- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 5, 2009

ATLANTA | For Alabama and Virginia Tech, the first game can’t get here soon enough.

The No. 5 Crimson Tide and the seventh-ranked Hokies will meet Saturday night in a bowl-like atmosphere at sold-out Georgia Dome, both looking to score early points in the national championship race after enduring a that-wasn’t-in-the-plans preseason.

Virginia Tech lost star running back Darren Evans, who went down in practice with a season-ending knee injury. The sophomore rushed for 1,265 yards while starting just eight games a year ago and was named MVP of the Orange Bowl.

At Alabama, the days leading up to the season opener were filled with off-the-field travails. Defensive end Brandon Deaderick was shot in the arm during a robbery attempt (he’s OK but isn’t likely to play Saturday). Two of the team’s top players, receiver Julio Jones and running back Mark Ingram, needed clearance from the NCAA after taking a Gulf Coast fishing trip with a businessman (they’ll have to repay the cost of the trip).

Finally, it’s time to kick things off.

And the stakes couldn’t be much higher for the opening weekend.

“It’s fun,” Alabama cornerback Javier Arenas said. “You get a chance to prove yourself.”

While hardly make-or-break for either team - it’s generally accepted the national champion in today’s highly competitive field will have at least one loss - the Crimson Tide certainly know the winner of the Kickoff Classic can get a major boost for the rest of the season.

Alabama opened at the Georgia Dome a year ago, routing a favored Clemson team ranked in the top 10. That 34-10 victory propelled the Tide to a 12-0 mark in the regular season, though their national title hopes were dashed by Florida in the SEC championship game.

In two short years, coach Nick Saban has restored the Tide to their place among the nation’s elite. Now, it’s time to go a step or two beyond last season.

“It’s motivating, because we got so close,” linebacker Rolando McClain said. “We can’t change it. We can’t sit here and dwell on it. We’ve just got to get better from it.”

Virginia Tech, the defending ACC champion, is eager to make a statement on behalf of its basketball-leaning league against the mighty SEC.

“We are all in this thing together,” coach Frank Beamer said. “A win over a program as good as Alabama would definitely be a big thing for Virginia Tech and the ACC. The other side of it, it doesn’t make your season either way. If you beat Alabama you still have games to play, and if you lose to Alabama you still have games to play.”

This game will likely be decided by the quarterbacks and two of the nation’s best defenses.

Greg McElroy is taking the snaps for Alabama, stepping in for three-year starter John Parker Wilson. He’ll look to take advantage of his two prime weapons, two guys who stood out as freshmen and are looking for even bigger things as sophomores.

Jones, set a school record for first-year players by making 58 receptions for 924 yards. Ingram ran for 743 yards backing up Glenn Coffee and is eager to take on a starring role.

“I think the offense is going to be just as explosive as it was last year,” Arenas said. “We’ve still got great guys at every position on the offense.”

Tyrod Taylor has the Virginia Tech quarterback job all to himself after sharing time the last two seasons with Sean Glennon. While Taylor is 13-1 in games he starts and finishes, he’s known mainly for his willingness to run and frequent injuries.

He plans on being more judicious about when to tuck the ball away, which should keep him healthier, and took steps during the offseason to improve his throwing.

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