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Virginia Tech-Alabama Preview

Here's the breakdown of Saturday's game that will run in the paper. Also, my story on the excitement generated by Saturday's game can be found here.

Records: No. 5 Crimson Tide 0-0; No. 7 Hokies 0-0.

Coaches: Nick Saban (14-8, third season); Frank Beamer (177-89-2, 23rd season).

When the Hokies Have the Ball
While Virginia Tech has some talent and experience at the skill positions, to have success against Alabama it might come down to the Hokies' offensive linemen. In a game that figures to be close and low scoring, winning at the line of scrimmage will be key. That is especially true against Alabama's scary 3-4 front. Hulking nose guard Terrence Cody commands blockers, while linebackers Rolando McClain and Dont'a Hightower cause havoc. Last season, the Crimson Tide was tied for third nationally in total defense (263.5 yards per game). Over the past two seasons, Virginia Tech has allowed a total of 96 sacks. Although the Hokies have run the ball well, the offensive line has shown major holes. This summer, the Hokies have said their sleeker, more athletic linemen have jelled and stepped up.

When the Crimson Tide Has the Ball
Virginia Tech might be able to exploit the Crimson Tide in the trenches, as Alabama has three new offensive linemen. Hokies defensive tackles John Graves and Cordarrow Thompson are run-stuffers on the inside. With 18 1/2 tackles for a loss last season, end Jason Worilds is a disruptive force. A steady pass rush and blitzing from Virginia Tech's linebackers could unsettle first-time starting quarterback Greg McElroy, who has completed 16 of 20 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns in his career. The defensive line's performance could also be essential in slowing the Crimson Tide's rushing attack, led by Mark Ingram.

Special Teams
It's hard to out-do Virginia Tech's special teams, but the Crimson Tide might have the advantage in some facets. Place kicker Leigh Tiffin ranks fifth on Alabama's kicker scoring list with 253 points. And as a punt and kick returner, Javier Arenas is explosive; he is the active NCAA leader in career punt returns (93), punt return yards (1,259) and touchdowns (6). Aside from third-year punter Brent Bowden, many of Virginia Tech's special teams components are unproven. Place kicker Matt Waldron and punt returner Ryan Williams, a big-play threat, are both making their first appearances.

Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer is no stranger to big games, from high-profile regular season matchups to a string of 16 bowl consecutive appearances. But since he took over in 1987, Virginia Tech is 1-16 against teams ranked in the Associated Press top 5. Alabama's Nick Saban picked up two wins against top 10 teams last year, including over No. 3 Georgia. But Saban's team fell flat in last season's Sugar Bowl against Utah.

By Mark Viera  |  September 4, 2009; 1:30 PM ET
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