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Saturday Storylines: As Alabama begins title quest, Va. Tech looks to bounce back

Logan Thomas will lead a banged-up Virginia Tech team against Alabama on Saturday. (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Logan Thomas

Looking for a guide to Week 1 in college football? Campus Union has you covered. For more walk-up coverage, check out Andy Staples' Walkthrough.

Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer could take a page out of Alabama’s history in preparation for the Hokies’ Week 1 opener against the Crimson Tide in Atlanta.

In 2008, Nick Saban’s team was coming off a mediocre 7-6 season, the coach’s first in Tuscaloosa, when it faced No. 9 Clemson in the Georgia Dome to open the year. ‘Bama entered the matchup ranked No. 24, but it managed to blindside the Tigers 34-10. Alabama finished 12-2, a campaign that effectively launched the dynasty that has since claimed three of the past four BCS titles.

The Hokies might not resemble a national championship contender in '13, but Saturday provides an opportunity to stage a similar turnaround. Much like that ‘Bama squad, this Virginia Tech group is reeling from a 7-6 record in 2012, Beamer’s worst mark in 20 seasons. And Alabama is, well, Alabama. It’s a challenge Beamer is relishing as he strives to prove he hasn’t lost his touch.

“They’ve got it all,” Beamer said of Alabama during his weekly teleconference. “They do everything well. I think when you play a team like this, the best football team in the country, we can see where we are. It’s time to play a ball game and get a starting point and see where we are as a football team.”

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Much of Virginia Tech’s sorry 2012 performance can be blamed on the offense, which ranked 81st nationally in total production. Quarterback Logan Thomas, who looked like a high-round draft pick after the ‘11 campaign, was largely inconsistent and tossed 16 interceptions last fall. Beamer brought in three new offensive coaches to help right the ship, including coordinator Scot Loeffler, formerly of Auburn. As it happens, the last defense Loeffler prepared for was Alabama’s, though that didn’t go well: The Tide rolled the Tigers 49-0 last November.

Virginia Tech will also have to overcome a crop of injuries. Running back Tony Gregory (ACL), linebacker Ronny Vandyke (shoulder) and tackle Mark Shuman (knee) are out for the game. Star defensive back Antone Exum (knee) will require a few more weeks to recover before he’s ready to play, and starting running back J.C. Coleman (both ankles) is questionable.

If this rematch of the 2009 season opener -- in which the Tide beat Virginia Tech 34-24 -- looks lopsided, that’s probably accurate. Asked this week about Alabama’s weakness, Beamer responded, “I haven’t found one yet. They’re as solid as the day is long.”

The Crimson Tide return 14 starters from last year’s squad, including quarterback AJ McCarron, running back T.J. Yeldon, wide receiver Amari Cooper and linebacker C.J. Mosley. Perhaps the only question mark is their offensive line, which must replace three starters from what many considered the best unit in the country in 2012. Saban said he’s interested to see how new left guard Arie Kouandjio, center Ryan Kelly and right tackle Austin Shepherd will fare.

“I think that when you have new players, at any position, you’re always anxious to see how those players respond to the challenge,” Saban told reporters this week. “Lots of times, some players practice well, but they get in the game and don’t play well. You don’t know that until you go out there and play. Game experience is what gives guys the confidence and trust to believe in.”

The odds are stacked (heavily) against the Hokies, but they’re embracing their role as the underdog. For ‘Bama, this game is the first step toward a possible three-peat and the continuation of a dynasty. For Virginia Tech, it’s a chance to move back toward its long-held status as one of the top teams in the ACC.

“You see if people can handle the biggest of big situations, and how they do handle it,” Beamer said. “In college football, I always say this: The first time you play for real, you get a great evaluation. Then you put Alabama in there, and you’ve got a tremendous team to see how they respond. We’ll learn a lot this Saturday.”

Points, points, points

No. 5 Georgia at No. 8 Clemson: These two offenses combined to score 78.8 points per game last season, so expect some fireworks on Saturday in Death Valley. What to make of both defenses, however, is far less certain.

The Bulldogs head into the season especially young on that side of the ball, as 10 of the 23 names on their defensive two-deep are players with no game experience. That could be an issue against quarterback Tajh Boyd and wide receiver Sammy Watkins.

“I'm probably more curious than concerned,” Georgia coach Mark Richt told reporters this week. “Young people tend to be more apt to react to what happens early in the game. If things are going great, they feel great. If things aren't going well, they start feeling bad."

Mississippi State vs. No. 13 Oklahoma State (in Houston): Both Clint Chelf and J.W. Walsh will see time at quarterback in the opener for Oklahoma State, which is a popular pick to win the Big 12. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, will look to prove they can hang with top competition. They dropped five of their last six games in 2012, including all four against ranked foes.

No. 19 Boise State at Washington: The Broncos averaged just more 30 points per game last season -- and that was the worst scoring output of the Chris Petersen era. With returning quarterback Joe Southwick leading a veteran offense, Boise State might just spoil Washington's first contest in revamped Husky Stadium.

No. 22 Northwestern at Cal: With 15 starters returning from a 10-win team, Pat Fitzgerald has the Wildcats believing they can contend in the Big Ten. But Northwestern must first get past Cal and new coach Sonny Dykes, who led the nation in total offense at Louisiana Tech last season.

Washington State at Auburn: We know what Gus Malzahn and Mike Leach have done with up-tempo offenses in the past. What they do with two of last year’s underachieving attacks, however, still remains to be seen. Another reason to expect to a shootout? The Tigers and Cougars ranked 79th and 81st, respectively, in total defense in 2012.

Grown-man football

No. 12 LSU vs. No. 20 TCU (in Dallas): Well, something like that anyway. TCU faces LSU and new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Plus, there’s the return of TCU quarterback Casey Pachall.

RICKMAN: Quarterbacks will take center stage in Week 1 TCU-LSU matchup

They’re back!

Johnny Manziel, in the second half as No. 7 Texas A&M hosts Rice. How many yards can the reigning Heisman winner rack up in 30 minutes?

Bobby Petrino, as the ex-Arkansas coach will take the field as Western Kentucky’s new headman. He’ll face a Kentucky program looking for rejuvenation under first-year coach Mark Stoops.

Tommy Rees, as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback with Everett Golson out of the mix in 2013. He’ll face Temple in an opportunity to find his footing before the schedule becomes more daunting down the road.

Upset brewing?

Nevada at No. 21 UCLA:Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley is a dark horse Heisman candidate, but linebacker Anthony Barr and the defense could be tested against Cody Fajardo, Nevada and the country’s seventh-ranked total offense in ‘12.

MANDEL: Week 1 Pickoff: Which teams will start the 2013 season on the right foot?