Tennessee vs NC State Preview: This Is Only The Beginning Or The End

Woo.

279 days have come and gone between the last time we saw Derek Dooley's Vols and tonight. 279 days from rock bottom in Lexington to the gates of our own personal hell in the Georgia Dome. 279 days all leading to this night. And on this night, we will take the first step down one of the only two paths left for Derek Dooley: win or go home.

It's not fair. It's college football. And it's back after 279 days to test Dooley's Vols one more time. Will the answers be different in 2012? I believe what we see tonight will go a very long way in telling us how it's going to be. Lose, and the fire grows from your seat and threatens your entire house. But win, and we stop talking about your job security and start talking about getting those Gators.

It is the biggest single game crossroads since October 6, 2007. Tennessee walked into Neyland Stadium 2-2, with wins over mighty Southern Miss and Arkansas State and losses at Cal and at Florida by a combined score of 104-51. #12 Georgia was waiting. Lose, and your season is effectively over and your head coach is effectively toast. But win, and you're probably in control of your own destiny in the SEC East by sunrise. No greater risk, no greater reward.

And Tennessee blew the doors off a Georgia team that would finish #2 in the nation.

Tonight is about more than survival for Derek Dooley. Despite the loss of Da'Rick Rogers - and I really hope to be able to write "in spite of" come morning - there is real hope that this Tennessee team has a chance to be good. We don't come into this season hoping for 8-4, just enough to survive. We come into this season hoping for something more. Hoping for what Tennessee fans used to hope for.

Lose tonight, hope is the first thing to die. But win tonight, and a dangerous hope lives. And grows.

So very, very much is on the line in the Georgia Dome tonight. If Tennessee is going to walk out alive, here's what will be most important:

Tyler Bray

Believe it or not, it's start thirteen for young Mr. Bray. The question has changed from "How many school records will this passing game break?" to "What exactly will this passing game look like?" But the most important piece is still in place.

We know what Bray can do with a full arsenal. What we don't know is what Bray can do with this arsenal against this secondary, which could easily be the best he'll face in his entire college career. Remember that everything we saw from Bray as a freshman featured him throwing to Gerald Jones, Denarius Moore, Luke Stocker, Justin Hunter, and Da'Rick Rogers. Which is pretty awesome in hindsight.

Then we have 2011, which offered two glimpses of Bray that will probably bookend what we'll see from him tonight. There's the Cincinnati game, which is what we hope a Bray-Hunter-Patterson combo will look like eventually, but it's probably foolish to look for it tonight. And then there's the rest of the year, when Bray was basically working with Da'Rick Rogers and no run game...which we hope will be worse than working with Justin Hunter, equal uncertainty on the rest of the WR depth chart, and what we all assume will be a stronger run game.

Here's what Bray did in big games after Justin Hunter got hurt last year:

  • at Florida: 26 of 48, 288 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT (33-23 L)
  • vs Georgia: 18 of 33, 251 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT (20-12 L)
  • vs Vanderbilt: 16 of 33, 189 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT (27-21 W)
  • at Kentucky: 15 of 38, 215 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT (10-7 L)
Keep in mind, Bray almost certainly wasn't 100% in those last two games. Bray was pretty good in Gainesville given the sudden change. Bray was okay against what turned into a pretty good Georgia defense. Bray did just enough against Vanderbilt. And he was terrible at Kentucky.

How good will Tyler Bray be tonight?

Remember, some of the best we've seen at this university were so without throwing to NFL receivers. Peyton Manning had Joey Kent and Marcus Nash (who were phenomenal college receivers). Casey Clausen's senior year featured C.J. Fayton, James Banks, and Tony Brown. Erik Ainge turned Lucas Taylor and Austin Rogers into credible threats in 2007.

The next step for Tyler Bray is to lead this team and be a great quarterback regardless of the circumstances around him. Can he do it? Is Bray truly this good?

No matter what we get from our wide receivers, Bray will always be the biggest piece of the puzzle. We all know he's good. Can he truly be as great as we all want him to be? It's never been more important for him to be so than it will be tonight. Bray leads the way.

The Run Game

...but even Bray's great probably won't allow the Vols to run for nothing without three NFL wide receivers on the field. Tennessee has to run the football. And facing this secondary in the first game of the season, it may be more important to be able to run the football tonight than it will be at any other point this year. We don't have the luxury of warming up to the idea as the season goes along. The Vols have to run tonight.

NC State was 37th in run defense last year, and keep in mind MTSU was 114th and Tennessee ran for just 2.6 yards per carry against them. The baseline assumption is that things will be better because they can't be any worse. But how much better? We'll need to see it to believe it.

