It's hard to single out one individual matchup from the Hokies' season-opener against Alabama as the most important. But I believe the Hokies' chances hinge on whether or not they will be able to run the ball against the Tide's daunting front seven.
The anchor of that front seven is Mt. Cody: 6-5, 365-pound nose tackle Terrance Cody. Cody is the nation's best defensive tackle on the nation's best front-seven. He had 24 tackles last year, 4.5 for loss.
One of the men assigned to moving the mountain is 6-3, 319-pound guard Sergio Render. Render is the best guard I've ever seen at Tech. But even he will have his hands full trying to open holes against Cody and the Tide's front seven.
The Tide run a 3-4 defense. While the Hokies have historically had a lot of success running the ball against the 3-4, we have yet to see the type of personnel Alabama has on its defense. In addition to Cody, the Tide has pair of linebackers that will be future millionaires in Rolando McClain and Dont'a Hightower. McClain and Hightower do most of their damage when teams focus on Cody by double-teaming him.
Cody, McClain, Hightower and the rest of the Tide defense had phenomenal success against the run in 2008. Alabama held its opponents to 3.4 yards per carry and five touchdowns on the ground last year with sacks taken out. In nine games against SEC teams, opponents averaged 3.7 yards per carry and had four touchdowns again with sacks taken out.
The Tide's specialty was shutting down top rushers in 2008.
The Hokies will need near perfect game from Sergio Render in order for them to put up improved numbers on Sept. 5. The other two interior linemen will be fulltime starters for the first time in 2009. Jaymes Brooks, the other guard, got his first start in the Orange Bowl against Cincinnati and was arguably the best lineman in the game. However, while Cincinnati had a solid defense, its personnel doesn't compare to Alabama.
The other interior lineman, Beau Warren, is more of a mystery. Most of his playing time came in spurts here and there in injury relief. His ability as a full-time center won't be known until the Hokies start trying to run on Alabama.
Render's play against Alabama will be the key because of the inexperience of the other interior linemen. He is an exceptional pulling guard whose speed and agility when blocking off tackle is a surprise because of his size. I can't understate how important it is for him to have a good game blocking inside against Cody and the two linebackers.
Looking at the numbers of those top rushers against Alabama, one thing stands out to me. Most teams were frightened by the mere presence of Alabama's front seven and abandoned the run. LSU and Charles Scott were not. Scott carried the ball 24 times, more than anyone else on the list, averaged a respectable 3.8 yards per carry and scored two touchdowns.
Like Darren Evans, Scott is a bull of a running back who can do damage between the tackles. While Scott is much bigger than Evans, they have similar running styles. Can ramming Evans into the middle of Alabama's front seven do any damage? Who knows. What I do know is for us to have a chance, we'll need both Evans North-South game and Ryan Williams ability to make plays outside the tackles to keep Alabama off balance.
The Hokies can't let the Alabama front seven win the battle in the trenches before it begins. Evans needs to get his carries, even if at first Tech struggles to gain yards. The ability of Render and the rest of the offensive line to give Evans and Williams room to run throughout the game will determine the Hokies' offensive fate against the Tide.
Obviously there is more to this game than just the battle of Render vs. Cody or the interior linemen vs. Cody, McClain and Hightowner. But their personal battle will be a key component of moving the ball and beating Alabama.