ATLANTA — Nick Saban had plenty of reasons to scold his players. The turnovers. The silly penalties. The kickoff that was returned 98 yards for a touchdown.
But one game into the season, the Crimson Tide already looks every bit like a team that will make another run at a national championship.
No. 5 Alabama answered numerous questions Saturday night in a 34-24 victory over seventh-ranked Virginia Tech that was more dominating than the score indicated. The most striking statistic: The Tide piled up an overwhelming 498-155 edge in total yards against a defense that ranked in the top 10 nationally a year ago.
“We got, what, 500 yards against a perennial power defense?” said Greg McElroy, who took over at quarterback for three-year starter John Parker Wilson. “We beat a good team. Could we have done better? Absolutely.”
The Alabama defense, touted as one of the best in school history, certainly lived up to that billing. The Tide gave up a 43-yard pass on a botched coverage and a 32-yard touchdown run, but limited the Hokies to a mere 80 yards on their other 49 plays. Virginia Tech converted just 2 of 12 chances on third down and quarterback Tyrod Taylor was sacked five times.
“You have to create six seconds of hell each play,” Saban said, “and we did that.”
That, of course, was expected from a defense that returned such stalwarts as nose guard-slash-mountain Terrence Cody, linebackers Rolando McClain and Dont’a Hightower, and cornerback Javier Arenas.
No one was quite sure how the offense would do without Wilson, top rusher Glenn Coffee and All-American linemen Andre Smith and Antoine Caldwell.
McElroy got off to a rough start as the Hokies blitzed him from all angles. A deflected pass was intercepted, leading to a Virginia Tech field goal, and he was just 6 of 18 for 94 yards at halftime.
But McElroy never gave in to the pressure, completing 9 of 12 for 136 yards over the final two quarters. He set up the go-ahead touchdown with a 48-yard pass to Marquis Maze and finished off the Hokies with an 18-yard scoring pass to running back Mark Ingram.
“I thought he got us in the right play and managed the game well,” Saban said of his quarterback.
Ingram did most of his damage taking handoffs — or direct snaps in the Wildcat formation. The namesake son of the former New York Giants receiver rushed for a career-best 150 yards on 26 carries, showing he’s just as capable of carrying the load as Coffee.
When Ingram did need a breather, Roy Upchurch made sure the Tide didn’t miss a beat. The hard-running senior picked up 90 yards on just seven carries, including a 19-yard touchdown that ended with him running right over a last-chance Virginia Tech defender at the goal line.
Of course, nothing is possible without the guys up front. The left side of the line — 300-pound tackle James Carpenter and 305-pound guard Mike Johnson — opened up some massive holes. Smith and Caldwell were hardly missed.
“The offensive line gained confidence during the game,” Saban said. “I think we are a little bigger and stronger. In the beginning, (Virginia Tech’s) quickness was a lot to handle, but we started to wear them down in the fourth quarter. That was part of the plan.”
Hokies coach Frank Beamer was certainly impressed.
“We played one of the great teams in the country and just didn’t play well enough to match them.”