Although top-ranked Alabama is a run-first team, its passing game is also strong.
Redshirt-senior quarterback A.J. McCarron returns as the leader in passing efficiency rating from a year ago, after tossing 30 touchdowns to just three interceptions.
For his career as a starter, McCarron has only thrown eight interceptions, which is attributable to his accuracy as a quarterback and maybe more importantly, the stability of the offensive line he has played behind for two years.
But the Crimson Tide lost two-time All-American and Rimington Award winner Barrett Jones, All-American and first round draft pick Chance Warmack and second-team All-American and first-round draft pick DJ Fluker to the NFL this offseason.
The trio helped form an offensive line that paved the way for over 3,000 rushing yards and protected McCarron on his way to over 2,900 yards and 30 touchdowns.
While Cyrus Kouandjio is another All-American candidate at left tackle and senior Anthony Steen returns at right guard with 25 career starts, the rest of the offensive line for the Crimson Tide is a question mark. Three players will all be making their first starts against a veteran, talented Virginia defensive front.
And this is where the Hokies’ biggest advantage, perceived or real, exists in the season opener against the two-time defending national champions.
This season’s defensive line unit might be the deepest in recent memory, with Bud Foster and defensive line coach Charley Wiles able to rotate in seven or eight players with game experience.
The returning starters along the line bring back tremendous experience.
James Gayle garners many of the headlines when it comes to the defensive line, as he should. He recorded five sacks and 11 tackles for loss a season ago on the way to be being named a second team All-ACC performer.
Other returning starters include Derrick Hopkins, Luther Maddy and J.R. Collins, who have made 27, 16 and 23 starts respectively.
Hopkins was honorable mention All-ACC last season as well.
Dadi Nicholas is listed as a co-starter at the defensive end position, and the coaches are excited about his abilities heading into the season. Nicholas entered fall camp with an eye on a starting job after a great spring, when he won the Richard Bullock Award as the most improved defensive player during spring workouts.
He made plenty of noise last season as he recorded three and a half tackles for loss and two sacks in the second half.
Additionally, Tyrel Wilson and Kris Harley provide more depth at the end and tackle positions respectively, with Wilson owning 10 tackles for loss and seven sacks in action as a backup on the line.
The argument could be made that every football game is won at the line of scrimmage, but if the Hokies want to keep the game close, the defensive front is going to have to be great. Alabama may be replacing three starters, but they aren’t replacing their run first philosophy.
“We have got to be able to stop the run,” said Foster. “That sets everything up that they do. If they can establish the run, they like the play-action pass on first and second down, but the run game sets all that up.”
Sacks are great, but the tackles for loss will be a more important measure for the Hokies defensive line in the game. If the Hokies' defensive line can disrupt Alabama’s ability to run the ball and force A.J. McCarron to consistently beat them with his arm, the game could be closer down the stretch according to Foster.
The Crimson Tide is the top-ranked team for good reason: they boast a talented team, players with championship experience and one of the best coaches in the game in Nick Saban.
But Frank Beamer, Foster and company shouldn’t be forgotten.
It will all but certainly take a vintage Tech defensive performance to upset the Crimson Tide, but the players believe there is a chance.
Expectations for Tech from those outside the program seem to be low, but the guys that will step on the field on Saturday have other ideas — and it all starts with the defensive line.