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Tech coach Frank Beamer says the defending national champion Crimson Tide is the best team the Hokies have ever played.
Associated Press | File 2012
Alabama coach Nick Saban celebrates with his team after winning the 2012 BCS national championship game in New Orleans. Alabama has won three of the past four national titles.
Thursday, August 29, 2013
BLACKSBURG — Unbeknownst to him, Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer started a Twitter firestorm Monday night when he declared Alabama the best team the Hokies have ever played.
What about Matt Leinart- and Reggie Bush-led USC in 2004? The ridiculously stacked Miami team of 2001 that produced 17 first-round NFL Draft picks? Bobby Bowden’s 1999 Florida State squad that beat the Hokies on the biggest stage?
Surely he’d simply overlooked them.
“This is the best team that we’ve ever played,” Beamer reiterated Tuesday, “and that counts all those Miami teams, and the Florida State teams and Southern Cal when they won the championship.”
Whether Beamer is speaking from the heart or doing his best Lou Holtz impersonation, talking up the opponent as much as possible, remains open to debate.
But Alabama’s recent accomplishments certainly put it in the conversation for the best team the Hokies have played. The Crimson Tide have won three of the last four BCS titles, including two straight.
They are the odds-on favorite to win a third straight national championship, something unprecedented in the modern era of college football and once thought impossible given scholarship limits that have evened the playing field in recent years.
So what puts Alabama on top of the college football mountain right now? Here are a couple of factors:
1. Nick Saban
The challenge at Alabama is coaching in the giant shadow cast by Paul “Bear” Bryant, who won six national championships in the ’60s and ’70s.
But Saban has managed to meet those lofty expectations in only six years, winning three national championships and earning his own statue outside of Bryant-Denny Stadium, not far from the Bear’s.
Saban doesn’t have a gimmicky offense or a flashy style. His “process” — roughly defined as concentrating on the steps to success rather than worrying about the end result — sounds like it comes from a self-help book, but it’s firmly entrenched in all facets of the program.
Larger goals like conference and national titles come as a result of smaller things like finishing off reps in the weight room and beating your man on a particular play. His style is Belichickian, lacing bravado, not surprising considering he served as Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns from 1991-94.
Years ago, Beamer was in consideration for the Alabama job. It didn’t get far, in part because he thought it would be impossible to match what Bryant had done.
“That’s why I kind of marvel at what Nick Saban has done there,” Beamer said. “Back when the Bear was there, they were pretty dominant. And they’ve been dominant here the last few years.”
2. Relentless recruiting that’s created unparalleled roster depth
Since Saban’s arrival, Alabama has recruited at a level no college program has been able to match.
The Crimson Tide have had Rivals’ No. 1-ranked recruiting class five times in the past six years. The one outlier, in 2010, Alabama was fifth.
While recruiting rankings don’t necessarily translate to wins — ask Texas how that’s gone the past few years — having so many highly touted classes in a row has created incredible depth up and down the roster. The result has been that even when a four- or five-star player doesn’t pan out, the Tide have many more right behind him.
Consider this: Oscar Smith High quarterback Phillip Sims out of Chesapeake, the No. 2 quarterback nationally in 2010, didn’t work out, the kind of miss that would set most programs back several years. Instead, Alabama had AJ McCarron, a four-star recruit and No. 7 quarterback nationally in the previous class, who redshirted and has thrived as a starter.
That stockpile of talent has pushed good players to be better up and down the roster.
3. Quarterback AJ McCarron’s efficiency
He had the dreaded “game manager” tag in the past, considered a mere conduit to get the ball to better players, but that’s insulting after the kind of season he put together last year.
The 6-foot-4, 214-pound McCarron had a nation’s-best 178.28 quarterback efficiency, throwing for a respectable 2,933 yards and completing 67.2 percent of his passes.
But his touchdown-to-interception ratio is what stands out. A year after throwing 16 touchdowns to five interceptions, McCarron upped his touchdown total to 30 while reducing his picks to three.
Saban’s offense isn’t going to require the quarterback to throw for 300 yards and four touchdowns a game, but it does require an efficient signal-caller in charge, one who’s not prone to mistakes. McCarron fits the bill.
“His intelligence, I’d say, that’s probably about as good as you get,” Beamer said.
4. A dominant running game buoyed by a wealth of skill players
Other teams have sexier offenses than the Crimson Tide, but Alabama is more than effective.
An assembly line of running backs such as Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy and now T.J. Yeldon have thrived over the years, work-ing behind what has consistently been a massive offensive line.
In the SEC championship game and BCS title game last year against Georgia and Notre Dame, Alabama simply overpowered its opponents, running for 615 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Now a sophomore, Yeldon, who ran for 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns last year, is primed for his star turn.
But this year’s team has a deep and diverse group of skill players. On the outside, Amari Cooper broke most of Julio Jones’ school freshman receiving records last year, catching 59 passes for 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Slot receiver Christion Jones is joined by three veterans — Kevin Norwood, DeAndrew White and Kenny Bell — back from injuries to give Alabama options in the passing game. Coaches are also excited about the potential of tight end O.J. Howard, a five-star recruit.
“I think what they’ve added is more playmakers on offense,” Beamer said. “They’ve always been able to emphasize the running game, but you look around now at all their receivers — they’re playmakers. That makes them exceptionally tough.”
5. An NFL-like defensive scheme with disciplined players
Saban’s specialty is defense, and his group’s rankings — top five nationally in total defense every year since 2008 — are a reflection of that.
Part of it is scheme. Alabama shows multiple fronts to confuse defenses, with blitzers and coverages.
“His defense is more complex than any college defense across the country,” Hokies offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler said.
Part is coaching. Tech running backs coach Shane Beamer marveled at Alabama’s fundamentals, specifically getting off blocks and tackling.
Part of it personnel. The recruiting side of things has stocked the Crimson Tide with a roster full of big, strong players. Linebackers C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard, defensive lineman Ed Stinson and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are just this year’s likely standouts. ’Bama has had 17 defensive players drafted since 2009.
“They’ve got more strength than anybody else you’ll see on defense, and it doesn’t matter what position you’re looking at,” Tech offensive line coach Jeff Grimes said. “Whether you’re talking about a safety, a nose guard or a linebacker. Very, very physical, very strong at the point of attack.
“And [they] win a lot of games because they just defeat blocks. In many cases they’re just stronger than the offenses they play against.”
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