Georgia Dome Opener Critical for Vols
By BJ Bennett
Follow us at Twitter.com/SouthernPigskin. Become a fan at the SouthernPigskin.com Facebook Page
For all of the optimism that abounds, a loss to NC State would likely prove devastating towards developing the momentum this still-young football team desperately needs.
For Tennessee, every season starts with the goal of competing for a division championship in the famed SEC East. There are critical annual tilts with foes Florida and Georgia, a now-key pairing with South Carolina and the always-intense clash with rival Alabama. Like most schools in the league, the Volunteers' focus rarely drifts outside of conference lines. While a glance at the schedule easily draws attention to other games, Tennessee's August opener with North Carolina State will give us a great look at how their entire season may ultimately play out.
These are two programs that haven't played in over 70 years, the last matchup resulting in a 13-0 Volutneer win in Raleigh. Pundits have said UT head coach Derek Dooley needs a signature win to solidify his potentially-waning job security in Knoxville. He, first, needs this one first.
The Friday night Georgia Dome opener is a fascinating one for a variety of reasons. Much to Dooley's frustration, Tennessee completely collapsed down the stretch with losses in six of their last eight games (going winless outside of their home state) to finish the year. Scrutiny of his performance was a regular theme. Dooley spent SEC Media Days convincing on-lookers of how he believes his program has turned the corner and now has the foundation needed to move in the right direction.
"I've really been proud of the work that these guys have put in from a team chemistry, from a leadership standpoint, just a lot more emotional maturity than we've had. So this group has been fun to be around. It's been a tough four years in Tennessee. I know, of course, the SEC has enjoyed taking advantage of our tough times. But there's a nice mood on our team right now that you're not going to have Tennessee to kick around anymore," the head coach explained in Hoover, Alabama. "So I'm excited about the season and I feel like we got a team that can go toe-to-toe for four "quarters with all the teams in our league."
For all of the optimism that abounds, a loss to NC State in Atlanta would likely prove devastating towards developing the momentum this still-young football team desperately needs to tussle with the heavyweights on their schedule. Tom O'Brien's Wolfpack present quite the challenge. They won four of five down the stretch of last season, shutting out rival North Carolina, overwhelming ACC Champion Clemson by 24 points and topping Lousiville in the Belk Bowl. Quarterback Mike Glennon returns after throwing 31 touchdown passes. Cornerback David Amerson is back after leading the nation with 13 interceptions.
"Well, it's why you come to Tennessee," Dooley explained of the season opener. "You want to play in these kind of games. It's a great way to kick off the season. We're playing an opponent that's picked to win the ACC by a lot of publications. So it's going to be a good early measure for our football team to see how much improvement we made in the last seven months. So it's going to be a fun thing. I'm looking forward to it. That's why you come to Tennessee, to play in those kind of games."
Perhaps because of the overall stature of the SEC, perhaps because of their upbeat off-season, there is a sense around the Deep South that the Volunteers will use this game as a springboard into a trying September schedule: Florida comes to Knoxville on the 15th, Tennessee heads to Athens on the 29th. While a loss to the Wolfpack would not affect the conference standings, it could have a defining impact on the continued maturation of a team and a head coach still looking for traction. An August disappointment would, fairly or unfairly, likely put Dooley and his staff in a very difficult situation.
Tennessee appears ready. Before the calendar turns to September, though, they will be the first league team to kickoff their season. The 'Vols will have the spotlight and all of the pressures that come with it.
"I made the statement to our local media, it's kind of that song, 'A little less conversation and a little more action'. So we have to go out and prove it, and that's what we intend to do this year."
Every season for the Volunteers is centered around Atlanta. The SEC Championship Game aside, this year is no different.