the quarterback, but he's thrived in disrupting the run while coming off the edge.
Virginia Tech will need help in that department, as well, but Gayle's focus should be on the quarterback.
McCarron is a three-time BCS champion, leading Alabama to two of those titles as a starter. He's as poised as any quarterback in the nation, completing 67.2 percent of his throws in 2012, and knows how to manage a game to perfection.
With Amari Cooper at his disposal, it'll be on Gayle to get into the backfield and put a body on the hobbled star before he can get clean throws away.
2012 Season Statistics
2,976 YDS, 51.3 CMP%, 18 TD, 16 INT; 174 ATT, 524 YDS, 9 TD
Prior to the 2012 college football season, Virginia Tech Hokies quarterback Logan Thomas encountered superstar-caliber hype. Virginia Tech was No. 16 in the preseason AP poll and Thomas was ranked as the No. 4 NFL prospect in the nation by draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. of ESPN, among many others, all adding up to a breakout season.
Instead, Thomas proceeded to complete 51.3 percent of his passes and throw just 18 touchdowns to 16 interceptions as Virginia Tech went 7-6.
Thomas completed less than 50.0 percent of his passes in five separate games, including a 15-of-39 performance during the Hokies' 13-10 Russell Athletic Bowl victory over Rutgers. He threw no more than two touchdowns in any game and all but destroyed his draft profile.
In 2013, the 6'6" field general will look to right all wrongs with a monumental upset of the nation's top-ranked team.
Alabama is still an elite defense, even as it's lost players to the NFL. If Thomas is able to lace his passes with accuracy and use his dynamic running backs, however, we could see a major Hokies upset.
Still, Thomas needs to be close to perfect if Virginia Tech is to stand any chance of winning big.
The encouraging sign here is that Thomas ran for 524 yards and nine touchdowns in 2012, picking up a score in nine separate games. The discouraging sign is that he completed more than 60 percent of his passes just twice—against Austin Peay and Duke.
When better than now to live up to the hype and shock the world with a superstar performance?
2012 Season Statistics
119 tackles, 55 solo, 13.0 TFL, 2.5 SACK
Virginia Tech linebacker Jack Tyler is one of the best linebackers in the nation. He's supremely productive, plays the run as well as any and seems to be in on every play that's thrown at the Hokies defense.
He'll need to put on the performance of a lifetime to prevent running back T.J. Yeldon from taking over.
Tyler was extraordinary in 2012, picking up 119 total tackles, with 55 solo, 13.0 for a loss and 2.5 sacks. He played a major role in Virginia Tech quietly having a top 35 defense in the nation, which is encouraging considering the Hokies return a number of starters.
No matter who else steps up, however, it's going to be on Tyler to contain Yeldon.
After rushing for over 1,000 yards as a freshman, it's safe to say that Yeldon's the real deal. His bursts of speed are close to impossible to predict, and it makes him one of the best running backs in the nation because of it.
If Virginia Tech is to stand any chance of stunning the college football community, Tyler will need to take over.
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