Those wanting to believe look to Rajion Neal, who won the job outright in fall camp. It will be interesting to see how many times the Vols feed him - remember, last year only Trent Richardson and Michael Dyer averaged more than 20 carries per game among SEC backs, so it wouldn't be strange if Neal got the same 15 carries per game Tauren Poole got last year and the rest of the stable sorted out the rest. We shouldn't need Rajion to be Jamal Lewis. But we do need him to be something.

(By the way, for all the drama about what this game means and the risk/reward at play, let's note that there's a huge difference between the Vols losing 38-35 with a defense learning a brand new scheme, and the Vols losing 24-17 where Tennessee looks exactly the same as they did last year on offense. That's the basement.)

Pass catchers not named Justin Hunter
Here's the thing: if Justin Hunter has a huge game, we probably roll. While the Hunter/Amerson matchup is really exciting, I'm more interested to know what the rest of the guys can do if Amerson plays him to a draw or Hunter isn't fully back off the ACL tear.

It doesn't all have to be Cordarrelle Patterson. That guy is in a really unfair spot, because we were already expecting huge things from him before we actually needed huge things from him. Obviously we all want to see Hunter perform well off the injury, but the best story of the night would be either Jacob Carter or Cody Blanc making a meaningful contribution in the passing game. At this point I feel like we know who Zach Rogers is, though I would be more than happy for him to enlighten us further.

This also extends to Mychal Rivera and anyone coming out of the backfield. Even if Hunter was 100%, facing Amerson and without Da'Rick on the other side we would still need a lot of help. Will Cordarrelle Patterson be better than DeAnthony Arnett was? Will the rest of the guys be better than the rest of the guys last year? Tennessee needs everyone else to catch the football for Bray to operate at maximum efficiency. I'm really, really interested to see who it's going to be (and who Bray throws to most often) tonight.

Defense: Four Factors
Last year Tennessee's defense had a pulse, but not much else. They were great at bending but not breaking, but saddled with an ineffective offense once Bray went down the defense was unable to make a significant impact, and could only survive for so long against the best teams on our schedule.

This does not seem to be the idea for Sal Sunseri's defense. Our belief has been all offseason that the Vols would be much more physical, much more aggressive, and as a result much more open to risk and reward. It will take all season to figure out if this defense can be more than a liability, but we'll need them to help offset the loss of Da'Rick Rogers if the offense can't find a way to still score 40ish points per game. And facing a seasoned quarterback who knows how to put points on the board, it's a very steep learning curve.

Here again are the four factors for improvement for the Vols' 2012 defense, with their 2011 numbers and national ranking:
  • Turnovers forced (18 - 91st)
  • Sacks (15 - 107th)
  • Third Down Conversions Allowed (39% - 57th)
  • Big Plays Allowed (14 plays of 40+ yards - 71st)

We don't have to be the 85 Bears or the 98 Vols. We just need improvement. Will we see it tonight?

Put on more steam

Everything about Tennessee is so fragile right now. If we score first, the roof could come off. If they score first, we might jump off the roof.

There is only one way to answer the adversity question, and that's to face it and win. The Vols got a limited dose against Cincinnati in the first quarter, answered the bell both times, then ran away from the Bearcats. And people forget, Tennessee faced adversity against Vanderbilt last November and won...it just all got erased seven days later. Plus, I don't think this team is going to be in the pregame locker room saying, "Remember, we beat Vanderbilt, we can beat anybody."

The character of this team and these players can be defined not by what they've done in the past, but what they do in 2012. And the same is true for Derek Dooley. The only man on that sideline that knows what it's like to win in a Tennessee uniform is Jay Graham. But every man on that sideline has a chance to carry the Tennessee program forward, and write their own story. The past is over if you want it to be.

NC State can be very inconsistent. Consider their final six games last year: shut out by Florida State, then they shut out UNC, then lost to a four win Boston College team, then blew out Clemson 37-13, then fell way behind to a bad Maryland team, then came back to beat them 56-41, then beat Louisville in the Belk Bowl. It's a roller coaster, but it ends with a three game win streak and a confident fan base behind a confident team.

So while rolling these guys would be nice, especially without Rogers I've removed myself from the illusion that we're better than they are outright. I think this is going to be a really close, really good ballgame between what I hope are two teams that have a chance to be really good. As such, adversity will not be if, but when.

What happens if the Vols fall behind early? What happens if the Vols need a drive to win late in the fourth quarter?

This team has to walk through the fire and come out alive to get where it wants to go. Confidence and experience are madly in love with each other. So if we want to move forward, if we want to be Tennessee, we will have to respond to adversity...and there's no better time to do so than the very first game of the season. Because win tonight, and you start believing you can win the next one. And the next one. And the next one.

279 days for 60 minutes. Appropriately, to escape football purgatory the Vols will have to go through hell in Georgia Dome.

Let's burn it to the ground.

Go Vols.

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