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Well, it’s finally here. The 2013 season is upon us. Once more unto the breach, as Will Stewart said. For the first time in a while, Tech fans go into a season without any set expectations. They’ll open with Alabama, the back-to-back National Champs, in Atlanta.
Alabama defeated Virginia Tech 34-24 in the Georgia Dome back in 2009. If you recall, the Hokies led that game 17-16 going into the fourth quarter. Believe it or not, that is the last time a non-SEC opponent has led the Crimson Tide in the fourth quarter. That includes two National Championship Games against Texas (37-21 final) and Notre Dame (42-14 final), as well as last season’s opener against Michigan (41-14 final) and a couple of games against Penn State (27-11 and 24-3).
Remember when Virginia Tech hammered Alabama 38-7 in the Music City Bowl back in 1998? In those days, Alabama was a sleeping giant. Nick Saban has woken that giant.
Alabama and Nick Saban are both very beatable when they are separated. The Tide went 3-8 in 2000, just 7-5 in 2001, 4-9 in 2003, 6-6 in 2004 and 6-7 in 2006. When Nick Saban was at Michigan State, he went 34-24-1 and never won a bowl game. Even at LSU, he only won more than 10 games once, and he had less than 10 wins in three of his five seasons. Included amongst his losses at LSU was a 26-8 thumping in Lane Stadium at the hands of Frank Beamer and Virginia Tech.
Combined, however, Saban and Alabama have been nearly unstoppable. He’s 68-13 in his career in Tuscaloosa, and six of those losses came in the first season. He and Alabama combine to form the perfect combination of coaching ability, program tradition and recruiting potential. He’s instilled a winning culture that’s built on toughness. Everyone has to respect it, even if you don’t like it.
Everyone knows all about past Alabama teams, but what about this one? Well, I’ll put it this way: they are ranked #1 for a reason.
T.J. Yeldon: Next Man Up
T.J. Yeldon (6-2, 218, So.) is next in a long line of great Alabama tailbacks. He rushed for over 1,000 yards last season, when he and Eddie Lacy became the first duo of ‘Bama backs to each have 1,000 yards on the ground in the same season.
It was Yeldon who caught the late screen pass for a touchdown against LSU, and without that victory the Tide would not have played for the National Championship. He was only a true freshman last season, so college football has two more years of watching him run around, over and through college defenses.
Yeldon has good size, but what stands out are his vision, quick feet and acceleration. He can make multiple moves in the open field, and he can change directly quickly. His build and feet remind me of Adrian Peterson, though it would be unfair to him at this point in his career to say he’s going to be that good.
Yeldon is target #1 for the Virginia Tech defense. They need to stop him before he gets running downhill. They need to attack him with numbers, because he has a very nice jump cut (Branden Ore style) in the backfield that enables him to get away from initial penetration by one defender.
Of course, Yeldon isn’t their only back. Jalston Fowler (6-1, 250, r-Jr.) is the most versatile member of the Alabama offense. You could see him lined up at tailback, H-back or fullback. He was injured early last season and he had to take a redshirt, but despite not playing in a feature role, he has put up good numbers in his career: 81 carries for 581 yards, a 7.2 yards per carry average.
Three backs are listed as co-#3 on the depth chart: Dee Hart (5-9, 187, r-So.), Derrick Henry (6-3, 238, Fr.) and Altee Tenpenny (6-0, 207, Fr.). Henry is the mega recruit that everyone wanted. It’s not known exactly how much he’ll play in his first college game, because Yeldon is a proven player and Jalston Fowler is a very good option as well. However, expect to see him on the field at some point.
A.J. McCarron: The X-Factor
Why do I call A.J. McCarron, a possible first round pick, an X-Factor? Because Alabama isn’t used to having guys like McCarron. They typically have a good, solid quarterback, don’t get me wrong. But usually that quarterback isn’t elite. He is a guy who makes good decisions, doesn’t throw the ball to the wrong team, and in general excels because of the elite talent around him.
