Tennessee vs North Carolina State
For the first time since 1939 Tennesee and North Carolina State will take each other on on the football field in game one of the Chick-fil-A kickoff at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. For Tennessee, there may be more at stake than for the Wolfpack.
The Volunteers, once a flagship program of the SEC have fallen into midpack territory in the SEC, as their place on the pecking order now may be beneath even that of Arkansas and South Carolina. Having fallen behind two members who joined the league in 1992 is an embarrassment for the once proud SEC power. Four consecutive seasons with at least six losses have Vols fans squirming, and very little Derek Dooley has done can really inspire much confidence that things are going to change.
The biggest culprit is the offense, or the complete and total lack of one. Injury to quarterback Tyler Bray last season certainly did nothing to help the cause, but for an SEC school with the resources of Tennessee, injuries are not a valid excuse.
Consider that no team in the league scored fewer points per game in conference games than Tennessee. Yes, that means 2-10 Ole Miss scored more points in SEC games than the Vols did. Tennessee averaged a mere 64 yards per game on the ground in conference play, including -30 yards rushing combined in their two games against Florida (-9) and Georgia (-21). Over a three game stretch against LSU, Alabama and South Carolina, the Vols scored a total of 16 points with a collective total of just 27 first downs in total. Tennessee scored more than 12 points in a conference game on just two occasions. Talk about offensive ineptitude.
Unfortunately for Tennessee the defense couldn’t even come close to picking up the slack. While the unit wasn’t horrible by any means, to overcome the lack of offense, it needed to be dominating, and it was far from it.
The good news for Tennessee is that they expected to return 19 starters, ten on offense, nine on defense, in an effort to bounce back to form. The bad news is that they open up against a very formidable North Carolina State team at a time where the leash for Dooley and the patience from Vols fans are both extremely short. This bad news was made worse when it was announced Da’Rick Rogers had been suspended and subsequently transferred to Tennessee Tech. As bad as the Volunteer offense was, Rogers shined a year ago, leading the SEC in receptions. Vols fans expected the pairing of Rogers and Justin Hunter to give them one of the better receiving corps in the country. So much for that.
The good news however is that all five starters return from what was an exceptionally young offensive line a year ago, which is a recipe for failure in the SEC. The question will be who is going to take over the running back duties from Tauren Poole. It’s not like the running game can be any worse, only against Buffalo did they even average over four yards per carry, so the only way to go is up.
Defensively they do indeed return nine starters, however two of their three leading tacklers from 2011 are not among the returnees. With the loss of Austin Johnson, not only does Tennessee lose their leading tackler, but also over half of their interceptions, so while the losses are minimal, they could have a huge impact. Expected to replace Austin Johnson as the teams playmaker on the defensive side of the ball is linebacker A.J. Johnson who was second on the team in tackles a year ago as a true freshman, and was a freshmen all-american.
So there are some reasons for optimism, but it should be heavily guarded optimism. You don’t perform as poorly as Tennessee did a year ago without having real deep rooted problems, problems that don’t tend to go away quickly. And this opening game of the 2012 season will show quite a bit as to how much improvement is made, because as mentioned, N.C. State is no slouch.
In fact, the Wolfpack figure to play a spoiler role in the ACC Atlantic Division. Expecting them to seriously challenge Florida State and Clemson for the division title might be a bit too unrealistic, they certainly will be a thorn in the side of the ACCs contenders.
But before spoiling the party in the ACC, the Wolfpack would first like to give Tennessee it’s third loss in four years to an ACC school, and the Wolfpack have the team to do just that. In fact, the matchup plays itself out almost perfectly for N.C. State. Last season the Wolfpack defense allowed just 3.7 yards per carry and just over 130 yards per game. Unfortunately, of their losses on defense this year, they lose five of the front seven from a year ago. So putting together a new front seven might be cause for concern against an SEC foe in week one. Unless of course that SEC foe has the running game of, say….Tennessee.
Losing five of the front seven is bad, but returning the entire secondary is anything but. Safeties Brandon Bishop and Earl Wolff were among the top three on the team in tackles last season and cornerback David Amerson led the nation with a whopping 13 interceptions. So considering that the Vols are going to have to throw the ball to have any success, N.C. State has to feel good about the fact that they are going to play right into the strength of this defense.
N.C. State did lose 15.5 from three departing starters on the defensive line, but they also return Art Norman, who as a redshirt freshmen had seven of his own. So getting to the quarterback shouldn’t be a huge problem, though Tennesse, amazingly enough a year ago, did a fantastic job at protecting the passer.
Offensively the Wolfpack possess what may be their finest offense in the last few years. Mike Glennon is a standout quarterback who will likely be a household name by the time the 2013 NFL draft roles around. Glennon threw for 3,000 yards and 31 scores a year ago and figures to top those numbers this year. Quarterback however is still an area of concern, as there is absolutely no depth behind Glennon should something happen. Brien Taylor and Tyler Brosious are no longer with the program, meaning freshmen Manny Stocker, who was at least in for the spring, likely will be the backup.
Another potential cause for concern is the receiver corps Glennon is throwing to. Three of the top four from last season are gone, as are roughly half of the touchdown receptions. How quickly sophomore Bryan Underwood or junior Quintin Payton become a dependable option opposite Tobais Palmer will go a long way in determing just how good this offense can be.
The offensive line brings back four starters, but junior tackle Rob Crisp was a very highly rated recruit coming out of high school and saw 413 snaps last year, so in a sense, the line returns virtually intact. And that is exactly what returning running backs Tony Creecy and James Washington want to hear. Creecy ran for nearly 400 yards as a redshirt freshmen, but early indications he’ll get the bulk of the carries this season, even though Washington ran for almost 900 last season.
Tonight, Tennessee knows it’s going to have to score to beat N.C. State, they aren’t going to be able to shut down the Wolfpack offense, but the matchups don’t lean in Tennessee’s favor, especially sans one of the nations best receivers. A third loss in four years to little sisters from the ACC is not going to sit well at all in Knoxville. A loss here could send things spiraling out of control, and quickly. Meanwhile, for N.C. State, a win could have them in prime position to be 4-0 when they travel to Miami at the end of the month.