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Tide, Tech looking for strong start

ATLANTA -- Alabama coach Nick Saban wasn't sure how his team would react to playing in one of college football's biggest openers last season.

The Crimson Tide were coming off a 7-6 campaign in Saban's first season at Alabama, including losses to Louisiana-Monroe and rival Auburn.

There were so many questions surrounding the Crimson Tide that they started the 2008 season unranked in the USA Today coaches' top 25 poll.

But after blasting No. 9 Clemson 34-10 in the inaugural Chick-fil-A College Kickoff in Atlanta's Georgia Dome, it was clear the Crimson Tide were ahead of schedule under Saban.

And with Alabama playing in front of a national TV audience on the opening weekend of the 2008 season, everyone in the country -- including those who vote in college football's two major polls -- seemed to notice.

After winning their first nine games, the Crimson Tide were ranked No. 1 in the country. Alabama stayed No. 1 until losing to Florida 31-20 in the SEC championship game. The Tide finished No. 6 in the final rankings after losing to Utah 31-17 in the Sugar Bowl.

"I think it was pretty big for us because we were coming off a difficult year," Alabama guard Mike Johnson said. "We weren't really proven to be a contender and came out and made a big statement and got people's attention. That victory really drove us through the season."

Alabama will have another chance Saturday night to use a highly anticipated opener as a springboard to bigger things. The No. 5 Crimson Tide return to the Georgia Dome to play No. 7 Virginia Tech in the Chick-Fil-A College Kickoff (ABC, 8 p.m. ET).

The stakes are once again high for both teams.

"I think the national exposure part of it is a great motivation to play in the game," Saban said. "I don't think any one game can make or break the season. I certainly think that last year our team probably didn't know how good they could be. Obviously, playing against a good team like Clemson and playing well in the game sort of enhanced our confidence."

Conversely, the devastating loss to Alabama seemed to strip Clemson of any confidence it had going into the 2008 season. The Tigers won their next three games -- two against lesser FCS opponents -- before losing three in a row. Clemson coach Tommy Bowden was forced out four days after a 12-7 loss at Wake Forest.

Five years ago, the Hokies were forced to regroup after losing a big opener. In 2004, Virginia Tech opened the season against defending national champion Southern California (the Trojans finished No. 1 in the final Associated Press top 25 poll in 2003; LSU was No. 1 in the final coaches' poll) in the Black Coaches Association Classic in Landover, Md.

The Trojans beat the Hokies 24-13 and finished the season with a 13-0 record. USC blasted Oklahoma 55-19 in the Orange Bowl to win the 2004 BCS national championship.

Virginia Tech recovered to win its last eight regular-season games in 2004 and won an ACC championship in its first season in the league. The Hokies finished 10-3 after losing to Auburn 16-13 in the Sugar Bowl.

"I really believe it helps you be a better football team," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "I thought it did the year we played Southern Cal. We became a better football team because of our preparation. Our guys understand if you're going to have any shot at beating Alabama, you better be well-prepared for this one."

Both teams go into Saturday night's game with legitimate concerns. The Crimson Tide have to replace quarterback John Parker Wilson and three starting offensive linemen, including All-America left tackle Andre Smith. Junior college transfer James Carpenter will try to fill Smith's void, and sophomore William Vlachos replaces All-SEC center Antoine Caldwell. Junior Greg McElroy takes over at quarterback.

"People are really expecting such a drop-off," Johnson said. "We had two All-Americans on the offensive line and they were great players. But athletically, I'm not sure that we've lost that much. People are going to see on Saturday night that James Carpenter is going to be a great left tackle. He's going to be at the top of a lot of lists at the end of the season."

The Hokies finished 10-4 and won their second consecutive ACC title last season, despite having one of the least potent passing attacks in the country. Junior quarterback Tyrod Taylor completed 57.2 percent of his passes last season, but threw only two touchdowns.

Tailback Darren Evans, who ran for 1,265 yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman in 2008, tore the ACL in his left knee in preseason camp and will miss the season. Redshirt freshman Ryan Williams will start at tailback against the Crimson Tide.

"It's definitely a huge game," Hokies linebacker Cody Grimm said. "I've played in ACC championship games and bowl games the last two years, but I've never had an opener like this with all the hype surrounding it."

Where did you find this info: The Hokies will be trying to end a six-game drought in openers against top-10 ranked opponents.

"It's definitely an opportunity to climb up the rankings quickly," Grimm said. "But at the same time, just like Coach Beamer says, it can't make or break our season. One team has to lose. You'd definitely like to be on the winning side."

The losing side is never easy -- just ask Clemson.

"There's no question it's a big game," Beamer said. "It would do a lot for Virginia Tech. It would do a lot for the ACC. But at the same time, you can't put all your eggs in one basket."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.