TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The way Brian Vogler looks at it, Alabama is the home team and Virginia Tech will be its guests when the teams meet in the Georgia Dome on Saturday night. Though there's been no official designation for who's the home team in the neutral site game, Alabama's junior tight end feels his team has earned the right to call the stadium in the heart of Atlanta home.
"What it means to play in there," he said, "for us, it's the SEC championship. You sort of take pride as an SEC team having an ACC team you want to defend what is essentially your home. Just the pride of playing in the Georgia Dome, for us, as you could say reigning SEC champions, so I guess you could say it's our home."
For veterans such as Vogler, a trip to the Georgia Dome is nothing new. A 34-24 victory over Virginia Tech there in 2009 started a three-game winning streak on the now-familiar turf. Alabama overcame Florida 32-13 to win the SEC championship that year and just this past December it did the same, coming from behind to beat Georgia 32-28 for a berth in the BCS title game.
Ed Stinson had to think about how many times he'd played there in his career: Was it three or four? It felt like more, but the answer was three, beginning with the senior's redshirt season in 2009. Little did he know it, though, that that game would mark the beginning of the Tide's run as the king of college football. Alabama has won three national championships, two SEC titles and lost just five regular-season games since it upset a then-fifth-ranked Hokies squad in Atlanta.
It felt like forever ago for Alabama coach Nick Saban, who said he's not looked much at the game to prepare for what he'll see on Saturday. Frank Beamer remains the coach in Blacksburg, Va., but much has changed in the last four years.
"They have a lot of different players. We have a lot of different players," Saban said. "I'm not sure how many players we have on our team now that played in that game -- probably only a few, or that was even on the team during that team. They've changed coordinators on offense. They have the same defensive coordinator.
"They probably play very similarly. They haven't changed a lot on defense that time, but probably significantly in terms of what they do on offense. In some parts of the game, maybe it is beneficial to have played someone a few years back, but in other parts of the game, I think they'll be totally different."
What doesn't stand to be different is the Tide's success. A three-touchdown favorite, Alabama is expected to bowl over Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. Beamer's team has been hit hard by injuries and attrition during the offseason. He called Alabama "the best team we've ever played" during a radio show on Monday.
Alabama's players are taking the contest seriously, though. Stinson was asked at one point how he'd take advantage of the Hokies' starting left tackle, true freshman Jonathan McLaughlin. Rather than take the bait, Stinson said simply, "He's gotta be good to start at left tackle."
What the rookie lineman won't be prepared for is the noise. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama's junior free safety, said you have to be focused to play in the Georgia Dome.
"It's loud," he said. "The fans are crazy. It's amazing to be in that stadium."
The players get a lot out of the neutral-site matchup, but so do the programs as a whole. Win or lose, both teams get a national stage to show off their school colors, not to mention a paycheck as Alabama and Virginia Tech will walk away with more than $2 million each, according to reports.
Alabama has consistently turned to these type of games as a way to gain exposure and lock up a solid nonconference opponent to help its strength of schedule, most recently playing a top-10 Michigan team in Arlington, Texas, to kick off last season. Since losing three of five neutral-site games from 2007-08, Alabama has won eight in a row, including four bowl games.
As Saban said at SEC Media Days in July, "Neutral-site games, from a business standpoint, work out."
"It's great for exposure for your program to play in different places in the country, especially against a good opponent," he said. "I do think that with strengths of schedule being an important part of the new formula for the playoff in terms of who gets selected to play in the game, strength of schedule is going to be very, very important.
"So to now all of a sudden try to play 10 quality opponents -- we've always tried to play nine -- now I'm sort of thinking we need to play 10. Without playing one of those games, it would be very difficult for us to do that. That's one of the other reasons that I support having nine teams in the conference, nine conference games, because it's difficult to schedule out‑of‑conference games. We've always enjoyed that. It's always been a great experience for our players to play in Dallas, Atlanta, different places. Hopefully we'll be able to continue that in the future."