First, if you missed these things this week, check them out:
– Lots of rumors about gray uniforms out there. This picture is circulating on the message boards right now.
– You can get to last night’s injury report here.
– Listen to the Hokies Press Pass podcast with Aaron McFarling and myself here.
– Mark Berman has a story on Alabama left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio here.
Virginia Tech vs. No. 1 Alabama
- Where: Georgia Dome in Atlanta
- When: 5:31 p.m.
- TV: ESPN
- Last year’s records: Virginia Tech 7-6, Alabama 13-1
- Series: Alabama leads 11-1
- Last meeting: Crimson Tide won 34-24 in Atlanta in 2009
- Line: Alabama by 21
When Virginia Tech passes
Quarterback Logan Thomas will be out to prove that his refined mechanics and new outlook for 2013 are more than just talk. The 6-foot-6, 250-pound senior still has the big arm, but he has to improve his accuracy to cut down on the 16 picks he threw last year. His goal is less than five this year. That might be tough considering his supporting cast. Tech’s offensive line has two brand new tackles (Jonathan McLaughlin and Laurence Gibson). The only real experienced receiver is D.J. Coles, who is coming off a lost year with a knee injury. And tight end Ryan Malleck is out for the year with a shoulder injury, a major blow to a passing attack that planned on using its tight ends as primary options this season. Young receivers like Demitri Knowles, Josh Stanford and Charley Meyer have potential, but they’ll need to prove they can be in the right place and catch the ball in a game.
Alabama had some turnover on the back end of the defense. Cornerback Dee Milliner was a first-round pick last April, and safety Robert Lester graduated as well. Geno Smith, who played in the Tide’s nickel package, is suspended for the first two games because of a DUI arrest, meaning there will be plenty of new faces in the secondary. Still, there’s talent. Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, in addition to being on the first-team All-Name squad, is being touted as a potential first-round pick next spring. Vinnie Sunseri is a veteran to pair with him who had 54 tackles last season. Veteran Deion Belue is back at corner, with senior John Fulton and sophomore Cyrus Jones on the other side. Alabama’s defense finished with 35 sacks last year, tied for 28th nationally. Nevertheless, opponents have been able to throw it against the Tide.
When Virginia Tech runs
It’s a thin backfield for the Hokies, with J.C. Coleman‘s status in doubt, Joel Caleb suspended for a game and Tony Gregory out for the year with a knee injury. It’s Trey Edmunds‘ show. The 6-foot-1, 216-pound redshirt freshman has yet to play in a college game, but coaches are enthusiastic about his potential to be the workhorse back the Hokies so desperately need. He’ll be the primary back, with redshirt freshman Chris Mangus, a speedster, taking every few series. The biggest concern might be the line, which settled on its starting five last week. Only Andrew Miller returns as an entrenched starter. Tech didn’t run the ball well in any of the scrimmages this preseason, going against a Hokies defense that’s very good at stopping the run. That’s problematic because …
Alabama is unbelievably good at stuffing the run. The Crimson Tide has given up fewer than 80 yards a game on average in four of the last five seasons. Last year, teams ran for only 76.36 yards per game against it. Only LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia topped the 100-yard mark, and all three of those teams had pretty good ground games. Alabama has given up 60 rushing touchdowns since 2005, fewest in the nation. Opponents scored just 10 rushing touchdowns on the Bama last year. The strength of the Tide’s defense are the linebackers. C.J. Mosley, who had 109 tackles last year, is touted as a first-round draft pick. Trey DePriest‘s 54 tackles were second on the team. Adrian Hubbard‘s 11 tackles for a loss and seven sacks led the team. The defensive line had some turnover, but Alabama has plenty of depth up front, led by senior end Ed Stinson, who had 30 tackles and 8.5 tackles for a loss last year.
When Alabama passes
AJ McCarron is one of the most accurate passers in college football. He led the country with a 175.28 passing efficiency, thanks to a 67.2 completion percentage and 30 touchdowns to only three interceptions. He threw only five interceptions the previous year, so he’s not prone to mistakes. He’s got some pretty good weapons at his disposal. All Amari Cooper did last year was break many of Julio Jones freshman receiving records, catching 59 passes for exactly 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns. Tech’s coaches have repeatedly compared him to Clemson’s Sammy Watkins. But he’s not alone. Christion Jones (27 catches, 368 yards, 4 TDs) joins veterans Kevin Norwood, Kenny Bell and DeAndrew White on the outside. That quartet caught 81 passes for 1,365 yards and 13 touchdowns last year. Freshman tight end O.J. Howard isn’t listed as a starter, but the 6-foot-6, 237-pounder could factor into the passing game this year. The question is how much time the revamped offensive line can give McCarron to throw. More on that group in the next category.
