Good morning everyone and Roll Tide!
Each week, I will be bringing you a unit by unit matchup for each opponent the Crimson Tide will face this college football season. I will use stats as well as personal opinion to do this.
Now I won't breakdown every team the Tide faces (ie North Texas, UT-Chattanooga), just the SEC teams and any other marquee opponent that shows up on the schedule.
That being said, let's get to it!
September 5th in The Georgia Dome, the Crimson Tide will face Virginia Tech in a matchup of two BCS conference divisional champion picks. The Tide comes into this game ranked No. 5 in the country while the Hokies are ranked just behind them at No. 7.
Both teams are coming off solid campaigns in 2008 with the Hokies winning the ACC and the Orange Bowl, and Alabama going 12-0 in the regular season before two disappointing losses in the SEC title game and the Sugar Bowl.
I am sure each team is looking forward to the start of the 2009 season.
I am going to break down each unit head to head for these two teams and ultimately give you my pick for the winner. Here is my breakdown:
Let's start with some intangibles.
Alabama was one of the least penalized teams in the country (5th), averaging 4.07 penalties and 37.14 penalty yards per game. VT finished 32nd with averages of 5.00 and 34.71 per game. It looks like neither team really had many flags thrown at them, so I will call this a push.
Moving on to special teams.
Last year, Alabama punter PJ Fitzgerald finished 41st in the nation with an average of 41.14 yards per punt. Brent Bowden finished 58th with a per punt average of 40.36 for VT. Both punters were effective in their own right. Alabama's net punting yardage was 35.05 while VT's was 33.19, good for 60th and 92nd respectively.
Tide placekicker Leigh Tiffin was 20 - 29 in FG opportunities with a long of 54, while Hokie kicker Dustin Keyes went 23 - 29 with a long of 50 yards.
Alabama return specialist Javier Arenas racked up 650 yards in punt returns, taking three of those back to the house, both of which were tops in the nation. He also added 614 yards in kick returns. Tech's Macho Harris is gone, leaving the Hokies with no one with much, if any, experience in the return game.
Bama's punt coverage team allowed a total of 242 yards (8.96 per) and a TD—good for 61st—while their kick coverage gave up 1765 yards (21.79 per) and a TD. VT allowed 298 total punt return yards (12.42 per) and three TDs while their kick coverage team allowed 1206 yards (19.45 per) and no TDs.
Looking at these numbers, once again, the two teams are fairly close. You have to give a slight edge in FGs to the Hokies, but the Tide clearly has the edge in regards to punt and kick returns. Still, another push.
Now let's take a look at the offenses.
I won't drop all the stats here like I did with special teams, but I will point out that Bama's offense finished 63rd, averaging 355.79 yards per game. They scored 422 total points in 14 games (30.14 per), finishing 7th in the nation.
VT scored a total of 309 points in 14 games (22.07), good enough for 12th while averaging 303.43 yards per game, putting them at 103rd overall.
Now that it turns out Darren Evans is lost for the season, you absolutely have to give the advantage in the backfield to the Tide. Alabama returns three running backs (Ingram, Upchurch and Grant) that have plenty of game experience, with Ingram and Upchurch combining for 1078 yards and 16 TDs.
VT has 3 guys who have at least seen the field (Lewis, Oglesby and Boone) but none of them had more than 65 total carries last season (Lewis). Oglesby, and Boone combined for only 59 carries. The three of them combined for 401 yards and four TDs.
Tyrod Taylor did rush for 738 and seven TDs, but he is a QB, and I do not include him in these numbers. If I did, I would have to say that he is the only returning player with experience running the ball, which still gives the advantage to Alabama.
VT's top two receiver totals from last year don't even add up to the numbers Julio Jones put up for Alabama (849 yards and 2 TDs combined compared to Jones' 924 yards and 4 TDs).
While both teams return WR and TE groupings that have seen significant time on the field, once again the clear advantage goes to Alabama. I mean, they do have one of the best recievers in the nation and reigning SEC freshman of the year in Julio Jones.
One area of concern for Alabama is the offensive line.
Losing two All-Americans and another two year starter will make it a chore for Nick Saban to fill those shoes. Looking to do that will be the No. 1 offensive lineman in the country out of high school, DJ Fluker (remember—Andre Smith started as a freshman after being No. 1 in the country and never missed a beat) as well as JUCO transfer and highly regarded lineman James Carpenter.
The Tide does have plenty of talent ready to step in, but none of them have any real game experience playing in major college football. VT, however, returns three starters on the line.
Of note, however, is that two of the three will be starting at a new position on the line for the first time this year, with Wang being the only exception at LT. While the Hokies have to fill two spots on the line, the fact that they are moving guys around will make a difference (see Mike Johnson of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl) and this unit won't be as dominant IMHO as many believe.
