It's been said a bear is at its most dangerous once wounded. But what about a gobbler?
"Wounded" will be the parlance of the day when discussing the Virginia Tech Hokies as they take the field against the Crimson Tide to open the season. Injuries to key starters, defections, team-discipline related attrition, many new faces among the starting 22 ...all of these things would seemingly nip in the bud VT's chances of an upset over the Tide. After a summer of erosion, the Tech squad is nothing if not wounded, their roster mangled like an arm caught in some American Gothic farming implement.
Heading into the game, the Crimson Tide faithful seemingly have little to fear. Many are looking forward to the much-hyped future match-up with Texas A&M with a blood-lust that will only be satiated when JFF and his brethren retreat to the dark corners of Kyle Field, beaten and battered. But there remains another, a former champion, with whom the Tide must first deal...revenge be damned, for the moment.
The Hokies may have a revenge motive of their own, after falling to the Crimson Tide in the most recent match-up between the teams in 2009. However, at that time, the circumstances were very different: VT was a perennial ACC/ BCS contender, while Bama was a team on the rise. Let us remember that VT led for 27 minutes of that '09 contest, and took a one point lead into the fourth quarter. Though the final score favored Bama, across The Great State there were knitted brows throughout that night, to be sure.
My, how things have changed in these few years. Bama is now a force to be reckoned with, The Empire, The Death Star, The Dynasty. The horde in crimson, under Our Dark Lord, has run roughshod over the college football landscape, eliminating challengers and claiming titles. VT on the other hand, has seen its star on the wane, a sun shrinking in magnitude, awaiting the final supernova of Coach Frank Beamer's retirement. The once-dominant ACC contender has become an also-ran, an afterthought, Michael Vick's alma mater. No one fears them, especially not in their current state.
But is it wise to underestimate any opponent? After all, if game outcomes are foregone conclusions, why play the game? So while our first inclination is to explode into cascading ripples of Gumpgasm at the thought of routing the wounded Hokies before a national audience, there are some very real possible consequences we must first consider. Scary, vile, title-run-ending consequences. Be afraid, be very afraid.
- I'll say this with a straight face: Virginia Tech could win this game. Should they win this game? With the talent available on their roster, probably not. There is a recipe for Hokie victory, though the ingredients required to manifest that dish are numerous and rare. VT QB Logan Thomas could have a Steven Garcia moment. Their offensive line could find a seam in our usually wall-like defense and exploit it before the Tide can adjust, ala aTm 2012. While their depleted talent level most definitely does not rival that of Alabama, D1 players are D1 players for a reason, even if they're second and third stringers. They can make plays, and if Alabama takes the opponent too lightly, turns the ball over, or fails to convert routinely on 3rd down, this game may be closer than many have figured in the weeks leading up to it. Any given team can lose on any given day. As much as we talk about our dominance, the realists among us know that in a league like the SEC, a loss could come at any time.
- After a season of being told they're the greatest of all time, overconfidence could settle into the Bama mindset. We need look back no further than 2010. The team that went on to win two consecutive titles got complacent and over-confident, if only for the 2010 season. They overlooked opponents in games that should have been easy wins. The psychology of a champion involves a relentless pursuit of the victory "high," and an almost equal loathing of the low of failure. Does this team have what it takes? The "Get'cher mind right" mantra applies here. Though VT is wounded, that doesn't mean they cannot still inflict substantial damage to our program in this game. An early VT score here, a halftime lead for the Hokies, consistent success against a particular unit of our offense or defense...those things could play havoc with Bama's psyche for weeks to come. A win on the scoreboard could still result in damage done to the mental state of the team, a wound that could set the stage for future self-doubt (and struggle).
- On the converse, the Hokies may not have raw numbers, but rest assured, the young men left on that roster are madder than a poked nest of hornets. All they've heard through the duration of the summer is how they would serve as the ritual lambs of slaughter for the Crimson Tide's war machine. They've been told they can't compete. They've been told they are smaller, weaker, slower. Even their own poor-mouthing head coach proclaimed Bama the best squad he's ever faced in his eleventy-seven years of coaching. But the Hokies, at least at ACC Media Days, seemed undaunted. Senior LB Jack Tyler proclaimed that the Hokies "expected to beat Bama." Scoff if you will, but those are the kinds of statements that live in infamy when they become reality. The called shot, if you will. A chip on one's shoulder can motivate a man, or group of young men, to propel themselves beyond physical limitations or roster restrictions. It is the relentless nature of a champion to want to prove oneself to all doubters. Remember how Bama approached the '09 season after the heartbreaking loss to Florida? Do not underestimate the "shoulder chip," and if anyone has a right to use it for motivation in Week 1, it's the Hokies.
