Two top-notch coaches and two of the nation's toughest defenses are set to battle in the Georgia Dome on Saturday when the No. 5 Crimson Tide meet the No. 7 Hokies in Week 1's best matchup.  Frank Beamer and Virginia Tech enter as near-TD underdogs despite back-to-back Orange Bowl appearances.  Making the trip up from Tuscaloosa, Nick Saban and Alabama have high hopes for this season and will be tested out of the gate.

It’s time to take back the game.

Football is not some joke, especially for the thousands of young men who will take the field during the opening weekend of the 2009 college football season. The way some schools have turned into jocktocracies is laughable. The off-field behavior of some of these players is right out of a Coen Brothers movie. But the game itself is there for people to develop their bodies and minds, and it’s a beautiful game.

Frank BeamerThis is why I love being a handicapper. My interest as a fan is with the achievements of the players. Their development is determined by a combination of environment and programming, so the success of a college football team is very much in the hands of the coach (preferably one with a gift for recruiting as well as strategy) and the institution behind him. I predict the outcome of a football game by analyzing and understanding this dynamic.

I also get value out of the betting odds by exploiting the fact that many bettors are blind to this dynamic, and base their decisions on “irrational” criteria like pride in their alma maters, how spiffy a uniform looks, or even the color of the quarterback’s skin. Prejudice, in other words. So every time I make a winning pick and they don’t, the joke is on them, because I get their money. Sharps and squares – which do you want to be?

No. 5 Alabama Crimson Tide vs. No. 7 Virginia Tech Hokies (+6½, 38)
Saturday, Sep 5, 8:00 p.m. (ET) ABC
Not every non-conference game is a squash. The most competitive Week 1 matchup has the Crimson Tide (12-2 SU, 9-5 ATS in 2008) facing the Hokies (10-4 SU, 6-7 ATS) at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Alabama is a 6.5-point favorite with a total of 38.

I think the Hokies have just as much chance of winning this game as the Crimson Tide. Both are coming off seasons where they led their divisions – Tech in the underrated ACC Coastal (combined 37-32-1 ATS) and the Tide in the overrated SEC West (combined 32-39 ATS). Both have respected coaches at the college level: Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa and Frank Beamer in Blacksburg. And both are outstanding young defensive teams who should be that much better in 2009, therefore the low total.

Alabama has the higher public profile, especially after winning the first 12 games of the 2008 season and holding down the No. 1 spot in the national rankings for five weeks. Saban is also more recognizable under the headset as the reigning and two-time AP Coach of the Year (2003 and 2008). But Beamer has the 1999 AP award on his resume, and he’s taken the Hokies to 16 consecutive bowl games, including back-to-back Orange Bowl appearances.

The Tide offense might take a step back this year with Greg McElroy replacing John Parker Wilson at quarterback and JUCO transfer James Carpenter replacing 2008 Outland Trophy winner Andre Smith at left tackle (McElroy is right-handed). Tech’s offense was ranked No. 40 in the FBS last year in terms of efficiency (Alabama was No. 18) and has to replace RB Darren Evans, out for the year with a torn ACL. But freshman Ryan Williams made heads turn with his performance in the spring session, and QB Tyrod Taylor is an established dual threat going into his third year of competition.

No. 8 Mississippi Rebels at Memphis Tigers (+17, 54)
Sunday, Sep 6, 3:30 p.m. (ET) ESPN
Okay, this is more of a squash. The Rebs are 17-point road favorites with a total of 55; as we went to press, the Tigers were available at +17.5 at a handful of books. The half-point is less important with a spread this large, but we’re talking about handicapping here. If you make 52 percent of your picks (betting the same amount each time), you’re in the red. Bump that up to 52.4 percent, and you’re in the black. Every half-point is valuable.

Consensus reports out of Vegas had 92 percent of bettors hitting Ole Miss on both the pointspread and (where available) at -900 on the moneyline. The preseason chatter on the Rebs has been highly positive after the team went 9-4 (9-3 ATS) last year and beat the Florida Gators (-23) along the way. But meeting these lofty public expectations will be difficult, even during the non-con portion of the schedule when chalk generally prevails.

The Rebs downed the Tigers 41-24 last year as 9.5-point home faves. Memphis (6-7 SU, 5-6-1 ATS out of Conference USA) covered four of the previous five annual meetings as a single-digit dog, and Tiger fans are looking forward to watching former Washington State QB Arkelon Hall in his senior season.