Note: My opinion of what might happen during this game has changed a bit since scrimmages have began and injuries have started to plague the Hokies. Check out a followup post I did as a guest blog post here.
It’s called the Chik-fil-A College Kickoff, but it’s not the first college football game of the season (those start Thursday, Sept, 3, 2009, not Sept. 5). Of course, that’s not keeping college football fans and analysts from eagerly awaiting what might be the most-exciting matchup of the season between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Virginia Tech Hokies. Both teams have found their ways into preseason top 10 rankings and have dark horse national championship whispers surrounding them, but everyone says the team that gains momentum with a win in Atlanta will be the one to watch. Well, luckily, we’re here to break the game down for you position-by-position to try to accurately predict a winner (or at least make a heckuva educated guess)! Let’s go:
Alabama (10) – Virginia Tech (1) since the teams first met in 1932.
Advantage: Crimson Tide.
Spring Game Impressions
A-Day Game, Crimson defeats White, 14-7
Maroon-White Game, Maroon defeats White, 13-7.
Advantage: Neither. Both teams are obviously defensively oriented. Virginia Tech just needs to find a reliable kicker for those elusive extra points.
Tyrod Taylor, a.k.a. “T-Mobile.” Junior. 2008 rating of 103.25. 1,963 career yards, 7 TDs. A running QB who got rid of his hitch in the offseason and needs to display more in the passing game. Injury-prone. An experienced starter with a BCS bowl win and two ACC championships under his belt.
Backup: Joseph Clayton, a.k.a. “Ju-Ju.” Freshman. Had a 56-yard pass to Ryan Williams in the spring game for a TD. Won out for the starting job over Marcus Davis. Had 1 INT, 1 fumble and went 4 of 15 in the spring game.
Greg McElroy, Junior. 2008 rating of 178.47. 196 career yards, 2 TDs. Only playing time has come against Western Kentucky (4 of 6), Arkansas (0 of 1), Mississippi State (2 of 2), Auburn (2 of 2) and Western Carolina (8 of 9). McElroy has never had a rushing attempt.
Backup: Freshman Star Jackson, freshman A.J. McCarron or walk-on Thomas Darrah. Jackson and Darrah split time during the spring game, where Jackson threw two INTs and Darrah was only 8 of 22, and neither backup found the end zone. It’s looking like Jackson will be the man if the time comes, but the Tide had probably better hope the time doesn’t.
Advantage: Virginia Tech. The Hokies have a QB who is tested against big opponents, while Alabama’s QB has only taken a few snaps against some relatively easy defenses. As far as the backup situation goes, VT has only a slight edge — both teams could see their season end with the loss of the no. 1 guy under center.
The Hokies are loaded at the RB position with Darren Evans, Ryan Williams and Josh Oglesby among the guys from which to choose. Evans, in his freshman season last year, rushed for 1,265 yards and 11 TDs. The Hokies have never lost a game in which Evans has rushed for at least 78 yards. He broke a record with 253 yards rushing against Maryland last season. Ryan Williams almost hit the century mark during the spring game with 85 yards rushing (keep in mind spring game quarters are shorter). He also had that 56-yard screen pass reception for a TD, for a total of 66 yards receiving. While Oglesby might start anywhere else in the ACC, he’s still waiting his turn in Blacksburg.
Mark Ingram and Roy Upchurch, the Crimson Tide’s rushing leaders from last season were on the bench with injuries most of the spring, but there aren’t any indications they would stay there for the season opener in Atlanta. However, they’ve missed out on some valuable scrimmages. Because of those absences this spring, Terry Grant and Demetrius Goode tried rushing for the Crimson Tide, coming up with a total 34 yards rushing between them, but McElroy’s -30 yards rushing put the Crimson team a net total of 4 yards rushing. The White team netted only 37 yards rushing, but no notable RBs were the ones doing the scampering. Back to Ingram — he had 728 yards rushing and 12 TDs in his debut season. Upchurch had 350 yards rushing and 4 TDs last year to make his career yardage 624 and his career TD total 7.
