When: Friday, Aug. 31, 2012 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Where: Georgia Dome (Atlanta, Ga.)
NC State at a glance:
Head coach: Tom O’Brien (33-30 in 5 years at N.C. State)
All-time record: 551-536-55
Returning starters: 7 (offense), 7 (defense), 2 (specialists, kicker and punter)
The Wolfpack (8-5, 4-4 ACC) had an in consistent 2011 campaign. The low point came in an early-season 44-14 loss to Cincinnati. A 14-10 loss to Boston College on Nov. 12 had State sitting at 5-5 and on the verge of staying home for the postseason. The next week, a convincing 37-13 win over then No. 8-ranked Clemson changed the course of their season. O’Brien’s squad won their regular season finale over Maryland and earned a spot in the Belk Bowl. The Wolfpack — playing a bowl game just three hours from campus — knocked off Louisville 31-24 to end the season on a high note.
Three matchups to watch:
1. Mike Glennon vs. Tennessee secondary
Senior quarterback Mike Glennon will be among the toughest signal callers the Vols face in 2012. The 6-foot-6, 225-pound Glennon has already been tabbed as a top-five senior quarterback in 2012 by ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper, Jr. He had an efficient junior season with 283 completions on 453 attempts (62.5 percent) for 3,054 yards, 31 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions.
The Vols finished a respectable fifth in the SEC in pass defense in 2011. All of the key secondary players are back with the exception of starting cornerback Izauea Lanier (academically ineligible). They did struggle in 2011 against top-tier quarterbacks — a description that fits Glennon. The Vols allowed Arkansas’s Tyler Wilson and Georgia’s Aaron Murray to combine for 31 completions on 51 attempts (60.1 percent) for a total of 451 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
2. Tennessee receivers vs. NC State secondary
Expect NFL scouts to have a close look at these battles. There are multiple big-time professional prospects on the perimeter for each side. NC State cornerback David Amerson garnered All-American honors in 2012 after he set an ACC record with 13 interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns. The junior checks in at 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds and is a likely first-round pick whenever he chooses to leave for the draft.
Amerson and the rest of the Wolfpack’s veteran secondary will face what may be their toughest challenge of the year in Tennessee’s duo of star junior receivers, Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers. Hunter will be set to make his first appearance since tearing his ACL against Florida in September of 2011. The rising junior has an astonishing 22.1 yards-per-catch average in his short career. Rogers finished No. 2 in the SEC in receiving in 2011 with 67 catches for 1,040 yards despite playing with three different starting quarterbacks.
3. Tennessee run game vs. NC State linebackers
These units represent one of the biggest question marks for each team. The Vols will be looking to fix a rushing offense that finished No. 116 in the nation in yards per game with 90.1 per contest. Running backs Devrin Young, Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane will compete to be the starting back behind an offensive line that struggled to get push in the run game in 2011. Despite their struggles, there is optimism. Every starter and key reserve will return in 2012 and sophomore Antonio ‘Tiny’ Richardson, a 330-pound tackle that was a top recruit coming out of high school, is expected to be inserted into the starting lineup.
The Wolfpack expected to have two solid starters back at linebacker in 2012, but those plans fell through. Junior Terrell Manning made an unexpected jump to the NFL draft. Meanwhile, D.J. Green, their most experienced linebacker left on the roster, was declared academically ineligible for 2012. Fifth-year senior Sterling Lucas will lead the rebuilding unit. He has appeared in 36 career contests, but the other five linebackers on their depth chart combine for just 57 career snaps.
How will it play out?
This is a close one. The Vols are eager to prove that 2011 was a result of injuries, a tough schedule and overall inexperience — all of which they hope are better in 2012. The Wolfpack will be hungry for a win over an SEC team and a chance for a special season
Both have some dynamic playmakers and some major question marks. The Vols hold the slight talent edge but could easily be knocked off by the Wolfpack in this neutral field opener. Look for a close game featuring plenty of offense and some first-game jitters.