(5) Alabama (0-0) vs. (7) Virginia Tech (0-0)
Saturday, September 5th, 8:00 p.m. (et)
The Sports Network
By Scott Haynes, Senior College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: One of the most anticipated matchups of the 2009 season takes place this weekend in Atlanta, as top-10 foes Alabama and Virginia Tech meet in a key non-conference matchup from the Georgia Dome.
The fifth-ranked Crimson Tide are coming off a 2008 season in which they ran the table in the regular season and climbed to the number one spot in the national rankings as a result. A 31-20 loss to Florida in the SEC title game, ended Alabama and Nick Saban's hopes of a national title. A deflated Alabama squad was relegated to the Sugar Bowl, where the team fell to a strong Utah squad, 31-17.
Alabama's quick return to national prominence under Saban has paid immediate dividends, as Saban recently signed a contract extension with the university that will keep him in Tuscaloosa through the 2017 season.
"Coach Saban has impressively led the Alabama football program back to national prominence in a short period of time," said UA Director of Athletics Mal Moore. "That success has been evident in all facets - on-field results, his embrace of Alabama's athletics and academic culture, recruiting, and community service. In every way, Coach Saban has positioned our program among college football's elite."
Saban will get a chance right out of the gate to repay the university for its confidence in him, as Virginia Tech poses a real threat.
The seventh-ranked Hokies come into the 2009 campaign with the ACC title in their sights. Frank Beamer's squad was able to win the conference a year ago, although it didn't come easy. Still, with nine wins on the year and the ACC crown in tow, Tech earned a BCS bowl bid and bested Cincinnati in the Orange Bowl, 20-7.
This game marks the 12th all-time meeting between these two teams on the gridiron. Alabama won the first 10 matchups, but Virginia Tech finally earned a victory in this series in the inaugural Music City Bowl in 1998.
With the departure of John Parker Wilson under center, Greg McElroy steps into the void. With the job securely in place McElroy has to now go out and prove he is the man for the job, something Coach Saban certainly believes.
"I think Greg has done a lot to gain the respect of his teammates and has done a good job of effectively executing what we want to do," says Saban. "How he responds to a game-like situation is why we have to play him. I'm not really concerned about it, we're just going to do everything we can to support him and help him and develop so that he can manage it the best he can."
McElroy will have the luxury of throwing to one of the nation's premier wideouts in Julio Jones, who finished with 58 catches for 924 yards and four touchdowns as a freshman last season. Also, Marquis Maze will be a guy to watch on the outside.
The ground game will be spearheaded by Mark Ingram and Roy Upchurch, who are more than capable of carrying the load. Ingram rushed for 728 yards and 12 touchdowns as a freshman last season, and although the offensive line has suffered some major losses, the rushing attack is still viewed as one of Alabama's strengths.
There is much more stability on the defensive side of the ball, as nine starters are back from one of the best defensive units in the nation. It all starts up front, with mammoth defensive tackle Terrence Cody. The 365-pound beast may prove to be the nation's elite interior defensive lineman by season's end. He will be flanked by veteran ends Brandon Deaderick and Lorenzo Washington. However, Deaderick was recently involved in a robbery attempt and suffered a gunshot wound to the arm. It is not known how much time he will miss.
The linebacking corps has star power as well in standout junior Rolando McClain, who posted 95 tackles and three sacks a year ago.
The guy to watch in the secondary is safety Justin Woodall. He posted 47 tackles and four picks last season. With the departure of standout Rashad Johnson, Woodall has a chance to shine as one of the true defensive leaders for Alabama.
The 2009 offense for Virginia Tech will look much different than Coach Beamer envisioned even a few weeks ago, as sophomore star Darren Evans has been lost for the season with an ACL tear. Evans set an ACC record for rushing yards as a freshman, with 1,265 yards and 11 TDs in 2008. A few of the youngsters in the backfield will be asked to fill the void and the hope is that players like redshirt freshman Ryan Williams, true freshman David Wilson and redshirt sophomore Josh Oglesby can help assuage the loss.
There is much more stability under center, as duel threat Tyrod Taylor returns for his junior season. Taylor was hampered by injuries in 2008 and split time with now departed Sean Glennon, but still managed to rush for 738 yards and seven TDs, while throwing for over 1,000 yards.
Beamer has all the confidence in the world in his signal-caller.
"I think Tyrod is going to have a heck of a year. I think his throwing is going to be better, his decision-making is going to be better and I think he works very hard at it. He's a smart kid and very competitive."
The team's top five receivers return to Blacksburg and although this is a run- first team, it will certainly help to have some experience on the outside. Sophomore Jarrett Boykin had a solid freshman season in 2008, as the 6-2, 215- pounder led the team in receptions (30) and receiving yards (441), with two TDs. Tight end Greg Boone is a reliable relief valve with All-ACC type of talent.
Three starters return along the offensive line, including bookends Ed Wang (6-5, 310) and Blake DeChristopher (6-5, 303).
The Hokie defense has been one of the premiere stop units in the entire country for awhile and 2008 was no different, as Tech was stingy in just about every facet of the game, including limiting opponents to just 175.0 passing yards per game. The defense returns seven starters from that squad, so expect more of the same in 2009.
Getting after the quarterback is something this defense did well last year, amassing 35 sacks in all. Gone is Orion Martin (13.0 TFLs and 7.5 sacks), but plenty returns up front, including All-American candidate Jason Worilds (6-2, 240) on the outside. The junior end led the team in 2008 in TFLs (18.5) and sacks (8.0). Senior tackle Cordarrow Thompson (6-2, 308) is disruptive in the middle, racking up 6.5 TFLs and three sacks a year ago.
The linebacking corps is loaded as well, with players like seniors Cody Grimm (71 tackles, 7.5 sacks and two INTs) and Cam Martin (51 tackles, two sacks) headlining the group.
The secondary returns three of the four starters from a year ago, but the one glaring departure is All-American Victor Harris, who was tied for the team lead with six interceptions in 2008. This is still one of the best secondaries in the country, with playmakers like senior cornerback Stephan Virgil (43 tackles, six INTs) and senior safety Kam Chancellor (52 tackles, two INTs) roaming the defensive backfield.
The Crimson Tide deflated the ACC faithful in last season's season-opener, destroying what was supposed to be a great Clemson program. Virginia Tech is too good to allow that to happen again. This game pits two of the nation's top defensive units, so don't expect a shootout. How well McElroy handles the pressure, will determine this one. The Hokies will bring it from all angles and will try to limit Jones down the field. In the end however, one or two big plays could be the difference and simply put, Alabama has more playmakers.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Alabama 23, Virginia Tech 17
09/02 10:33:33 ET