- In a word, injuries. Injuries are the biggest specter for the Crimson Tide this season. More so than complacency or opponent execution, injuries to key starters could scuttle the Tide's title hopes in a single blow. This is the most terrifying thing about the VT game, as even if the Tide was playing the Little Sisters of the Poor, an injury to AJ McCarron would be a horrible way to start what would have likely been a prolific season. I hate to even mention it, but I am confident in our Friday hoodoo and the appeasement we've offered the football gods. That said, we must emerge from this game injury-free, and that will be a task.
- Our offensive line is untested, and will likely not have fully gelled in the opening game. Not only are there three first-time starters on the rebuilt line, but they're working with new coach Mario Cristobal as well. One would expect a bit of a learning curve as the unit attempts to develop timing and chemistry, two factors that are all-important on the offensive line. The talent is there, but as we've seen in previous years, even NFL-caliber talent can't get the job done without teamwork and anticipation. Last year, the line struggled to impose its will in some games early in the season, and that was a line that included three men wearing NFL unis this season. Virginia Tech's defense isn't as loaded as it's been in past years, but there is enough veteran leadership there to cause havoc if the offensive line plays tentatively. Saban has been barking at the offensive line in the pre-season because he knows that everything on offense begins with the front five. Missed assignments or an out-of-synch combination of players could result in disaster against a good defense, and that's exactly what VT brings to the table. AJ McCarron must be protected if Alabama expects to compete for a title this year, so effective, if not stellar, O line play is a must.
- Coaching. I know that may seem laughable to disciples of Our Dark Lord, but this ain't the first rodeo for the VT coaching staff. Beamer is one of a few coaches who has a "break-even" record with Saban: he lost the '09 contest but previously beat one of Saban's LSU teams. And Beamer is a wily old hound, as evidenced by his ever-present special teams chicanery and propensity to think outside of the box in his play-calling. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster is known for his innovative schemes, and up until recently, one could count on the VT defense being stout year in and year out. And then there's OC Scott Loefler, formerly of Barn fame. He at least has some game experience against Bama's D, though it didn't turn out too well for him during his tenure on the Plains. Despite that, Loefler was known prior to that stint as an offensive innovator, and if anyone can make the most out of VT's "leavin's" on offense, he may be the man for the job.
- Logan Thomas. I know, he threw nearly as many interceptions last year as touchdowns. And his tools at wide receiver are, shall we say, meager. However, he's a huge, athletic, mobile QB. I won't name names, but in the past, Bama has had trouble defending a) huge, mobile QBs; and b) QBs who like to scramble, school-yard style. At 6'6", 254 lbs, Thomas fits that bill. He has neither the speed nor arm of one who goes by the symbol $, or the elusiveness of handwriting fanatic Johnny Football. However, if he's just half as good as either of those scoundrels, he could give the Bama D more than they bargained for and set up an uncomfortably close contest.
In this context, we can see just how ephemeral our many advantages can be given the right, or rather wrong, combination of circumstances. While VT is not aTm 2012, one doesn't need to look too far into the rear view to see the last team Bama underestimated. It was the only mar on an otherwise stellar season, and one that could have been avoided if one or all of the following had not happened: JFF's self-fumble-to-TD pass, T.J. Yeldon's fumble late, AJ's uncharacteristic interception in the end zone, aTm's explosive start. It's easy to see how under the right circumstances, a potential blowout romp for Bama could turn into the one that got away. The game, quite honestly, can turn on a dime, regardless of preconceptions.
At the end of the day, Bama is the favorite, and has every right to be. But the wise would also note that it's not the snortin' bear on the horizon we must worry about, but the viper beneath the stone at our feet. Either can be deadly.
Hope for the best.