McCarron (6-4, 214, r-Sr.) is different. He is projected as a possible first round pick in April. Not only does he not lose games, he is very capable of winning them. Alabama’s running game rarely gets shut down, but if by chance it happens, McCarron is very capable of putting the team on his back and leading them down the field for a game winning drive.
You can’t argue with his numbers. McCarron led the country with a 173.1 quarterback efficiency rating, and he threw just three interceptions all season. He set a school record with 26 touchdown passes. At one point, he went 291 consecutive passes without throwing an interception (spanning two seasons, 2011-12).
Answer this question: when is the last time Alabama had a better quarterback than running back? I don’t know the answer, but you could make the argument that McCarron is a better player than T.J. Yeldon. And I don’t mean any disrespect to Yeldon at all, who is an outstanding talent, and perhaps might have a higher ceiling than McCarron (it’s hard to compare different positions). But I see McCarron being a very good, very heady, very accurate NFL quarterback in the future.
You can bet that McCarron will be going right after Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson, Virginia Tech’s true freshmen corners.
Amari Cooper (6-1, 202, So.) is one of the best wide receivers in the country. As a freshman last season, he pulled down 59 receptions for exactly 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns. Those are pretty good numbers for a guy who had never stepped on a college football field before, obviously. The Virginia Tech coaches liken him to Sammy Watkins, and that’s an accurate statement.
In 2009, Bud Foster was very worried about Julio Jones against new corner Rashad Carmichael, so he schemed his defense to take him away. It worked, as Jones was held to four catches for 46 yards. However, it helped to open up other parts of the Tech secondary for the big play. Even though Greg McElroy only completed 50% of his passes against the Tech defense, he made some big throws on third down.
Kevin Norwood (6-2, 195, r-Sr.) caught 29 passes for 461 yards and four touchdowns as Alabama’s second leading receiver a year ago. Christion Jones (5-11, 185, Jr.) pulled down 27 receptions for 368 yards and four touchdowns. Kenny Bell (6-1, 180, r-Sr.) had 17 catches for 431 yards and three touchdowns.
This group of Alabama receivers features one star player and a number of solid role players. In 2009, the Hokies managed to shut down the star player (Jones), but they were beaten by the role players, such as Darius Hanks.
The Offensive Line
Alabama’s offensive line, year in and year out under Nick Saban, is one of the best in college football. Despite constantly losing players to the NFL, they reload. Here’s a look at the guys you’ll see in action against the Hokies.
LT Cyrus Kouandjio (6-6, 310, Jr.): Kouandjio became a full-time starter at left tackle last season. He is a potential top 10 pick in the NFL Draft whenever he decides to declare. He visited Virginia Tech for a summer camp a few years back before ultimately choosing Alabama.
LG Arie Kouandjio (6-5, 315, r-So.): You guessed it … a pair of brothers anchor the left side of the offensive line for the Crimson Tide. Though Arie isn’t as proven as his brother, he certainly has the size and pedigree. He spent some time at right tackle during the preseason, though the unit seems to have better chemistry with him playing left guard.
C Ryan Kelly (6-5, 290, r-So.): Kelly played in nine games as a r-freshman last season and was named to the SEC All-Freshman team. He is ready to take over the full-time center duties in 2013. He’s a mentally strong player with good size for the center position. He has the versatility to play multiple positions along the line, though center seems to be his best spot.
RG Anthony Steen (6-3, 309, r-Sr.): Steen is the most experienced member of the Alabama offensive line. He has been a full-time starter for the last two years, and he was a top backup as a r-freshman in 2010. He is one of the top interior line prospects for the 2014 NFL Draft.
RT Austin Shepherd (6-5, 315, r-Jr.): Though Shepherd isn’t a returning starter, he was still a letter winner in his first two seasons at Alabama. This guy was a 3-star recruit and the #38 recruit in the state of Alabama, but he has developed into a solid player. However, there are some questions as to whether or not Shepherd is a “true” offensive tackle. He might be better suited for guard. If the Hokies get pressure on A.J. McCarron, I would expect it to come from this side.