Virginia Tech will be without All-ACC corner Antone Exum, who is still on the mend for offseason ACL and microfracture surgery, with the ACC opener as a potential return date. That means a true freshman will start at corner, but the Hokies have some talented ones. Kendall Fuller has lived up to all of his five-star hype so far and will likely start opposite his brother, Kyle. Brandon Facyson will come into the game in the nickel package, with Kendall sliding over to the slot. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster intends to use the nickel package a lot against three-wide receiver sets. The defensive line and its pressure will be key. The Hokies had 27 sacks in the final seven games last year after only eight in the first six. Ends James Gayle, J.R. Collins and Dadi Nicolas will need to make things hectic in the backfield for McCarron, who can pick you apart if he has time.
When Alabama runs
After sharing carries with Eddie Lacy last season, running back T.J. Yeldon is being touted as a Heisman candidate this year, expected to build off a 1,108-yard, 12-touchdown season, the first true freshman the Tide has had to break 1,000 yards. Bama usually uses more than one back. There are a number of players listed as Yeldon’s backup, but freshman Derrick Henry, a 6-foot-3, 238-pound five-star prospect, might be the Tide’s next big thing. The line has some unanswered questions. Three All-Americans are gone from last year (D.J. Fluker, Chance Warmack and Barrett Jones). Kouandjio is back at left tackle, and could be a great one. Right guard Anthony Steen has 25 career starts to his credit. The rest of the line isn’t nearly as experienced. If there’s a place to attack Alabama, this might be it.
That’s why Tech will need its front seven to be solid. Luther Maddy and Derrick Hopkins are just that on the interior, a couple of athletic tackles who came around with their run defense by the end of last year. Linebacker Jack Tyler (119 tackles) returns in the middle, joined by Tariq Edwards, who missed almost all of last year with leg/knee issues. He’s missed some recent scrimmages with a shoulder injury but should be a full-go Saturday. The position to watch is whip linebacker on the outside. With Ronny Vandyke out for the year, former walk-ons Josh Trimble and Derek DiNardo will fill in. Foster has called them dependable guys but not play-makers, necessarily. Tech will need them to be solid stopping the run. Alabama is sure to challenge them.
Coleman’s questionable for the Hokies, but Knowles averaged 28.3 yards on kickoffs last year, 12th nationally, Kyshoen Jarrett should be the guy on punt return. He was ninth nationally with a 13.9 average. Kicker Cody Journell (20-25 FG) is back, as is punter A.J. Hughes (40.6 avg.). It’s not the individuals that are a concern for Tech, however. It’s the group. Last year was always something — jumping offsides, hitting the kicker, muffing a kick, dropping a snap. Those things have the major potential to alter a game if not fixed.
For Alabama, Cade Foster was the long field goal guy last year, so his 4-for-9 mark on field goals is misleading. All five of his misses are from 40-plus. Cody Mandell averaged 44.3 yards per punt, helping the Tide rank 17th nationally in net punting. Jones took one back to the house as a kick returner last year. He handles both kicks and punts.
Frank Beamer is college football winningest active coach. But Nick Saban is its best — and there’s not really a whole lot of dispute that that’s true. He’s won four BCS titles total and three in the last four years with Alabama. H’s recruiting at a level unmatched in college football. And he schemes his defenses as well as anyone. That’s a tough combination to beat. Tech’s Bud Foster stacks up as well as anyone as a defensive coordinator, although Bama’s Kirby Smart has done a solid job in Tuscaloosa (even if Saban gets a lot of the credit for that D). The offensive side is heavily weighed in Bama’s favored. Doug Nussmeier helped the Tide win a national title in his first year. Tech’s Scot Loeffler has major question marks after a failed year at Auburn that was punctuated by a 49-0 loss to — guess who? — Alabama.
I don’t think this game will be close. I haven’t for a while. Alabama is a modern-day dynasty possibly at its height. Virginia Tech is a formerly great team trying to re-establish itself in the football landscape after last year’s struggles. It’s just not the right time to be playing the two-time defending national champions. With the new coaches, there’s so much uncertainty for the Hokies. Even a team with no question marks would struggle against Alabama. Tech has a ton of question marks. And that’s magnified by all the recent injuries. Consider this: Tech will be without a starter cornerback (Exum), starting outside linebacker (Vandyke), starting tight end (Malleck) and possibly a starting co-No. 1 running back (Coleman). That’s four of 22 starters out. That’s not how you want to go into a game against a team this good.
I wavered on how much I think Tech will do offensively. I don’t think it will be pretty, but I don’t think you can judge how these new coaches will fare against a team like Alabama. The Hokies are clearly a work in progress. The Tide make great offenses look average and average offenses look bad. I thought I had settle on 34-6 a while ago but decided to alter it a little bit after looking at some of the question marks in Alabama’s secondary and to account for the possibility of a late touchdown. I think Foster’s crew plays with pride but is overwhelmed by bad field position and continually having to be on the field. Alabama wins in a rout.
Prediction: Alabama 34, Virginia Tech 10