Tennessee-NC State Preview
In 1939, the Tennessee Vols kicked off their historic season with a 13-0 defeat of NC State in Raleigh. Why historic? The Vols not only dished out a shutout that opening day, but were unscored upon for the remainder of that regular season.
That is historic.
Whether or not 2012 is to be a historic season is for the pundits to have fun with. What is true is that this year’s opener against the Wolfpack is one thing if nothing else — a game the Vols must win. They must. Because if they don’t, and depending on how the loss goes down, Tennessee will find themselves behind the eight ball going into the Florida game with another must-win scenario before heading into another October filled with heavyweights.
Playing the November schedule with the only chance being a 6-6 season is a worse-case scenario. A win over NC State wipes that possibility off the table.
That’s how crucial this game is for Tennessee.
The setting on Friday evening is the Georgia Dome. Tennessee has not won a game in this house since the SEC Championship victory over Mississippi State in 1998, the Vols’ last truly historic season. Six consecutive losses in the last six games played in the Georgia Dome leave some thinking the stadium harbors curses on the Vols.
But that bit of dreadful history presents no mind to today’s squad. It’s just a bit of history that they may or may not be aware of. They bear no albatross collars regarding the venue. The only burden they carry are the recent losses to too many teams by too many points. And that is plenty of burden to drag around. They all want some retribution. NC State seems like a good place to start.
Tom O’Brian is in his 6th season as the head coach of the Wolfpack, taking over in 2007 for his predesessor (Chuck Amato) who finished his own 5-year term with a 3-9 season. O’Brian, formerly the head coach at Boston College, got off to a rocky start (5-7 / 6-7 / 5-7), but his teams have responded in the last two years (9-4 / 8-5) to the point where the Wolfpack have become a relevant program in the ACC if not nationally.
O’Brian, a former military man, is similar to his Friday opponent’s head coach — very organized and methodical with his job. He doesn’t micromanage, but instead stresses accountability.
And it doesn’t really matter that his first game is against a program that has been down the last few years. On ESPNU’s All-Access program Wednesday, O’Brian had this to say about the Vols.
It means alot because you’re playing a brand name program. They’ve won a national championship. Everyone knows Tennessee, everyone knows about Tennessee football. It doesn’t matter what their record was or what it’s going to be. They’re one of these premier programs…
That of course is not the text of what O’Brian will be saying in the locker room at about 7:00pm Friday night, but it does bring up the important nature of this game for State.
NC State loses 21 lettermen from last season, returning 31 including 13 starters (7 on offense and 6 on defense). More significantly, last season’s 8-5 mark was accomplished with 31 starters missing games due to injury at one time or another.
2011 was a bit of a wild ride for the Wolfpack. When banged up early, they lost to Wake Forest (by 7), Cincinnati (by 30) and Georgia Tech (by 10). When healthy, they performed better, even though a 31-0 loss to Florida State and another to Boston College (by 4) nearly derailed their season. But after upsetting #7 Clemson (after they had clinched their division), State found themselves trailing Maryland 41-14 in the third quarter, but rallied by scoring 42 unanswered points to win and become bowl-eligible.
This year’s Wolfpack offense starts with senior quarterback Mike Glennon. He is big (a la Philip Rivers) at 6’6″ 232 lbs. His future was uncertain until last season. Russell Wilson was released to transfer to Wisconsin after the 2010 season, paving the road for Glennon to be the starter in his junior season. He stepped up by throwing for over 3,000 yards (62.5%) and three 300+ yard games, including 21 TD passes and 0 INTs within the red zone. He is an emerging star heading into his senior season and is listed as a dark-horse candidate on some Heisman watch lists.
Throwing the ball 62.4% of the time left little to the running backs. Whether it’s the chicken or the egg, the Wolfpack finished near the bottom of the FBS in rushing (only 105 yards per game for 109th national standing) including a Tennessee-like -26 yards performance against Cincinnati last season. Last year’s backs had better seasons as receivers coming out of the backfield. Tony Creely and James Washington return for 2012.
And the NC State running game woes don’t say much for its offensive line (this is strangely similar to a sentence I must have written ten times last season). The 105 ypg mark translates to only 3.0 ypc. Additionally, the OL was dreadful in pass protection — Glennon was sacked a whopping 38 times in 2011. This season, the Wolfpack O-Line is minus only one of last season’s starters to make it the most experienced OL for O’Brian while at State.
The State defensive line was ravaged by injuries early in 2011. When they got healthy, the team’s performance improved. Three of last season’s starters don’t return.
Similarly, all of last season’s starters at linebacker are not returning, leaving players who featured in only 57 snaps in 2011. Included in the list are D.J. Green who is suspended a year by the NCAA for use of a banned supplement, and Terrell Manning you bolted for the pros a year early. This season, a JUCO transfer and a senior who didn’t play last season (knee) will have to step up for the Wolfback.
But the star in the Wolfpack sky is the secondary, led by 6’3″ cornerback David Amerson, who last season set an ACC record with 13 INTs, the most in the FBS since 1968. The only loss coming into 2012 is C.J. Wilson (knee) who was not slated to be one of the starting four. This is arguably one of the top secondaries in the nation.
Last season, special teams featured true freshman at punter, place kicker, and long snapper. Their collective performance was ordinary. The 2011 kickoff returner, T.J. Graham, ended his career as the ACC’s all-time leader in KO return yardage.
In summary, NC State is a team that looks to rely on the pass along with a large plus in the turnover margin (+14 last season) with their experienced and agressive secondary. It’s not about total yards for the Wolfpack as much as it is forced errors turned into points to support an aerial bombardment.
In many ways, these two programs are similar on the field. Just look at quarterbacks Mike Glennon and Tyler Bray: 6’6″ 232 vs 6’6″ 213. But another similarity points to what is really going to matter in Friday’s opener: the running games. Both were awful last season, and both squads come into 2012 with essentially the same offensive lines.
As much air swag as the networks discuss when covering Tennessee and NC State, this game will likely be won by the best ground game. With Tennessee looking far superior at the linebacker and defensive line positions coming into this season, look for the Vols to prevail (with effective pressure on Glennon and the running game), unless State continues its trend of superiority in the turnover margin.
Tennessee will win, because they absolutely have to. That’s my wishful thinking, and I’m sticking to it.
Tennessee 27 NC State 23