Last season, on this very stage, Nick Saban's squad stomped Clemson 34-10, sending Crimson Tide fans into a frenzy and showing rebuilding would be more sprint than marathon.
The season ended with disappointing losses in the SEC title game and Sugar Bowl, but the surprising run set the bar extremely high. Now, the Crimson Tide will try to build off that 12-2 season as they open against No. 7 Virginia Tech, a team with plenty to prove for itself and its conference. The Hokies, who went 10-4 in 2008, join Texas and USC as the three teams to win at least 10 games in each of the past five seasons. Now, they're under pressure to back up the highest preseason ranking in program history.
1. It's finally Tyrod Taylor's time -- how will he handle it? To say the Virginia Tech quarterback's time in Blacksburg has been defined by instability would be doing the word itself injustice. Taylor split time with Sean Glennon in his first two seasons, including last year (Taylor was initially redshirted, but the move that lasted all of a game and a half). Now Taylor is firmly entrenched as the starter. He won't have to look over his shoulder for Glennon, who's no longer on the roster. Still, questions remain.
The junior has always been able to make things happen with his feet. A year ago he ran for 738 yards and seven touchdowns and he has posted three career 100-yard rushing games, but he's struggled to match the same game-breaking ability with his arm, completing just 55.7 percent of his passes and posting a paltry 7-to-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Taylor's revamped his throwing motion to remove a hitch he's had since high school, but the real key remains whether he's confident enough to throw instead of taking off and relying on his athletic ability (like another dual-threat Virginia Tech QB used to do).
With the Hokies' leading returning rusher, Darren Evans, out for the season with a torn ACL, Frank Beamer will have to lean on Taylor even more. The cupboard isn't bare at running back -- redshirt freshman Ryan Williams was the nation's No. 3 prospect at the position a year ago and freshman David Wilson can flat-out fly -- but the Hokies won't be an elite team this season unless Taylor can produce through the air to take pressure off the running game. That will be particularly paramount against big Terrence Cody and a 'Bama D that allowed a paltry 74.1 yards per game in '08.
2. Julio Jones and Mark Ingram will play, but questions remain for 'Bama. The Crimson Nation can finally exhale: The NCAA cleared the Tide's leading returning rusher and receiver after a fishing trip paid for by an Alabama businessman put their eligibility in doubt. Their return, however, doesn't change the fact Saban will play a new quarterback, a rebuilt offensive line and a defense that will likely be missing a starter.
Greg McElroy's replacing the school's all-time leading passer in John Parker Wilson, but he's been down this road before; in high school he succeeded Chase Daniel at Carroll (Southlake, Texas) High. Despite his inexperience (20 career pass attempts), the junior may not be that much of a drop-off from JPW. Teammates are raving about his leadership ability, and since McElroy doesn't boast an overly strong arm, he, like Wilson, will play within the offense.
Of course, to be productive, McElroy needs his o-line to offer protection. After the Sugar Bowl, 'Bama fans know all too well what playing without left tackle Andre Smith means. Worse still, Smith's just one of three starters gone from last year's line. The Tide will have a new LT in juco transfer James Carpenter, a new center in junior William Vlachos and new right guard in Barrett Jones. At least Saban will quickly find out what he has against a Virginia Tech defensive front returning four starters, including standout DE Jason Worilds.
Defensively, the Tide will likely be without senior right end Brandon Deaderick, who was shot in the forearm Monday during a robbery attempt. He returned to practice this week but is listed as day-to-day and had a large bandage on his arm. The Tide will likely turn to junior Luther Davis. The former SuperPrep All-America has notched 15 career tackles and 3.5 sacks in 20 games and is no slouch, but he'll face an unenviable task going against the 6-foot-5, 310-pound senior left tackle Ed Wang. Expect VT to run Davis' way early and often.
3. The ACC needs this one, really, really badly. Over the past four years, the conference has produced more first-round draft picks (30) than any other conference. Unfortunately, that talent hasn't exactly translated to success on the college gridiron.
The past three years, the conference is 33-46 in nonconference play against fellow BCS teams. Last season, the Hokies' Orange Bowl win over Cincinnati gave the ACC's its first BCS bowl win since 1999. Since the BCS began, the ACC has never produced an at-large invite to one of the bowls.
But the ACC has reason to be optimistic. Last season its teams were 6-4 against the SEC in the regular season, including wins over Ole Miss and Georgia, and it sent a record 10 teams to bowls. This year, 10 of its 12 teams return their starting quarterbacks and four are in the AP preseason Top 25, the most in four years.
Still, the ACC remains Frank Stallone to the SEC's Sylvester. You might say one game alone can't salvage a reputation or define a season, but don't forget what happened last season in the Georgia Dome: Alabama won and returned to prominence, while Clemson was exposed and went into a tailspin that resulted in a coaching change. From a perception standpoint, the ACC has to prove it can win high-profile games. This game will allow the ACC to prove itself against the sport's current King Conference. A win could signal a break through year.
What does it take to slow down the Hokies' QB? I asked the coach of one of Virginia Tech's former opponents. Here's what he had to say:
"It's hard to prepare for a guy like that. The option stuff or the read-play, you try to get just two people on the quarterback on your read play every time and make sure you got two guys responsible for him. It is a good idea to have a guy spying him, but if there's a passing situation with him in the game you probably want as many defensive backs and linebacker types out there to chase him because he's hard to sack, hard to get a handle on unless you just get eight coming after him and get him before he gets started.
"A guy like that, you either have to get him before he gets started or make sure you have the kind of players on the field that when he does start scrambling can get him down in the open-field and frustrate him a little bit. He's not necessarily the kind of guy that's going to beat you with his arm but he will beat you with his feet."
Each week I'll feature the best prediction/trash talk off the featured matchup. Follow me to make your entry for next week's game: USC-Ohio State.
"Our prediction for 'Bama? Boring game with great D and awful O. Also, Tech wins 28-0 with 4 defensive TDs. Maybe not so boring..."-- @TheNorthEndzone
Alabama 21, Virginia Tech 17. With these two defensive fronts, it'll be hard for either offense to dictate the pace of the game. This will likely come down to who makes those few key plays, and while Taylor's arm, legs and experience make the Hokies enticing, Virginia Tech simply doesn't boast the cast of playmakers Alabama does, even with a new QB.