The Tide also have two veteran backups: G/T Kellen Williams (6-3, 302, r-Sr.) and C Chad Lindsay (6-2, 302, r-Jr.). Williams is definitely more suited for guard, but can play offensive tackle in a pinch. He is listed as Alabama’s backup left tackle, but don’t expect Cyrus Kouandjio to come out of the game.
These Crimson Tide players are getting used to a new offensive line coach, just like the Virginia Tech players. Mario Cristobal is Alabama’s new line coach. He was the head coach at Florida International from 2007-12. If his name sounds familiar, it should.
1989-92: Played at Miami
1998-00: GA at Miami
2001-02: OT/TE coach at Rutgers
2003: OL coach at Rutgers
2004-05: TE coach at Miami
2006: OL coach at Miami
Before his time at FIU, Cristobal spent his entire coaching career competing against Virginia Tech. He’s familiar with Tech’s defensive system, but likewise the Tech coaches are familiar with him. The only offensive line he coached at Miami was flattened by the Tech defense back in 2006, but he has much more talent to work with now.
The Alabama Defense
Alabama runs a 3-4, 2-gap defense. Their defensive personnel and scheme is much different than Virginia Tech’s. Kirby Smart has been a terrific defensive coordinator for Alabama, aided by Nick Saban of course. Saban was a defensive guru before he ever became a head coach. He served as Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns.
Alabama’s defensive linemen use their impressive size and strength to tie up offensive linemen, while their big, athletic linebackers are free to run cleanly to the football. That’s the gist of the 3-4 defense.
DE Jeoffrey Pagan (6-4, 290, Jr.): Pagan was a backup in his first two seasons, and he recorded four TFL and 1.5 sacks last year.
DE Ed Stinson (6-4, 292, r-Sr.): Stinson started all 14 games at defensive end last season. He recorded 8.5 TFL and three sacks.
NT Brandon Ivory (6-4, 310, r-Jr.): Ivory played as a backup last season, and is expected take over the starting nose tackle job this year. However, a twisted knee limited him during the preseason. He’s backed up by Darren Lake (6-3, 324, So.), who played in seven games as a true freshman a year ago.
Here’s a look at the linebackers:
SAM Adrian Hubbard (6-6, 252, r-Jr.): Hubbard started at the strongside linebacker position last season. He had 10 TFL and six sacks. He will be a high picks as an OLB in a future NFL Draft, either in 2014 or 2015.
MIKE Trey DePriest (6-2, 245, Jr.): DePriest started last season as a middle linebacker for the Crimson Tide. He is projected as the #4 ILB in the 2015 NFL Draft. He finished second on the team last year with 56 tackles.
WILL C.J. Mosley (6-2, 232, Sr.): Mosley was a finalist for the Butkus Award last year. He is an All-American and one of the top linebackers in the country. He plays the weakside linebacker position for Alabama.
JACK Xzavier Dickson (6-3, 265, Jr.): Dickson is expected to start at Alabama’s “JACK” linebacker position, which is also considered a rush defensive end spot. He should split time with Denzel Devall (6-2, 250, So.). Devall in particular has excellent potential as a pass rusher.
Alabama will bring a variety of zone blitz packages against Virginia Tech. The Tech offensive line is attackable pretty much everywhere, but look for Nick Saban and Kirby Smart to target Jonathan McLaughlin in particular. The true freshman is likely to have a tough time in his first college start. He protects the blindside of Logan Thomas, so look out.
Alabama starting cornerback Geno Smith (So.) is suspended for this game. His loss could be felt, as Smith is viewed as one of the top young defensive backs in the country. However, the Crimson Tide still have two senior cornerbacks to lean on.
John Fulton (6-0, 186, Sr.) was one of the top cornerback recruits in the country coming out of high school. However, he’s never been able to break into the playing rotation, and he’s had just one start during his career. He’s been a regular on special teams since his true freshman season. Deion Belue (5-11, 183, Sr.) started every game for Alabama last season. The former JUCO had two interceptions last season.