That being said, I will give a slight edge to VT here only because they return more "starters" than does Alabama.
Now for the QBs. I will start by covering Tyrod Taylor.
The guy flat out has never done much of anything. His career numbers speak for themselves: 55% completion percentage, less than 2000 total passing yards in two seasons and a seven to ten TD to INT ratio during that time. Most of the damage he does is with his feet.
Bama, on the other hand, has a virtual unknown (to everyone outside of Tuscaloosa) in Greg McElroy taking over for three year starter JP Wilson. He has appeared in a few games, mostly mop-up duty, and has done well, completing 80% of his passes with a two to one TD to INT ratio.
Bama fans got a glimpse of what "G-Mac" is capable of during the 36-0 rout of Auburn in last year's Iron Bowl. If you missed it, McElroy threw a perfect deep ball to Marquis Maze down the sideline, in stride, for a 34 yard TD.
I will also mention that in competition at the Manning Passing Camp, McElroy beat out big time QBs Colt McCoy and Sam Bradford, as well as Tyrod Taylor (not big time), to finish 2nd overall in the contests. It's worthy of note, but it is just a camp and is not indicitive of how a QB will perform in a game.
In the end, I will call this a push since McElroy has lots to prove and Taylor has already proven he is not a threat passing the ball. I know VT fans will mention his feet, but he won't be running for many yards against Bama's defensive front seven. Which leads me to...
Both teams had a solid unit with Bama finishing 3rd and VT coming in at 7th. Bama returns nine starters while VT brings back seven.
IMHO, Bama played far superior opponents than did Tech, so I give Bama's defense a bit more credit than the Hokies. Against inferior teams, VT gave up 30 more yards per game on the ground, but did manage to give up 14 fewer yards through the air.
Of note is that Bama faced 124 more pass attempts than Tech but still came up with comparable numbers. If you're wondering, Tech faced 60 more rushing attempts than Alabama.
The front seven for Bama is one of the best in the nation. All-everything nose tackle Terrance Cody is a game changer. You cannot—I repeat CANNOT—run up the middle against this defense.
Of course, taking it outside against the fast, athletic linebackers Bama has is also a chore in and of itself. These guys weren't the 2nd best rush defense (behind TCU) in the country for nothing.
Stud LBs Donte Hightower and Rolando McClain, as well as role players Cory Reamer and Eryk Anders, were everywhere last season. Bama has brought in quite a crop of linemen and linebackers over the last two years in recruiting, so look for the trend of underclassmen getting involved early and often to continue in these spots.
There is just too much talent coming in and tons of it on the field.
VT has a solid front seven as well, with three returnees up front, but they only have one linebacker coming back this season. They do, however, have rush/speed DE Jason Worilds, who is going to give anyone headaches coming off the edge.
While both Bama's and VT's front seven units are good, I have to give the nod at both the line and linebackers to Alabama here. Playing against better quality teams in a better conference and still stuffing the run is an accomplishment.
As for the secondary, both teams lost their star members—Alabama losing Rashaad Johnson and VT losing Victor "Macho" Harris. Both teams return three starters in this group, and if you look at each on a position by position basis, they all match up well.
THE guy in VTs secondary this year should be FS Kam Chancellor. The guy is everywhere, helping to break up passes and making key tackles as well as stepping up to help out in run defense. I have watched this guy play myself and know he is a force.
On the other team is a guy named Javier Arenas. Well not only is he one of the best return men in all of college football, but he has quietly become an outstanding lockdown corner in his own right.
All that being said, these two units match up way too close to call. I will push this one out as well. Personnel and stats-wise, they are just too close.
So there it is, folks. I am a Bama fan for sure, but I tried to do this as unbiased as I possibly could. If you are keeping score, I have the advantage going to Bama by a margin of 4 (RBs, WRs DL and LBs) to 1 (OL), with a few pushes.
With this breakdown in mind, I have to say that Alabama will win this game. It will be close early on while both teams feel each other out, but by the 2nd quarter Bama's running game and rush defense will just be too much for VT to overcome and the Tide will start methodically putting the Hokies away.
I do believe that Bama's O-line will be good enough to keep the Hokie passing defense at bay for the most part—although Worilds will get pressure for sure—and McElroy will be able to move the ball through the air, too.
I still have not seen anything to indicate that Tyrod Taylor is a passing threat. QBs don't just magically get better because they are a year older. And if he tries to beat Bama with his feet, it will be a long day for Hokie fans.
So here is to a great season for both teams and a phenomenal game to start it off. Good luck to both teams but someone has to lose—and I believe that will be the Virginia Tech Hokies.