You simply can’t ask for a better game to kick off the 2012 ACC Football campaign.
In fact, the subplots might even be the bigger story for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic in Atlanta, Georgia, on Friday, August 31.
The Tennessee Volunteers. The once proud Southeastern Conference power who is now full of questions with a coach on the hot seat.
The North Carolina State Wolfpack. A team that carries the load of a wounded Atlantic Coast Conference onto the national stage in the season opener for the nation to judge its worthiness.
And to make the drama even better, both teams are near mirror images of the other. Both have powerful quarterbacks who are the keys to this game and the overall success of each team’s seasons. Both have explosive play makers on the outside on offense. Both have tremendous depth and some of the best players in the land in the secondary. Both have questions to answer in the running game. Both have questions to answer with the defensive front and linebackers.
This why the Vols and the Wolfpack are the first in our Top 12 Must See Games in the ACC in 2012.
Volunteer Head Coach Derek Dooley enters the contest returning 10 starters on offense including junior QB Tyler Bray and 2011 All-SEC junior WR Da’Rick Rogers. Both are explosive and are major keys to the Volunteer’s success, but all eyes will be on the return of WR Justin Hunter.
Hunter returns to action in his first game since tearing his ACL in the game against the Florida Gators last season. With an healthy Hunter alongside Da’Rick Rogers, senior WR Zach Rogers, senior TE Mychal Rivers and top Juco WR Cordarrelle Patterson, Bray has a lot of experience and options for big plays to keep any defense on its heels.
Tennessee does return nine starters on defense but will do a lot of shuffling up front as new Defensive Coordinator Sal Sunseri is implementing a 3-4 after nearly 20 years of a 4-3 scheme in Knoxville, Tennessee. Sunseri, an assistant and disciple of Nick Saban, will rely heavily on senior LB Herman Lathers, junior DE Jacques Smith and freshman four-star everything LB Dante Phillips who was snubbed by Florida and enrolled in July with Tennessee. There is great depth in the secondary with senior CB Marsalis Teague and senior FS Prentiss Waggner.
Now to the grease fire which is the running back situation with the Vols. It’s so bad, no one wants to talk about it.
The ball will be handed to sophomore Marlin Lane Jr and junior Raijon Neal to try and improve on a 3.7 yard per rush average in 2011. The key blow already to this squad is the departure of highly touted freshman Davante Bourque for personal reasons. This leaves freshmen Quenshaun Watson and Alden Hill as the future of the backfield for Tennessee.
“Most guys who handle adversity, when they go through it the first time, they don’t know how to react,” Dooley said at SEC Media Days. “Our guys have been through it.”
Likewise, Tom O’Brien has a very experienced squad featuring nine starters returning led by senior QB Mike Glennon. Last season, Glennon was the biggest question mark heading into the season after the departure of Russell Wilson who bypassed another season in Raleigh, North Carolina, for a shot at at the BCS title in Wisconsin. Glennon looks to improve on a great 2011 where he threw for over 3000 yards and 31 TDs.
There to take some of the burden off of the senior QB will be senior WR Tobias Palmer and senior RB James Washington. Glennon will rely heavily on these two as there is very little proven depth behind both. Redshirt junior Rashard Smith will move from CB to WR full time this year to help with the lack of depth.
The X-factor for the offense lies in the hands of redshirt sophomore RB Mustafa Greene. If he shines the way he can this would give the Wolfpack a great one-two puch out of the backfield. The overall saving grace for Glennon and the offense, though, is a superior and senior and junior laden offensive line to anchor the offense.
NC State faces some of the same challenges on defense as the Vols by putting an almost new crew out on the field for 2012 with only 5 returning starters. All five are in the secondary in senior FS Earl Wolf, senior FS Brandan Bishop, junior CB David Amerson, senior CB C.J. Wilson and junior FS Dontae Johnson.
“This is by far the most experienced and deepest team we’ve had,” O’Brien said. “Now the question is if we can take that next step and get where we want to get and get to Charlotte (for the ACC championship game).”
So to the match up itself…
Tennessee has much many more weapons on offense for Bray to use, but NC State has has equal explosiveness in the defensive backfield to match up fairly well on the outside. The Volunteers must establish some sort of running game to open up the full talent of the wide receivers and Bray on offense. They have much more of the “big play” ability than do the Wolfpack.
Glennon has fewer weapons, but, with the experience of his offensive line, should have more time to let plays develop. The Vols can match up well on defense at CB, but the Wolfpack ground game could make an early impact as Tennessee rolls out its first game in the 3-4.
Then there is the drama factor…
Dooley, who desperately needs to have a great game and a signature win to open the season, versus O’Brien, who carries the weight of the conference in to the opening game of the season yet again looking to pull off a major win for the ACC.
This game will not dissapoint. Look for Tennesee and NC State to match big plays early, but the game will be decided on who can establish the running game late.
For the first time in years, Tennessee is the team that enters the opener with more to lose than an ACC opponent.
Final: NC State 31. Tennessee 27.
Game 2 in the Top 12 Must See Games in the ACC in 2012 – Clemson Tigers versus the Auburn Tigers.