- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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ATLANTA -- During the first two quarters of Saturday night's opener against No. 7 Virginia Tech, No. 5 Alabama still looked like the team that seemingly slept through its last game, a 31-17 loss to Utah in the Sugar Bowl.
In the first half of the Chick-fil-A College Kickoff Game in the Georgia Dome, the Crimson Tide made a month's worth of errors. They twice settled for field goals after driving inside Virginia Tech's 20-yard line. They allowed a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. They threw an interception at their 14-yard line. They allowed a 43-yard pass play on busted coverage, then committed personal foul and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on the same play (which would have otherwise resulted in a 14-yard loss for the Hokies).
For good measure, the Crimson Tide missed a 36-yard field goal on their final play of the first half and limped to their locker room trailing the Hokies 17-16 at the half.
"We were not only punching them, but we were punching ourselves," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "It's hard to win the fight with so many mistakes and so many errors."
In the end, Alabama beat the Hokies 34-24 because it had been through fights like this before. In 2008, Saban's second season at Alabama, the Crimson Tide climbed to No. 1 in the rankings by winning their first 12 games. But they lost to eventual BCS national champion Florida 31-20 in the SEC championship game, and then came the debacle against Utah.
"The biggest thing I was concerned about was if we'd be complacent after last year, with a lot of guys coming back," Saban said. "I wasn't sure if we'd have as much energy. We knew we'd have to earn it against these guys and we earned it."
Even if its opening performance didn't come close to being flawless, Alabama showed it's still the team to beat in the SEC West. And if No. 1 Florida is going to play for its third BCS national title in four seasons, the Gators might very well have to beat the Crimson Tide in Atlanta again.
"They've got the defense," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "They've got veteran kickers. Their quarterback played well for them tonight. Their running back played well. They've got some great receivers. They've got it. We played one of the great teams in the country and just didn't play well enough to match them."
The only reason the Hokies matched Alabama for three quarters is because the Crimson Tide kept hurting themselves.
"It was the first game and we did make our share of mistakes," Saban said.
Saban had several reasons to be concerned heading into his team's opener. Alabama has a new starting quarterback, Greg McElroy, and a rebuilt offensive line. The Crimson Tide also endured a season's worth of distractions during the past few days. Starting defensive end Brandon Deaderick was shot during an attempted robbery Monday night. (Deaderick didn't start, but did take the field for a few plays.) Nose guard Terrence Cody was one of a handful of players who battled the flu this week.
Additionally, star receiver Julio Jones and tailback Mark Ingram weren't even cleared to play in the game until Thursday, after the NCAA investigated whether they received improper benefits during a Gulf Coast fishing trip this summer.
For most of three quarters, Alabama played like a distracted football team.
"It was self-inflicted wounds and mental mistakes," tight end Colin Peek said. "When you leave the door open for such a tremendous team, you know you've got to do something about it."
The Crimson Tide finally did something about it early in the fourth quarter. After taking possession at their 46-yard line with about 13 minutes to play, McElroy threw a 48-yard pass to diving sophomore Marquis Maze. Ingram ran for a 6-yard touchdown on the next play, and the Tide took a 24-17 lead on McElroy's two-point conversion pass to Peek.
On the ensuing kickoff, senior defensive back Chris Rogers stripped the football from Virginia Tech's Davon Morgan. Rogers recovered the fumble at Tech's 20-yard line, and Leigh Tiffin kicked a 20-yard field goal to make it 27-17.
"When you make a big play like that, it changes the entire complexion of the game," McElroy said.
Virginia Tech made it 27-24 on freshman Ryan Williams' 32-yard touchdown run with 9:22 to go, but then the Crimson Tide came right back. Ingram broke loose for a 39-yard run, then scored on an 18-yard pass from McElroy to make it 34-24.
McElroy was making his first start at quarterback, after playing sparingly behind departed starter John Parker Wilson the past two seasons. McElroy had grown accustomed to waiting at Southlake (Texas) Carroll High School, where he sat behind former Missouri star Chase Daniel.
Despite a less-than-spectacular first half, McElroy threw for 230 yards with one touchdown and one interception on 15-for-30 passing. At one point in the first half, he missed nine passes in a row. It wasn't his fault alone, though. McElroy didn't have much time to throw, playing behind Alabama's revamped offensive line. The Crimson Tide replaced three starters, including Outland Trophy winner Andre Smith, their left tackle last season. All-SEC center Antoine Caldwell also is gone.
But the offensive line led the charge in the second half, eventually wearing down the vaunted Hokies defense. Ingram ran for a career-high 150 yards on 26 carries. Roy Upchurch added 90 yards on seven runs, and the Tide finished with 268 rushing yards.
"I think we wore them down in the fourth quarter, which is part of the plan," Saban said.
For openers, Saban's plan couldn't have been scripted much better.
The Crimson Tide beat another nationally ranked team in the Georgia Dome, after blasting Clemson in the 2008 opener. Their new quarterback played with composure, and the offensive line played well when it mattered.
"We actually played better than the score is," Saban said. "We made a lot of mistakes, but we responded better to adversity than maybe we ever have."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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