We’re looking at an opening game against a highly-ranked SEC opponent in less than a week. They have a top-flight defense, high hopes in the SEC West, and an offense that can operate efficiently. There are future NFL picks littered in their defense, specifically on the defensive line and linebacking corps, and they have a highly-respected coach in Nick Saban. That’s a pretty intimidating way to kick off a college football season, right? Well one guy that’s had to deal with something very similar before is Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer. This is not the first time that our fearless leader has been asked to prepare for one of the best teams in the south, let alone one coached by big, bad Nick Saban early in the college football season. Back on September 1, 2002, the #16 Hokies matched up against #14 Louisiana State in the second game of their season (the opener was against Arkansas State), albeit in the friendly confines of Lane Stadium.
Back in ’02, LSU was coming off a big season that culminated in their first SEC championship in 15 seasons, as well as a big Sugar Bowl victory over Illinois. Not only did LSU feature future NFL talent on offense in Joseph Addai, Domanick Davis, and Michael Clayton, but their defense also included Randall Gay, Bradie James, and Marcus Spears. The Tigers were also breaking in a new starter, Matt Mauck (r-So.) who had spent a few years playing minor league baseball before showing up in Baton Rouge. Mauck was a 23-year-old sophomore, so he was a little more seasoned than someone else with the same eligibility. He had the difficult task of replacing Rohan Davey, who had been a standout for the Tigers in the ’01 Sugar Bowl (and was subsequently placed in the LSU Hall of Fame for his performance). It was obvious that Saban had recruited well in Saban’s two seasons, and they were poised for a big season. Beating the Hokies was their first big hurdle.
Let’s fast forward to 2009 and take a look at how Alabama has earned their #5 preseason ranking. The parallels are a little creepy. The Tide are coming off a big season in Saban’s second season at the school (like ’02) where they held a #1 ranking for several weeks, pushed Florida in the SEC Championship Game and played in the Sugar Bowl. That appearance was Alabama’s first in the Sugar Bowl since 1993 (also a 15-year difference). Saban has confidence skyrocketing in Tuscaloosa and there is good reason for it. Alabama returns a lot of talent, especially on the defensive side of the ball. They have Terrance Cody, who will assuredly become an NFL first-rounder as well as a talented group of linebackers. Like that 2002 LSU squad, they also return a highly-respected wide receiver in Julio Jones, like Clayton in 2002 (who also entered his second year as a starter). On top of all this, Alabama has to replace a proven veteran quarterback (John Parker Wilson), with a backup that’s spent a few years in the system (Greg McElroy). See the similarities? The rest is speculation, but let’s hope Saturday turns out a little like that 2002 matchup as well.
The Hokies jumped out to a 24-0 lead on that day led by their stingy defense, impeccable special teams and impressive stable of backs. Bryan Randall, Kevin Jones and Lee Suggs combined for 167 yards rushing on 50 attempts (3.34 ypc), so they didn’t consistently gain great yardage, but they did a solid job of wearing down the defense, which will have to be one ingredient for success on Saturday night. They also rushed for three touchdowns. The Hokie defense held LSU to 1-of-13 on third down conversions, as well as four sacks and a fumble. The special teams blocked two kicks, with one of those going out of the end zone for a safety. LSU tried to make a late charge with a rushing TD and a Clayton two-point conversion, but it wasn’t enough, as the Hokies took the victory running away 26-8.
There’s no telling that Saturday’s contest will be anything like the last time Beamer coached against Saban, but he’s developed and implemented a formula for victory against the guy, and that has to be encouraging for Hokie fans. Use a big pass rush (Worilds and Co.), a stable of talented backs (Oglesby, Williams and Wilson), as well as strong special teams to slug out a victory. If the Hokies can do those things successfully on Saturday, they have a great shot at beating a team ranked two spots ahead of them, just like in 2002.