Keys To Victory Saturday Night

There are difficulties in judging the "keys to victory" in any college football game, and that's particularly true in a first game. Almost everything is a key in a season-opening game because neither team is the same as it was the year before.

Alabama probably got a lift this week when it was announced that the NCAA had cleared all-star wide receiver Julio Jones and starting tailback Mark Ingram for the game. As has been well-reported, they were in danger of not being eligible and had been suspended by the Tide. They have complied with requirements to be reinstated.

There may be another player or two with an issue, but having Jones and Ingram available is critical, particularly since Bama will be going with a first-time starter at quarterback in Greg McElroy.

One area that could affect either or both teams is illness. College campuses are rife with a contagious flu. It has affected athletes for an average of only two or three days, but if any are out for Saturday's game it could play a role in the outcome.

Alabama's offensive key is to have effective quarterback play. Expect Virginia Tech to make an extraordinary effort to disrupt the Crimson Tide offense with pressure on McElroy. Hopefully, a rebuilt Alabama line that includes junior college transfer James Carpenter playing in place of 2008 Outland Trophy winner Andre Smith at left tackle and sophomore William Vlachos making his first start at center in place of 2008 All-America Antoine Caldwell, can protect McElroy.

Although we haven't seen the junior McElroy in pressure situations in a game, he appears to have a coolness about him that will prevail against him being rattled. Players describe him as the type who may be able to take advantage of any Virginia Tech aggressiveness. Alabama will have a comfort zone if McElroy has the offense clicking.

Virginia Tech has a different type quarterback. Tyrod Taylor is best known for things he does when he is forced out of the pocket. Alabama Coach Nick Saban described him as a scrambler passer, a man who is dangerous against a defense when he is out of the pocket and looking downfield for pass receivers. The defensive key for Bama is to contain Taylor and make him throw the ball quickly, not giving receivers time to separate from Tide defenders.

Last year Eryk Anders frequently replaced Terrence Cody as a passing down rusher. It's likely that Cody will be replaced again on passing downs Saturday night, but Anders will already be in the game as the jack linebacker. Look for Alabama to have another good rush man enter the game.

The wounding of starting defensive end Brandon Deaderick obviously weakens Alabama a bit, but the Tide has great depth in the defensive line and should have a quality replacement for Deaderick.

The kicking game is key every time a team plays Virginia Tech. Alabama doesn't necessarily have to win the kicking game, but the Tide can't afford mistakes by special teams, particularly by the punting and field goal teams. Virginia Tech has a way of changing field position or even scoring off blocked kicks, and it is a trademark of the Hokies.

Alabama Coach Nick Saban said that in a close game, the team that wins two of the three areas -- offense, defense, special teams -- usually wins the game. If Bama can manage these keys, the Crimson Tide could start the 2009 season with a bang.

Alabama and Virginia Tech play Saturday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta with kickoff at 8 p.m. EDT (7 p.m. central time). ABC will televise the game.

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