The season is finally upon us.
College football may officially start today, but everyone is looking to the first Saturday of the season to kick it off right.
The marquee matchup of the first weekend is without question the game between No. 5 Alabama and No. 7 Virginia Tech.
Both teams are coming into the game with something to prove. Alabama rides in with a two-game losing streak and has to break in a new offensive line, while Virginia Tech comes into the game wanting to show the critics they are worthy of a top 10 ranking.
Alabama's O-Line vs. Virginia Tech's D-Line
The talk of the preseason for No. 5 Alabama is their offensive line. When a team is breaking in three new starters versus a defensive line that returns three seasoned starters, it does give cause for concern. Mike Johnson is the unquestioned leader of the Tide's offensive line that is looking to regain the same success as last year.
Jason Worlids anchors the Tech defensive line with 18.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks. Cordarrow Thompson slimmed down to 308 pounds and John Graves provide experience in the interior.
The only spot that could be in question is the other end position occupied by Nekos Brown, but Brown played in all 14 games last year while starting two of them. One of the games he started was the Orange Bowl against Cincinnati.
Advantage: Virginia Tech
Alabama's Running Backs vs. Virginia Tech's Linebackers
Probably the biggest offensive strength Alabama has going into the season is their depth at running back. They have three guys who have seen quality action in Mark Ingram, Terry Grant, and Roy Upchurch. This is a lineup that returns over 1,000 yards rushing between the three of them. Add highly touted freshman Trent Richardson into the mix and you have a fearsome backfield.
Cody Grimm leads the linebacking corps for the Hokies. Despite starting only one game all season, he is the returning leader in tackles with 71. Barquell Rivers and Jake Johnson are the new starters beside Grimm, but they only have 11 tackles between them. They are young with some playing experience, but they could be exposed.
If the Tide can get to the second level, it could pose a problem for Tech.
Alabama's Pass Offense vs. Virginia Tech's Secondary
Greg McElroy has been in this offense for quite some time now and offensive coordinator Jim McElwain has stated that he has full trust in McElroy, which means a more diversified offense for the Crimson Tide.
McElroy is in his first start in a big-time program, so this is nothing new to him, since he was in the same situation in high school. His favorite target will be Julio Jones, which is no shock to anyone, but McElroy has shown he has the ability to check down on his progressions—something his predecessor John Parker Wilson could not do.
If the Tide can get production out of someone else—whether it is from the tight ends (Colin Peek and Brad Smelley), or the wide receivers (Marquis Maze, Kevin Norwood, and Mike McCoy)—it could be a long day for Tech.
Victor "Macho" Harris is now in the NFL, and he took with him his ability to cover the best opposing wide receiver. But considering he was tied with returning cornerback Stephan Virgil with six interceptions, it could possibly be not that big of a drop-off. Kam Chancellor is the anchor of a secondary that returns a wealth of experience, which was ranked 28th in pass efficiency defense.
If they can generate confusion for McElroy while double-teaming Jones, it will be tough sledding for Alabama to generate any offense through the air.
Advantage: Virginia Tech
Alabama's Return Game vs. Virginia Tech's Punt Defense
Statistically, Javier Arenas is the best returner in Alabama football history. Last year, he was ranked sixth in the country in punt returns and he is a special teams nightmare for the opposition. He's good for a positive gain every time he touches the ball.
Brent Bowden ranked 58th in punting last year for the Hokies, but the glaring statistic for Virginia Tech is their punt return defense, which was ranked 104th. For "Beamer Ball" that's not good, and if they can't contain Arenas it's going to be a long day for the Hokies.
Virginia Tech's O-Line vs. Alabama's D-Line
Sergio Render leads the Hokie offensive line, and, just like his counterpart Mike Johnson, he's one of the best offensive guards in the nation. Also like Alabama, they are breaking in new starters on the line, but Virginia Tech was ranked 111th in sacks allowed last year. New starter Beau Warren will have his hands full with Alabama's Terrence Cody.
What may have been an issue two years ago is certainly not an issue any more. Alabama has a ton of depth on the defensive line. Even with Brandon Deaderick being cleared to play by the medical staff after his gunshot wound, Alabama has capable players who have seen enough playing time to not be intimidated. Expect the Tide to rotate as many as five defensive linemen to keep fresh legs on the field.
Virginia Tech's Running Backs vs. Alabama's Linebackers
The Hokies lost their leading rusher Darren Evans to a torn ACL a few weeks ago. Today, they named redshirt freshman Ryan Williams as the starter, but running backs coach Billy Hite mentioned that in addition to Williams, Josh Oglesby and David Wilson will play in the game as well.
Alabama has arguably the best inside linebacker combo in the nation in Rolando McClain and Dont'a Hightower. Eryk Anders is a speedster off the edge and has improved in run support while Cory Reamer brings his enormous intelligence and reliability to the field. This is probably the most talented group of linebackers Alabama has had in a long time. Their reserves are young, but they return with them some valued game experience.
Virginia Tech's Pass Offense vs. Alabama's Secondary
The knock on Tyrod Taylor is simply this: He threw two touchdowns and seven interceptions last year. He makes up for his shortcomings with his ability to make plays with his feet.
His favorite target will be TE Greg Boone, who is a fan favorite. Watch out for redshirt freshman Xavier Boyce, at 6'4", 223 pounds he gives Taylor another big target.
Alabama had to deal with the questions after the losses to Florida and Utah, but the biggest question of them all would be the replacement of Rashad Johnson. Justin Woodall is sliding over to free safety, while fan-favorite Mark Barron will take over as strong safety. Kareem Jackson and Javier Arenas are capable cover corners who have been in the system for a long time.
This is not the deepest position Alabama has, but it is one of the most experienced.
Virginia Tech's Return Game vs. Alabama's Punt Defense
Virginia Tech has to find another punt returner with the loss of Macho Harris. Harris was the 47th best returner in the nation, but as a team they were ranked 59th. Look for Ryan Williams to man the duties because of his ability to play in space.
PJ Fitzgerald was ranked 41st in punting and their punt defense was ranked 61st. The Crimson Tide has to be able to keep Williams contained in order to maintain good field position, which is something that Virginia Tech relies on to have a chance at winning.
Projection: 24-13 Alabama