Alabama begins its national title defense with a trip to a familiar destination – Atlanta. The Crimson Tide played and won two out of the last four SEC Championships in the Georgia Dome, including last year’s 32-28 thriller over Georgia.
Nick Saban’s team won’t be playing for a berth in the national championship in this trip to Atlanta, and the hype for this matchup has been a subdued. The Crimson Tide is a listed as a three-touchdown favorite in some locations, and Virginia Tech is dealing with a myriad of issues on offense.
The Hokies are coming off a 7-6 season but needed three wins in overtime to get bowl eligible. As a result of the lackluster record, coach Frank Beamer made some changes to his coaching staff. Former Auburn and Temple assistant Scot Loeffler was hired as Virginia Tech’s offensive coordinator, Aaron Moorhead was brought aboard to coach the receivers and Jeff Grimes was appointed the new offensive line coach.
Virginia Tech and Alabama met in Atlanta to start the 2009 season, with the Crimson Tide earning a 34-24 victory. These two teams have played 12 times, and Alabama holds a commanding 11-1 series edge.
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Three Things to Watch
A fresh start for Logan Thomas
After throwing for 3,013 yards and 19 touchdowns and rushing for 469 yards and 11 scores in 2011, Thomas was supposed to be the ACC’s next standout quarterback. Instead, Thomas regressed as a junior and finished with just 2,976 passing yards, 18 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. The blame for the struggles on Virginia Tech’s offense doesn’t rest solely on Thomas’ shoulders, especially since the rushing attack, receiving corps and offensive line had their own issues. But if the Hokies want to hang around, the senior passer has to have a big game. Mobile quarterbacks have given a few headaches to Nick Saban’s defenses in recent years, and Thomas’ ability to move on the run could be crucial to keeping drives alive. Considering Virginia Tech’s small margin for error, the senior quarterback cannot afford any turnovers.
Alabama’s offensive line against Virginia Tech’s defensive front
If there’s one unit Alabama is concerned about, it has to be the offensive line. With Barrett Jones, D.J. Fluker and Chance Warmack departing, it won’t be easy for the Crimson Tide to dominate opposing defenses like they did last year. However, this group should remain among the best in the nation, as left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio is a future first-round pick, and center Ryan Kelly played well in limited action last year. Virginia Tech’s defensive line is the strength of the team, led by senior end James Gayle and tackles Derrick Hopkins and Luther Maddy. With three new starters on the line, Alabama’s pass protection and run blocking will be tested by Virginia Tech’s active defensive line.
Who steps up at running back and wide receiver for the Hokies?
Although Logan Thomas needs to have a big game for Virginia Tech to pull off the upset, the performance of the running game and receiving corps is just as crucial. Last year’s leading rusher (J.C. Coleman) finished 2012 with just 492 yards and did not make the trip to Atlanta due to injury. With Coleman sidelined, the Hokies will turn to redshirt freshmen Trey Edmunds and Chris Mangus on the ground. Redshirt freshman Joshua Stanford and sophomore Demitri Knowles are listed as the starters at receiver for Saturday’s game and the duo combined for 20 catches last year. Tight end Ryan Malleck was ruled out for the year this week due to a shoulder injury, which puts even more pressure on the three key players in the receiving corps: Knowles, Stanford and senior D.J. Coles.
Key Player: Jonathan McLaughlin, OT, Virginia Tech
Starting a true freshman at left tackle is usually enough to give any coach nightmares throughout game week. However, it’s an even bigger concern against a defense like Alabama. McLaughlin was rated as a three-star recruit by Rivals.com and secured the left tackle job this fall. Not only will the true freshman have his hands full against Alabama’s 3-4 defense, but he is also protecting quarterback Logan Thomas’ blindside.
Even though this game has plenty of appeal in terms of name value, this is a huge mismatch. Virginia Tech just has too many new faces on offense to threaten Alabama. The Hokies could keep this one close in the first half, largely due to their advantage on the defensive line against the Crimson Tide’s offensive line. However, Virginia Tech’s offense will struggle to generate much production on the scoreboard, which allows Alabama to pull away in the second half.
Prediction: Alabama 38, Virginia Tech 13