- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's so close you can taste it. The smell of barbecue is set to saturate the air in Atlanta as hoards of tailgaters prepare for Saturday's kickoff between No. 1 Alabama and historic ACC powerhouse Virginia Tech.
To get you ready for the game, here are some things to look for when the two schools take to the turf inside the Georgia Dome:
Alabama will win if …
The Tide won't be stopped by anyone or anything other than itself. Avoid complacency, and this game could be over by halftime. Alabama is a more veteran team, has the better quarterback, the better offense and the more dynamic defense. Four years ago, this might have been a matchup worth fretting over for SEC fans. Now it's a matter of whether Alabama shows up and plays up to expectations. Injuries and attrition have rocked Virginia Tech and with a young offensive line and a young secondary, this could turn ugly in a hurry.
Virginia Tech will win if ...
A lot is riding on Logan Thomas' shoulders. For him to give his team a chance, he'll have to play the game of his life, a game like the one Johnny Manziel had in Tuscaloosa last season that served as the springboard to his winning the Heisman Trophy. Virginia Tech doesn't have the size to play ball control and run the football down Alabama's throat. It doesn't have the depth at receiver to spread the UA defense out, but it might have to fake it anyways. Alabama has been susceptible to spread, uptempo offenses with mobile quarterbacks. If Thomas can get a couple quick scores and his defense forces a couple of turnovers, we could be looking at a ballgame.
Players to watch
QB Logan Thomas: The rest of the world saw Thomas' three interceptions during the Hokies spring game and winced. Saban didn't. Alabama's head coach sees a "outstanding player" in Thomas. "He's a really big guy who has a really strong arm and is a really strong runner," Saban told reporters on Monday. If Thomas can buy time -- and yards -- with his feet, he'll give himself a chance to be successful.
LT Jonathan McLaughlin:Alabama defensive end Ed Stinson put it best when he said, "He's gotta be good if he's starting at left tackle." McLaughlin nonetheless has an enormous task ahead of him as a freshman starting in the season opener. Stinson was kind, but he did follow up by saying he'd "just use the one arm bar and just go by 'em."
DE James Gayle: The Hokies veteran pass rusher was sick of hearing how good Alabama is, and who can blame him. "We're a good team also," he told reporters, "... I just don't feel like we're getting much [respect] on our end." If Gayle, who has NFL potential, wants respect, he'll have to earn it. Alabama had trouble protecting the quarterback last season with a veteran offensive line. Now that there are three new starters, Gayle and Co. will have a chance to get after AJ McCarron.
Tide WRs: We've heard all offseason how Alabama is poised to have its deepest and most explosive set of wide receivers in recent memory. Last season's starters -- Amari Cooper, Kevin Norwood and Christion Jones -- are all back, along with former starters DeAndrew White and Kenny Bell, and up-and-comers Chris Black, Raheem Falkins and Robert Foster. McCarron has almost too many targets to throw to. But proving their worth starts against a historically tenacious Virginia Tech secondary.
C Ryan Kelly: Kelly has never started a game, but he's practiced like a starter since December, when he filled in for an injured Barrett Jones with the first-team during bowl practice. Ever since, we've seen a mature, talented Kelly take the reins at center. How he goes, so goes Alabama's offense.
OLB Adrian Hubbard: After creating a buzz with three sacks in the final three games of last season, Hubbard went silent. A quiet spring and fall camp had fans wondering about Alabama's best pass rusher. A strong final scrimmage helped quell those concerns, and now that the season has started the focus is back on Hubbard, who will be tasked with getting pressure on an athletic Logan Thomas.
-25.8: Virginia Tech fans hope the Logan Thomas of 2011 returns, rather than the most recent version from 2012. Thomas, who spurned the NFL draft this offseason, had the third-biggest drop off in opponent-adjusted Total QBR among qualified quarterbacks (-25.8) from the 2011 to the 2012 season.
14: That's the number of games Alabama's McCarron posted an above-average opponent-adjusted Total QBR last season. The redshirt senior was one of three quarterbacks in the FBS to play in at least 10 games that did not have at lease one below average game.
21: Alabama's offense started quickly last season, scoring 21 first-quarter touchdowns. That number was tied for third nationally and first in the SEC.
51.0: Virginia Tech saw yellow a bunch last season. In fact, the Hokies surrendered 51.0 penalty yards per game in 2012. Alabama, conversely, handed opponents 33.4 yards in penalties per game, ranking 115th out of 120 FBS teams.
5dEdward Aschoff and Alex Scarborough
5dAlex Scarborough and Greg Ostendorf