At free safety, Alabama starts Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (6-1, 208, Jr.), who is arguably the top safety in the country. He tied for the SEC lead with five interceptions last season. He should be off the board early in the NFL Draft, assuming he declares after his junior season.
Strong safety Vinnie Sunseri (6-0, 210, Jr.) is the son of Sal Sunseri, who is currently the defensive ends coach at Florida State. He has also served as defensive coordinator at Tennessee and linebackers coach at Alabama. As a coach’s son, Sunseri is a very smart player. He’s got good size, and he can creep down into the box in Alabama’s nickel formations. When the Tide go to their nickel package, expect Jarrick Williams (6-1, 210, r-Jr.) to get the call. He missed last season with a knee injury, and he’s never been a starter before.
Alabama has no weakness in the front seven. At cornerback, they have a senior who has never been able to break into the rotation, another corner who is “only” ranked the #15 player at his position in the 2014 NFL Draft, and a nickelback who is coming off a knee injury. I’m not saying these guys are weaknesses, but they are relative weaknesses. If the Alabama defense is going to get beat, it’s going to happen in the secondary.
Punter: Cody Mandell (6-4, 213, Sr.) is entering his fourth season as Alabama’s starting punter. He averaged 43.8 yards per punt a year ago.
Kicker: Cade Foster (6-1, 224, Sr.) has been Alabama’s long field goal specialist in the past. He was just 4-of-9 last year, but all of his attempts were beyond 40 yards, and five of them were beyond 50 yards. In 2011, he was just 2-of-9, and again all of his attempts were from beyond 40 yards. He has a big leg. The only question surrounding him is his accuracy.
Virginia Tech’s offensive key is to hit big plays, in my opinion. The Hokies are not going to drive the ball consistently down Alabama’s throats. That much is obvious. To score, I think they will need to hit some big plays, such as a deep ball to Demitri Knowles, a long run by Trey Edmunds, etc.
Running backs coach Shane Beamer was an assistant coach with South Carolina when the Gamecocks knocked off Alabama in 2010.
“The thing we did that game, we hit some big plays on offense,” Beamer said. “Which you have to do on these guys. Logan I know talked about today about when opportunity presents itself, you have to capitalize.”
Virginia Tech’s defensive key is to stop the running game. Not slow it down … stop it. That’s likely their only chance. Alabama has lost three football games over the past five years. Here’s how those teams have done against the Alabama rushing game.
Texas A&M, 2012: 122 yards
LSU, 2011: 96 yards
Auburn, 2010: 69 yards
LSU, 2010: 102 yards
South Carolina, 2010: 36 yards
That’s an average of 85 rushing yards per game in those five losses. Virginia Tech probably can’t afford to only limit or slow down the ‘Bama rushing attack, because the Hokie offense isn’t likely to score enough points. They are going to have to hold them to around 100 yards, or less. Obviously that will be easier said than done, but nevertheless it must be done for the Hokies to have a realistic shot.
Clearly there are other keys, such as not making mistakes on special teams, winning the turnover battle, etc. However, these were the two keys that stand out to me.
Like I said earlier this week … I want to believe. But, I just can’t. I do believe the Tech defense will play tough. We very well could see those freshmen at cornerback make some mistakes that lead to big plays and points, but I think the Tech front seven will give the Alabama offensive line one of their tougher battles of the season.
Likewise, I think Scot Loeffler will have a trick or two up his sleeve that will catch the Tide off guard. I like the plans that are in place (or the plans I think that are in place). I feel much better about Virginia Tech’s ability to construct a competent game plan that can challenge teams like Alabama going forward.
