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 the 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 knows the winner of the Chick-fil-A 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 Southeastern Conference championship game.

Arenas said the atmosphere before last year's first game was "kind of indescribable. The energy waves going through the Dome, going through the locker room, and even when we were at the hotel. Just excitement and eagerness to get out there and show the country what we were about."

That is no longer in question. In two short years, coach Nick Saban has restored the Tide to its 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 Atlantic Coast Conference 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, whose physical style has been compared to Terrell Owens, 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 in Saban's ground game.

"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.

Both quarterbacks will have their hands full against these defenses.

Alabama appears to have one of the best units in school history. Three linebackers return, including McClain and freshman standout Dont'a Hightower. Massive Terrence Cody anchors an experienced line. Arenas returns in the secondary and is even more dangerous as a returner, having brought back three punts for touchdowns last season.

"We want to be physically dominating," McClain said. "We intend to go out and hit people in the mouth. That's how we play. We're going to run the ball at you and stop you from running the ball."

The Hokies have the talent to hit back. Seven starters return from a group that allowed the seventh-fewest yards in the country, including end Jason Worilds (eight sacks, 18.5 tackles for losses), tackle John Graves (three blocked kicks) and cornerback Stephan Virgil (six interceptions).

Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster is a master at disguising his calls, especially when facing a quarterback starting his first game and an offensive line that had to replace key starters Andre Smith and Antoine Caldwell.

Look for Foster to send plenty of guys at McElroy.

"Our whole defense is kind of excited about it," linebacker Cody Grimm said. "It's definitely going to be on their guys upfront. They don't have as much experience, their quarterback hasn't started before, so it's definitely a good opportunity for us to bring some blitzes."