Alright, alright we've all read plenty of previews to the game, but I've got something different to bring: a slight (alright probably more than slight) bias towards the Hokies.
If you guys are anything like me, you've read about 50 previews (mostly from Bama's perspective), but you're dying to read the next one. Personally, I've seen enough from Bama fans, so let's take a look through the eyes of a maroon and orange turkey.
Here are my keys to the game and my take on what's going to happen.
1. When VT has the ball
I think this is the most intriguing and most important part of the game. Obviously Tech takes an enormous hit with the loss of Evans. He was, without a doubt, our best offensive player.
However, I don't think the loss changes what happens when VT has the ball. In fact, it may even sneak up on the Tide and be more effective. Running up the middle was going to happen, period. Cody is a monster. He fills the gap like no other college athlete can. He might even fill it better than two guys.
Furthermore, Bama's linebacking corp, with McClain and Hightower, might be one of the best in the country. The only way to run any where close to effectively, will be to run outside, but even that will be difficult because Bama's backers have great pursuit.
Redshirt freshman Ryan Williams may have earned the job last season if not for his inadequate blocking, and true freshman David Wilson is the fastest player on the team (and an athletic freak who did eight backflips consecutively at a recent practice).
However, all the athleticism in the world doesn't mean anything if these freshman can't mature quick enough. Redshirt sophmore Josh Oglesby has some talent and had his best offseason ever according to coaches, but I don't think he will be a game-changer.
The key when Tech has the ball will be Tyrod Taylor. He reworked his throwing motion in the offseason, taking out his nasty hitch, which should help him have a quicker release. He still needs to get to his second and third progressions, not just have a primary read and take off if its not open.
That being said, he absolutely cannot force the pass. If its not there, run. Forcing passes into tight or non—existent windows is going to result in big plays for the Bama defense.
Tyrod is a fantastic athlete and can make things happen with his legs, but VT will not have a chance if he can't make plays both in the air and on the ground. Passing will be struggle as Alabama returns three of four defensive backs, including second team All-SEC Javier Arenas.
Rashad Johnson also returns as the teams leading tackler from last year. VT's wide recievers need to step up and I think they can. At the end of last season they started making plays, and another year for mostly rising sophmores will only help them.
The talent is there; they need to run solid routes and when Tyrod throws the ball their way, they need to come down with it. Boykin and Coale are not that quick, they need to catch everything.
Dillard, Coles, and Roberts need to stretch the field when they can if Alabama loads up on the run and the quick passes, Tech doesn't have a chance. Also, look for the tight ends to have a big day if Tech can stretch the field and open up the middle.
Boone, Smith, and Wheeler make up one of the best three—deep TE groups in the country. However, they will be a non-factor if Bama's linebackers can just sit in the box and cover underneath routes.
Stretching the field is an absolute must for the Hokies; that's what should scare Hokie fans because offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring was very conservative last year—and that's putting it lightly, very lightly.
Va Tech needs throw the ball, and needs to throw it well to have any success.
If VT can put one, maybe two, solid drives together and earn their own points, I think it will be considered a victory.
2. When Bama has the ball
This match-up is almost night and day different from when the ball is with the maroon and orange. Bama needs to establish the run.
The loss of Glen Coffee may limit them, but Mark Ingram is no slouch. He stole carries from Coffee as a true freshman last year, and that's saying something in the SEC.
Naturally this was enough to earn him Freshman All-SEC honors. Roy Upchurch has the speed to make a big play every time he's on the field. If Alabama can establish a solid running game it will take a lot of pressure off of first-year starter Greg McElroy.
If VT takes the lead early, or can stop the run, I like their chances. Julio Jones is obviously a huge threat and could wreak havoc, but VT will go with a double team; and if Thorpe hopeful Stephan Virgil is part of the double team, I think they'll do alright.
That frees up Chancellor, Carmichael, Hill, and Porch to cover the rest. I like that matchup for the Hokies, even with Julio Jones being double covered. Chancellor and Virgil are both in discussions to win their respective 'best of' trophies this season (not that Chancellor has a chance with Berry and Mays playing safety).
The other reason I like VT's chances defending the pass is the pass rush. Bud Foster's defense is always one of the best, and that should remain true this season, as the Hokies return seven starters from last year, including Jason Worilds who led the team in sacks (eight) and tackles for loss (18.5) last season.
If the Tide can't establish a running game to hold back the dogs, McElroy is going to get to know the turf really well. Between the blitzing packages and Worilds off the edge, it could turn into a long game for him if the running game can't get anything going.
That doesn't even bring in the fact that Bama is working with a restructured line that got demolished against Utah in last season's Sugar Bowl, allowing eight sacks and only producing .9 yards per carry.
Losing OT Andre Smith is perhaps the biggest loss for either team coming into this season. Actually I think we can all agree to take out that 'perhaps'—Andre Smith IS the biggest loss.
I think Cordarrow Thompson and John Graves can dominate the point of attack and force McElroy to pass. This will allow Worilds to rush the edge and Foster's blitzes to attack the QB.
If McElroy acts like a normal first-time starter facing a top-10 defense, he's going to make a lot of mistakes. Mistakes the Hokie defense needs to turn into points by itself, or position the offense to score.
3. Special Teams
This might be the most exciting special teams game this college football season sees. Javier Arenas is one of the country's best return men from last season, and both Ryan Williams and David Wilson (4.33 40 time) are explosive for the Hokies.
The key here is for both sides to contain the returners, and possibly even kick out of bounds most of the time on punts. Brent Bowden returns again for the Hokies and should compete for All-ACC honors. That could be the difference in a game that is certain to have a lot of punts.
If either team 'out-kicks' the coverage, the outcome could very well be devastating, as the returners are electric. Va Tech has a history of getting key blocks in key games and look for John Graves to have his hands up when Bama is kicking field goals and punting the ball.
He blocked two extra points and a field goal last season and will be looking to add to that total on Sept. 5.
All in all, I think field position will be the most important aspect of this game. Neither offense is going to be able to move the ball well, so anytime the defense can get a three-and-out or force a turnover, it's going to be huge. Same goes for big returns.
As a Tech fan, I'm predicting the Hokies pull out a squeaker and win it 17-13.