Advantage: Virginia Tech. Alabama has some talented RBs in Ingram and Upchurch, but neither has the talent already showcased by the Hokies’ Darren Evans. In addition, Ryan Williams gained some valuable playing time this spring while Bama’s starters were on the bench. Oglesby could easily step in to fill VT’s RB role if needed, but the spring game showed that the Crimson Tide’s backups can’t do the same.
The Hokies' receiving corps was absolutely impotent last season, and while the group seems to have improved, it’s likely VT will stick to the rushing attack in order to open up for some play-action passing here and there, but don’t expect Taylor to try anything Big 12-ish out there with the aerial assault. The WR skill position is sort of jumbled, as there are plenty of guys who fans could see play this season. Dyrell Roberts will likely be the solid starter, but after that you could Xavier Boyce, Jarrett Boykin, Danny Coale, D.J. Coles, Tony Gregory or Patrick Terry in the rotation. The problem here is with experience. Though Alabama’s receivers will be young as well, they’ve played against tough SEC defenses and scored points. Roberts had only 227 yards receiving last year, and zilch in the TD category. Boykin fared a little better in his debut season last year with 441 yards receiving and 2 TDs. Coale racked up 408 yards with no TDs. Newcomer Logan Thomas is touted as an amazing athlete, but fans will have to wait and see where he fits in. Word is he's going to be groomed to eventually replace Boone at TE.
Julio Jones is pretty much a household name among college football fans. Marquis Maze looks like a young Steve Smith with some of the catches he made in the spring game. Chris Jackson and Mike McCoy are likely the other players we will see in the rotation at WR for the Tide. Jones had 924 receiving yards for 4 TDs in his debut season and hopes to be a star for Alabama come September. Maze logged only 137 yards but had 2 TDs last year. Mike McCoy received 16 times for 191 yards and 1 TD last year, bringing his career to 398 receiving yards and 2 TDs.
Advantage: Alabama. Though the Crimson Tide are only slightly more experienced than the Hokies in the receiving corps, the possession of a standout like Julio Jones gives them an edge.
Let’s start this off by saying Greg Boone is a beast. He split time this spring with Chris Drager, who seems to have been moved to defensive end for now, so the starting job seems to be Boone’s, as it should be. Boone is a physical player who is versatile and difficult to tackle. He was used last season in the Wild Turkey (think Wild Cat) formation with quite a bit of success. Andre Smith is also in the mix here, but he’s coming off an injury. Sam Wheeler might see playing time here, as he seems to have recovered from his knee injury. This is a pretty deep position, but expect Greg Boone to shine. He’ll be a leader as a senior who has 513 career yards and 3 TDs, 278 of those yards and 2 of those TDs coming off last season when he was relied upon heavily. His number might not get called a whole lot, but Boone will usually come through if needed. Newcomer Logan Thomas might see some reps here, but he'll probably start out at WR if he plays much this season at all. Eventually, though, the original plan is to get Thomas playing as a receiving TE.
Alabama loses two senior tight ends and must rely on some new blood at this position. Colin Peek, Brad Smelley, Preston Dial and Michael Williams might all see some time at TE. Peek will be a senior with about half the yardage and TDs of VT’s Boone, and Dial doesn’t add much depth with only 29 careers yards in his stat book. The Crimson Tide will need to run plays that rely less on the TE if Smelley and Williams don’t step up to add some much-needed tight-end energy.
Advantage: Virginia Tech. There’s a reason the crowd sounds like it’s booing in Blacksburg when Boone comes into the game.
The Hokies have some depth, talent and experience on the O-Line for the first time in years. Ed Wang comes in at LT, Sergio Render and Jaymes Brooks play as guards and Beau Warren looks to be the center for now. Richard Graham, Greg Nosal, Andrew Lanier and Michael Via will likely all see a rotation in at some point in the season. Expect Wang and Render to be the playmakers. Brooks is also getting a lot of hype, but his actual talent is yet to really be seen.
