2009 Keys to the Game and Matchups to Watch: Alabama

In the most anticipated opening game in Virginia Tech football history, the
seventh-ranked Hokies travel to Atlanta to face the fifth-ranked Alabama Crimson
Tide on Saturday night. Tech will be on the main stage in college football’s
opening weekend with high expectations throughout the Hokie Nation. Can Tyrod
Taylor lead VT to a big win against one of college football’s most storied
programs? Can Bud Foster’s defense contain dynamic playmaker Julio Jones?
These questions and more will soon be answered in Atlanta.

In most opening games, mistakes and mental errors will dictate the outcome,
but I anticipate a well-played game for one simple reason – the two teams are
almost mirror images of each other. The offensive and defensive units that each
team has been practicing against all spring and summer will be very similar to
the squads each will be facing Saturday. Obviously, key personnel will be
different, but schematically the two programs have many similarities.

Offensively, Alabama and Virginia Tech use multiple sets and personnel
packages, often using a single back with either three wide receivers or two
tight ends. Both teams want to establish a power running game that sets up a
play-action passing attack. Alabama featured a dominant offensive line last year
behind All-Americans Andre Smith and Antoine Caldwell, but the depth of Bama’s
o-line last year was exposed in the Sugar Bowl when Smith was suspended and
replacement Mike Johnson was injured. Utah, which only had 21 sacks for the
season to that point, sacked Alabama QB John Parker Wilson eight times and never
let the Tide establish a running game. Much like Virginia Tech, Alabama has many
questions regarding the offensive line (with LT Smith, OC Caldwell, and RG
Marlon Davis departing), and the success of the offense will likely be dictated
by the play of this unit.

Defensively, Nick Saban and Bud Foster have similar philosophies. Alabama
relies on a stout run defense that plays aggressively and forces mistakes. The
Crimson Tide will use multiple coverage schemes with a foundation of press
man-to-man coverage. Saban’s defensive strategy was described in the following
excerpt from one of his LSU defensive playbooks (per smartfootball.blogspot.com):