Coming off their worst season in two decades, even though they finished 7-6 and went to their 20th consecutive bowl game, the Hokies have never been counted out more in those 20 years than they are in their season opener against top-ranked, two-time defending national champion Alabama.
Oddmakers have installed the Crimson Tide as 19½-point favorites in Saturday’s game.
That’s fine with the Hokies, who relish the chance to turn some heads.
“Obviously a little bit of the pressure is taken off of us,” Thomas said. “We’re the ones expected to get beat by 21 or whatever it is, so that makes it a little bit easier in that aspect, but I think it will be even. We don’t expect any Alabama team to come out dead or expecting us to be under the radar at all.”
The Crimson Tide will be focusing on Thomas, at least for starters, defensively.
The Hokies have a new offensive coordinator in Scot Loeffler, who spent last season at Auburn, but Alabama coach Nick Saban said Thomas has shown he can take over a game — and not letting him do it is the Tide’s top priority.
“We know he’s capable of playing well if we don’t do the things we need to do,” Saban said.
The Hokies, meanwhile, have been talking about this game, and seething about their perceived lack of respect, throughout the summer, linebacker Jack Tyler said. The game in Atlanta is the kind of stage they all crave, he said.
“Football’s football. I think everybody’s here for a reason. They wanted to play prime-time college football, and that’s what this game’s going to be,” Tyler said Tuesday. “I don’t think I see intimidation in anyone’s eyes. I think I see a dog that’s ready to pounce and to win a game.”
The Hokies have used the stinging memories of last season — when they started 2-0, lost six of eight and then needed to close with three straight victories to finish with a winning record — as motivation.
The offseason has been “one of the best we’ve had since I’ve been here, and I think that comes from last season,” Tyler said.
“It’s not acceptable what we’ve done, so everybody in the locker room has a whole different attitude. We’re holding each other accountable, and the excitement to get better, in the weight room, on the field, working technique, has just changed completely.”
Now comes the harder part for the Hokies: Earning a place again among the elite in college football, and doing it against the most elite team of all, winner of three of the last four national titles.
“I don’t think there’s any other option,” Hokies offensive lineman Andrew Miller said. “I don’t want to be a team that’s a joke, considered a joke in the ACC or the league. I want to be a team that’s going to be competing, that everyone has to watch out for because they know they’re about to play Virginia Tech and they know we’re going to go out there and compete and ... they’re going to have to be ready.”
AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Ala., contributed to this story.