Tennessee (0-0) vs. NC State (0-0)
The Sports Network
DATE & TIME: Friday, August 31, 7:30 p.m. (et)
FACTS & STATS: Site: Georgia Dome (71,228) -- Atlanta, Georgia. Television: ESPNU. Home Record: Tennessee 0-0, NC State 0-0. Away Record: Tennessee 0-0, NC State 0-0. Neutral Record: Tennessee 0-0, NC State 0-0. Conference Record: Tennessee 0-0, NC State 0-0. Series Record: NC State leads, 2-1.
GAME NOTES: The NC State Wolfpack has been one of the more consistent teams in the ACC in recent years, and they will begin their quest for a third straight bowl bid when they open the 2012 season against the Tennessee Volunteers in a neutral-site game on Friday night at the Georgia Dome.
The 2011 campaign opened up promising enough for Tennessee, as the Derek Dooley-led program came out of the gates at 3-1. Things began to spiral out of control from there however, as the Vols lost six of their final eight games, which included a four-game losing streak from Oct. 8 to Oct. 29. They finished 5-7 overall and in last place in the SEC East (1-7).
There was much more to cheer about in Raleigh last season, as fifth-year head coach Tom O'Brien led NC State to an impressive 8-5 mark (4-4 in the ACC's Atlantic Division). The Wolfpack really came on strong toward the end of the season, closing with three straight wins, including at nationally-ranked Clemson (37-13), and over Louisville in the Belk Bowl (31-24).
The Wolfpack has beaten the Vols two out of the three times they have met, but this marks the first matchup between the two since 1939.
Much of Tennessee's struggles in 2011 were thanks to a lackluster offensive attack (20.3 ppg - 10th in the SEC), but the good news is that the unit returns eight starters from a year ago, including quarterback Tyler Bray.
Bray was one of the conference's most effective signal-caller as a sophomore, completing 59.5 percent of his passes for 1,983 yards with an impressive 17- to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Bray put up solid numbers despite missing five games with a broken thumb, so if he can stay healthy in 2012, his upside is tremendous.
Unfortunately for Bray, he will be without his First Team All-SEC wideout Da'Rick Rogers after he was dismissed from the team for violating undisclosed team rules. The loss of Rogers leaves a gaping hole in the receiving corps, as the team now looks to Justin Hunter (17 rec, 314 yds, 2 TDs) and junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson to pick up the slack. Tight end Mychal Rivera (29 rec, 344 yds) also figures to be a factor in UT's aerial attack.
Raijon Neal sits atop the running back depth chart, although he has only carried the ball 73 times over his first two seasons in Knoxville. Devrin Young and Marlin Lane should also see snaps in the backfield. Regardless of who's carrying the ball for the Vols, he will have the luxury of running behind an offensive line that returns four starters.
Better play from the offense will certainly help the Vols' defensive unit, which played well despite the team's poor record in 2011, allowing just 22.6 points per game while ranking fourth in the SEC in pass defense (177.8 ypg).
Tennessee's 3-4 defensive scheme calls for plenty of talent at linebacker, and the unit is anchored by A.J. Johnson (80 tackles, 2 fumble recoveries) and Curt Maggitt (56 tackles, 5.5 TFL). Herman Lathers also returns after missing all of last season with an ankle injury.
Jacques Smith and Daniel Hood bring experience to the defensive line, and Brian Randolph (55 tackles) and Prentiss Waggner (48 tackles, 2 INTs) lead a secondary that expects to improve upon last year's impressive numbers.
NC State may have lost quarterback Russell Wilson prior to the 2011 season, but the offense did not skip a beat with its new gunslinger. Mike Glennon was spectacular in his first year as a starter, completing better than 62 percent of his passes for 3,054 yards and 31 touchdowns.
Glennon may be without last year's big-play receiver T.J. Graham, but senior Tobias Palmer (37 rec, 496 yds, 5 TDs) will get his chance to be the No. 1 option down field. Glennon will also benefit from a cohesive offensive line, which returns four starters.
There's no question that the passing game is the Wolfpack's bread and butter, but there's still plenty of opportunities for running back James Washington to get his touches. The versatile back tallied nearly 900 rushing yards and 7 TDs a season ago and he also finished second on the team in receptions with 42.
The Wolfpack returns seven starters on the defensive side of the ball, although there is a gaping hole at linebacker after the team lost stars Audie Cole (132 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and Terrell Manning (82 tackles, 5.5 sacks).
NC State hopes that the talent in the secondary will help mask the inexperience of the linebackers. All four starters return to the defensive backfield, anchored by All-America cornerback David Amerson, who led the nation in interceptions last season with 13, helping the team to the nation's sixth- ranked turnover margin. The ball-hawking ability of Amerson, as well as Earl Wolff (113 tackles, 3 INTs) and Brandon Bishop (99 tackles, 5 INTs), will no doubt be a key to the unit's success once again.
Art Norman was the standout on the defensive line in 2011, posting team-highs in sacks (7) and QB hurries (30) as a redshirt freshman.
Tennessee's poor season in 2011 can mostly be washed away as an aberration considering Bray's untimely injury, but this season it will need to prove that a healthy Bray under center can help lead it back in the discussion in the SEC East. NC State is certainly no pushover, and its secondary can cause fits for even the most prolific quarterbacks, but the Vols will pull this one out to start the 2012 campaign off on the right foot.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Tennessee 24, NC State 21
08/31 10:31:20 ET