James Carpenter is a newcomer, but solid, at LT. The rest of the O-Line looked very weak during the spring. The rest of the interior consists of players that really have yet to establish names for themselves. Senior Evan Cardwell might be the preferred man at center, as he has played in wins over SEC teams. Senior Drew Davis has proven he can block. Expect to see senior Mike Johnson at right tackle and/or right guard. He has quite a bit of experience, playing since his freshman season.
Advantage: Virginia Tech. Replacing talent like that of Andre Smith and several others is going to be tough on the Crimson Tide offensive line. VT has a lot more depth and skill on the line, which it will need against a hellacious Alabama defensive line. Alabama’s O-Line will be lucky to prevent sacks from Bud Foster’s defense, and they might just find themselves struggling against plenty of SEC opponents this season as well.
Bud Foster is known for putting together top-10 defenses year after year. This year will be no different, especially up front with John Graves, Demetrius Taylor, Antoine Hopkins/Kwamaine Battle and Cordarrow Thompson on the line. Don’t forget about Jason Worilds at DE or Nekos Brown. You might see some of the following names in the rotation from time to time: James Gayle, J.R. Collins, Duan Peréz-Means, Isaiah Hamlette, Joe Jones or Steven Friday. The point is — Foster’s defensive line will provide the push the linebackers and safeties need, and there’s enough depth to keep that toughness going if an injury or two come along. Worilds, Thompson and Brown combined for 13 sacks last season.
The Crimson Tide have three senior starters on the D-Line, and they seem to be capable of rushing the offense and/or coming away with sacks. However, of the returners here, no one really had an impressive season last year. The new guys are good enough, but so far the defensive line isn’t necessarily anything special. The real defensive skill is with the linebackers and defensive backs for the Tide. However, Brandon Deaderick should have a solid year as leaders on defense. Deaderick has a career 57 tackles.
Advantage: Neither. Both teams have some depth and experience on the D-Line. Though VT’s players have established hype around themselves a little better, that doesn’t mean Alabama’s defensive lineman aren’t just as worthy of praise. Both teams look more likely to rely on good play from the linebackers and defensive backs to bolster the defense. The Hokies’ lineman seem to be better at getting inside for sacks, but you have to keep in mind that they’ve been playing in the ACC, where the O-Lines of opposing teams haven’t necessarily been that great in the past couple of years.
What names should you expect to see at LB for the Hokies this season? How about these: Cody Grimm, Jake Johnson, Cam Martin and Barquell Rivers. There are a few others who might come into the mix, but these will likely be the ones getting their names called out on national television. Grimm has 97 tackles, 2 forced fumbles and 2 INTs so far in Blacksburg. Cam Martin returns as a leader at LB as well, with 132 tackles, 5 forced fumbles and 1 INT.
Rolando McClain and Dont’a Hightower combined for 11 tackles, an INT and 2 sacks — in the spring game. Senior Cory Reamer is also in the mix, along with Eryk Anders. Also expect to see Brandon Fanney, Jerrell Harris, Courtney Upshaw, Nico Johnson and Tana Patrick in the mix as needed. McClain has seen a career 165 tackles and 3 INTs. Hightower debuted last year with 62 tackles. Cory Reamer has 40 career tackles and 1 forced fumble. This group has a medium amount of experience and seems pretty talented. Word on the street is that Saban plans some major pass rushing this season.
Advantage: Virginia Tech. Foster’s linebackers are hard-hitters who force fumbles and come away with INTs. Alabama’s group has plenty of potential to do the same, but they will not be on quite the same level by September.