But in the end, it all comes down to players. You can draw up whatever game plan you want, but it all comes down to players. The fact of the matter is that Tech’s offensive players are too young to win this game without a lot of help from Alabama. To refresh your memory, here’s a quick list of the key young players, and their roles:
Jonathan McLaughlin (Fr.): starting left tackle
Sam Rogers (Fr.): starting fullback
Trey Edmunds (r-Fr.): starting tailback
Chris Mangus (r-Fr.): #2 tailback if J.C. Coleman (So.) can’t play
Jerome Wright (Fr.): Possible #3 tailback
Joshua Stanford (r-Fr.): #3 receiver and possible starter
Charley Meyer (r-Fr.): #4 receiver
Carlis Parker (Fr.): #5 or #6 receiver
That’s too many freshmen, and I didn’t even count backup offensive linemen Wyatt Teller (Fr.), Parker Osterloh (Fr.) and Augie Conte (r-Fr.), all of whom are in the two-deep. Apologies if I missed anyone, but there are a lot of guys to remember. Throw in those freshmen at cornerback, and wow…this is really a young Virginia Tech team.
No matter how you slice it, that’s too much youth. If the defense plays great, special teams plays well, and Alabama makes a lot of mistakes, then maybe the Hokies can overcome the youth on offense and pull an upset. I like this Tech offense a lot … in 1-2 years. Unfortunately, they play Alabama in two days.
Prediction: Alabama 31, Virginia Tech 7
Will Stewart’s Take: In recent months, I was thinking VT was going to get absolutely destroyed in this game, LSU-2007-style. I foresaw the Hokies struggling to reach ten points, and Alabama naming their own score (sorry, Bud, I know that’s disrespectful).
When these two teams met in 2009, they were ranked #5 (Bama) and #7 (VT), and it was perceived as a good matchup. This time, Alabama is coming off three national championships in four years, and the Hokies are coming off an ugly 7-6 campaign that led to the dismissal of most of the offensive staff. Alabama is ranked #1 with a bullet, and VT is unranked. These two teams are very far apart.
Since then, I’ve seen some promising things from the Virginia Tech side of the house, despite all the depressing injury news. Justified or not, I developed a sense of faith in offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler to put together a game plan that gives the Hokies a puncher’s chance. I trust Bud Foster to put a competitive defense, maybe even a great defense, on the field. Lastly, I watched a DVR’d copy of Texas A&M’s win over Bama the other night, a game in which Alabama didn’t look so invincible.
I was feeling pretty good, although I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was thinking VT’s going to win. But I could see how they could.
Then I did two things:
1.) I created the roster card for this game, and got a look at Alabama’s defensive size and experience. Nothing but juniors and seniors listed in the starting defensive lineup, and they’re huge. The two smallest guys in the front seven weigh 232 and 245. And we know that in addition to being huge, they’re fast.
2.) I edited Chris’s rundown of the Tide. He used the phrase “NFL Draft” six times when describing Tide players, and honestly, he could have used it more.
You can talk keys all you want, but there’s a big disparity in talent, size and experience here, and football games are sixty minutes long. For Virginia Tech to win, they’ll have to bring it for the whole sixty minutes, and Alabama will have to not bring it pretty much the whole sixty minutes. It won’t take one or two big plays or lucky plays for the Hokies; it will require five to eight.
It’s unreasonable to expect a team with Virginia Tech’s youth to enter a game like this, against an opponent like this, in a setting like this, and not have some or all of those young players lose their heads. Remember the descriptions from the young players in the 2010 Boise State FedEx game, about how they were overhyped and lost their cool? Even if VT’s young players stay relatively focused, a well-coached team like Alabama will be waiting for them to slip up. And they will. And when they do, Alabama will capitalize on it.
I could go on and on, but there’s no point to it. Can Virginia Tech win? Sure. Will they? It’s really not very likely. At all. It would be extremely out of character for Alabama to falter enough in this game to allow Virginia Tech to rise up and knock them off. I’ll be looking for Virginia Tech to put up a fight and show some attitude, but these programs are too far apart at the moment to predict the Hokies winning it, or even keeping it close.
Will’s Prediction: Alabama 35, Virginia Tech 10