Weather will be a factor in Blacksburg
With wind and rain in the forecast, the running game will be huge for both Texas A&M and Virginia Tech.
Texas A&M and Virginia Tech will not only be facing each other Thursday night, they will also be contending with inclement weather. Hurricane Isabel is approaching fast and could be ashore by game time, so we're expecting 30-40 MPH winds and heavy rain at times.
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That means the running game will be a big factor in this game. Both teams will have to crank up the rushing attack to move the ball, so watch the battles at the line of scrimmage.
Virginia Tech is one of my Sugar Bowl picks, and while the running game is strong in Blacksburg it's the balance the Hokies have developed on offense that makes them my pick. And don't forget about a Tech defense that is out to prove something after limping to the finish line last season.
This game represents a chance for Virginia Tech to show the nation what it can really do after beating up on Central Florida and James Madison, while A&M would love a big victory to kick-start the Dennis Franchione era.
When Virginia Tech has the ball...
It seems that most people are waiting for blue chip freshman Marcus Vick to take over at quarterback and steal the show, but anyone who follows the Hokies closely knows that sophomore Bryan Randall is the man at Tech. He has executed flawlessly so far this year, completing 73 percent of his passes without yet turning the ball over, showing maturity in his understanding of the system and allowing Virginia Tech to be more balanced on offense this season.
The Hokies leaned on tailbacks Kevin Jones and Lee Suggs last year while Randall learned the ropes as a freshman, but things are different this year. Tech has tremendous depth at wide receiver with guys like David Clowney, Lance Goff, Justin Hamilton, Richard Johnson and DeAngelo Hall, when he comes over from the defensive side of the ball to help out.
With that group on the outside Virginia Tech can hurt teams through the air or on the ground and make teams pay for loading up the line of scrimmage to stop Jones.
The problem for Texas A&M, though, is that it comes into its first big road test of the year with eight new starters on defense. And because of injury, walk-on Scott Stickane will be starting at middle linebacker and freshman Justin Warren will start on the outside. Because of that youth it will be a challenge for the Aggies to match up physically and their best chance to stop Jones will be to bring the safeties down to the line and get as many people as possible in the box.
That will leave A&M cornerbacks Byron Jones and Sean Weston alone against the wide receivers most of the night, and it will be interesting to see if Randall and Vick -- who should get into the game in the second quarter -- can make some throws in the wind.
When Texas A&M has the ball...
New coach Dennis Franchione has turned around programs at New Mexico, TCU and Alabama, and he will have A&M competing for championships again in three or four years. But the keyword in College Station right now is "patience". Coach Fran can recruit, and the facilities and resources at A&M will give him even more of an edge, but with 15 new starters this season it is going to take a little time.
The offensive line was hit earlier this year with the loss of starters Andre' Brooks and Jami Hightower. Taking two experienced players out of that group and replacing them with freshman and sophomores becomes a burden on the offense, and that group could be exposed against Virginia Tech's veteran defensive line.
Aggies quarterback Reggie McNeal has been streaky so far this season, showing terrific accuracy at time while also showing his youth by missing his targets. Consistency has been a problem for A&M over the first two games, and a lot of that has to do with players making mental mistakes while learning new systems.
Texas A&M has been able to hit some big plays this year with wideout Terrence Murphy averaging nearly 16 yards per catch and tailback Courtney Lewis ripping off six yards per carry, but fumbles and turnovers have prevented the Aggies from dominating games and finishing teams.
That could be a big problem against a team with one of better defenses in the nation, one that is looking to rally back to its aggressive, intimidating form after being embarrassed at the end of last season. Look for A&M to go to the shotgun when it wants to throw in order to diffuse some of Tech's speed on the pass rush and get the ball out of McNeal's hands as soon as possible.
And keep an eye on Tech linebacker Vegas Robinson, who should be all over the field against the run, along with big free safety Jimmy Williams coming downhill to fill the alleys. The Aggies will have to run the ball a lot because of the weather and their concerns about pass protection, so stopping the run will be a major focus for Virginia Tech.
Texas A&M also has concerns about its punting situation with Jacob Young filling in for the banged-up Cody Scates. That could be huge, as the Hokies love to score in bunches at home and their "Beamerball" philosophy on special teams will have them coming after every kick the Aggies attempt.
Kirk Herbstreit is an analyst for ESPN College GameDay and a regular contributor to ESPN.com during the college football season.