Right now, the playmakers expected to appear in VT’s secondary are: Davon Morgan, Dorian Porch, Kam Chancellor, Eddie Whitley, Stephan Virgil, Rashad Carmichael. If Jacob Sykes and Cris Hill can hold on to catches and stop playing so inconsistently, their speed could propel them up the depth chart. Stephan Virgil is a mature CB with a career 63 tackles, 1 fumbles forced and a whopping 6 INTs, making him easily the most-talented player in the secondary for either VT or Alabama. Chancellor isn’t far behind with 139 tackles, 2 fumbles forced and 4 INTs during his career so far in Blacksburg. Everyone else is mostly untested and has yet to show what, if anything, they can contribute. Victor “Macho” Harris will be sorely missed in the VT secondary (and at WR and on special teams), but the Hokies have two guys who can step up this year.
It looks like the secondary for the Crimson Tide will be under the command of sophomore Robby Green, who replaces Rashad Johnson, and Justin Woodall, a senior. There’s also the likes of Javier Arenas, Hampton Gray, Mark Holt, Kareem Jackson and Tyrone King. Green didn’t do a very good job covering his man in the spring game, and his INT came off another defensive player’s tipped pass. Woodall boasts a career 52 tackles, 2 forced fumbles and 4 INTs, though. Arenas has come away with an INT as well and 78 tackles. Jackson is a talented young man who has 107 career tackles, 1 fumbles forced and 4 INTs on his record. The same can’t be said for King. What we seem to have here is a fairly mature group that hasn’t quite posted up the numbers you’d expect at this point in their careers, with Jackson and Woodall being the exceptions perhaps.
Advantage: Virginia Tech. The Hokies have two guys who are more talented than anyone else in the Crimson Tide secondary. Past that, the teams even out a bit with a lack of experience and some untested guys. This is probably just a slight edge, but it’s an edge that leans toward the Maroon and not the Crimson.
Dyrell Roberts did some KRs for the Hokies last season, 545 yards worth, that is. Of course, without Victor “Macho” Harris in the lineup, Frank Beamer might want to try out a few different players in this position. Newcomer Patrick Terry did OK in the spring game, and Kenny Lewis Jr. returned for 222 yards last season before getting injured. The fact is, the Hokies don’t have an Eddie Royal or even a Harris just yet for this position. The kicking game might continue to haunt the Hokies for a second straight season, as Justin Myer flubbed an extra point attempt in the spring game. There was also a missed FG attempt, and neither punter averaged 40 yards a punt. There was, however, a blocked punt in the spring game. Brent Bowden, the Hokies' punter, had a not-so-great season last year. He seems to stare a the ball for quite a long time before finally kicking it away. VT is going to need him to be more consistent this year. Matt Waldron, Tim Pisano, Chris Hazley and Cody Journell are all in the mix to do the non-punt kicking, but there's no experience or showcase of skill yet from any of these guys.
Just like the Hokies, the Crimson Tide looked pitiful on special teams during their spring football game. Third-year starter Leigh Tiffin was 0 of 2 on field goals from 33 and 55 yards. Javier Arenas is a good returner, but punter P.J. Fitzgerald leaves a lot to be desired. There’s a lot need in terms of the kicking game, but Arenas chalked up 650 PR yards and 610 KR yards last season, with 3 TDs of PRs.
Advantage: Neither. Both teams need to find reliable place kickers and punters. The Crimson Tide have more firepower in the return game, both teams are about even in coverage, and the Hokies are always good to block a kick from time to time (they call it Beamerball, after the head coach who coaches the special teams himself). It’ll be about which team is most consistent and makes the fewest mistakes come September to determine who has the better special teams unit.
This bring our analysis to 6-2-3 (advantages VT-advantages Alabama-advantages neither) in favor of the Hokies. If, however, Alabama gets all of those "neither" categories to shift in their direction, that makes it a 6-5 VT advantage, which is a slim margin, to say the least.
Looking at the position-by-position matchups, the Hokies should win this game, but a lucky call or a freak breakout kick return one way or the other could make the difference in this game that is likely to be a heckuva defensive battle. That’s why this will be an action-packed, hard-hitting, low-scoring game.
Prediction: 17-14 Virginia Tech