This is the first installment our breakdown of Alabama Crimson Tide football opponents throughout the 2013 campaign. We begin by taking an early look into the Tide’s season-opening opponent, Virginia Tech.
WHEN: Saturday, Aug. 31; 4:30 p.m. CST
WHERE: Georgia Dome (Atlanta, Ga.)
LAST SEASON: 7-6 (4-4 Atlantic Coastal Conference, 4th place in Coastal Division; defeated Rutgers 13-10 (OT) in Russell Athletic Bowl)
CURRENT PRESEASON RANKING: consensus – unranked (just outside of top 25)
CURRENT BETTING LINE: Alabama by 18.5
RADIO: ESPN Radio; local radio stations listed here.
SERIES HISTORY: Alabama leads the series 11-1. (Last meeting: 34-24 Alabama in 2009 season opener at the Georgia Dome; Lone Virginia Tech win vs. Alabama: 38-7 in 1998 Music City Bowl)
OFFENSE: It is no secret that quarterback Logan Thomas was the single biggest disappointment on Virginia Tech last season. The rising senior regressed last season from his first full year as a starter in 2011, dropping off in all major statistical passing categories. With that being said, he is still the team’s best player, and it will ultimately come down to his play that will determine the Hokies success as a team in this game, and for the remainder of the season.
Thomas will have his work cut out for him after losing his top three receivers, and a total of seven offensive starters from last season. Sophomore running back Michael Holmes, another valuable offensive player, was lost earlier this month after he was kicked out of school for a guilty verdict in an assault and battery case. Sophomore running back J.C. Coleman still returns after leading all Hokie running backs with 492 rushing yards last season, but it’s uncertain if he can handle a possible increased workload after the loss of Holmes.
Conclusion: Thomas doesn’t necessarily need a monster game against the Tide defense, but he certainly needs to be more careful with the football after throwing 16 interceptions last season. It is crucial that the running game opens up the passing game to alleviate some pressure off of Thomas, who has the ability to beat defenses with his arm or his legs.
DEFENSE: Like Alabama, the Hokies are a team who pride themselves more for their strong defensive play than for their offensive play. The Hokies finished 18th in the nation in total defense last season, which is an impressive mark for a team that was barely bowl eligible in 2012. With nine returning starters from last season’s defense, it should come as a surprise to no one if Virginia Tech finds itself ranked in the top 10 in total defense at the conclusion of the 2013 season.
Senior defensive end James Gayle anchors a defensive line loaded with plenty of depth, while senior linebacker Jack Tyler highlights the linebacker corps after leading the team in tackles with 119 in 2012. Senior cornerback Antone Exum, who is currently rehabbing an ACL tear, could provide a huge boost in the secondary if he is able to play in the opener against Alabama after recording five interceptions and picking up several postseason honors last season. All three of the aforementioned players are top prospects at their positions for the 2014 NFL Draft.
Conclusion: With several question marks on offense, look for the defense to be the strength of the team against Alabama. If the defense can keep the game within single digits by halftime, the Hokies have a chance.
SPECIAL TEAMS: If there has been one constant throughout Frank Beamer’s previous 26 seasons as Virginia Tech’s head coach, it’s been “Beamer Ball.” A team-wide philosophy of creating big plays and scoring opportunities, most notably through returns or blocked punts or kicks, “Beamer Ball” has a history of coming in the right place at the right time for the Hokies. While the Hokies haven’t been nearly as good at “Beamer Ball” in recent seasons – their last blocked punt came in 2010 – they have proven to still be a formidable unit.
Last season, sophomore Demitri Knowles averaged 28.3 yards on kickoffs – 12th-best in the country – returning one kick 93 yards for a touchdown against North Carolina. On punts, junior Kyshoen Jarrett averaged 13.9 yards per return – sixth-best nationally – with his biggest return going 94 yards for a touchdown against Pitt. Senior kicker Cody Journell and punter A.J. Hughes are both also reliable commodities at their positions with Journell converting 20 of 25 field goal attempts and Hughes averaging 40.6 yards per punt a year ago.
Conclusion: The Hokies will need to take advantage of every scoring opportunity they can get against Alabama, so an accurate Journell is a must. A big play or two on special teams can also only help the Hokies, who benefited greatly off a kick return touchdown in the school’s last meeting with Alabama in 2009.
COACHING: Despite a disappointing 2012 season, Beamer is still one of the better coaches in all of college football, leading Tech to eight-consecutive 10-win seasons before last season’s 7-6 finish. Beamer, the longest-tenured coach in college football, made unprecedented coaching staff moves for the program this offseason with the hiring of former Auburn offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, former Stanford wide receivers coach Aaron Moorehead and former Auburn offensive line coach Jeff Grimes. The trio will look to revitalize a subpar Hokie offense from a year ago, which ranked in the bottom half in the country in several offensive categories. On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Bud Foster has proven to be one of the nation’s best as Beamer’s right-hand man, twice coaching Hokie defenses to the top-ranked total defense nationally.
Conclusion: While it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Beamer outcoaches Alabama head coach Nick Saban, that’s probably exactly the scenario it’s going to take for Virginia Tech to pull off the upset. Regardless, expect Beamer and the rest of the coaching staff to show signs of heading in the right direction after coming under a lot of scrutiny a year ago.
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