Friday Night Foreshadowing for Dooley, ‘Vols
By BJ Bennett
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All eyes will be on UT as the 'Vols attempt to jump start their turnaround. As important as 1-0 would be, the affirmation that comes with a win would be even more valuable.
Right, wrong or indifferent, Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley enters the 2012 season with his job security on the line. Fittingly enough, this coach on the hot seat will begin the year in Hot'lanta with a game that could ultimately seal his fate one way or another. Looking at the Volunteers' schedule as a whole, the season-opener against North Carolina State doesn't have the appeal of matchups against rivals Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. For a program in dire need of momentum after a second-consecutive losing season, however, it may be starting well that allows them to finish. For Dooley, the sentiment is a similar one.
Tennessee is one of the proudest programs in the country and, quite frankly, the fans are restless. Losing six of eight down the stretch last fall left a lot to be desired. The 'Vols won just one conference game, a far-from-inspiring overtime save against Vanderbilt. The margin for error this season is obviously quite slim. It's hard to pinpoint an exact win total, but significant improvement is anticipated.
Dooley embraced those expectations this off-season, telling reporters at SEC Media Days that this is his best UT team to date.
“You’re not going to have Tennessee to kick around anymore," he said this summer in Hoover. “I feel like we got a team that can go toe-to-toe for four quarters with all the teams in our league."
Optimism is rooted in the return of star signal caller Tyler Bray, assuming he can stay healthy and out of trouble. A likely high NFL Draft selection once his college career is done, he has 35 touchdown passes in two injury-shortened seasons in Knoxville. He has made a few poor decisions this summer, but appears ready for the start of the year. Bray will be without All-SEC receiver Da'Rick Rogers, recently suspended indefinitely for what's being reported as multiple violations of the SEC's substance-abuse policy. Dooley does not expect Rogers to return this season.
That, not the opportunity for a key non-conference victory, is the lead storyline as Tennessee prepares for NC State. Considering what's at stake for the program and those who run it, the distractions have an ominous tone. The pressure is already at a fever pitch, throw in the proverbial dismissal of Rogers and a week one loss to the Wolfpack and a Tennessee team needing a wave of momentum to carry them into their conference schedule will likely lack the confidence and support needed to take on four nationally-ranked teams in their first five SEC games. Angst and action are currently on hold, pinned back behind the gate; a disappointing showing against an ACC foe would bust that door wide open.
For Dooley and 'the Vols, this opener will be a defining one.
Their competition will counter with a star quarterback of their own: senior Mike Glennon. The graduate student threw for over 3,000 yards and 31 touchdowns last season. NC State also returns All-American cornerback David Amerson, the nation's interception leader a year ago with 13. Veteran coach Tom O'Brien is entering his sixth season with the Wolfpack. Many believe this could be the best team of his NCSU tenure.
With this Friday's national stage, all eyes will be on Tennessee as the 'Vols attempt to jump start their turnaround. For as important as 1-0 would be, the affirmation that comes with a win would be even more valuable. Dooley thinks this team is better. They need to believe it. A week one victory could be the start of something special. Fair or unfair, a loss could be the beginning of the end.