It has been 73 years since the University of Tennessee and North Carolina State have squared off on the gridiron. This game, however, could go a long way in defining both football programs for the immediate future.
The University of Tennessee is looking to swing the momentum back in their favor for the first time since Justin Hunter went down with a knee injury against Florida in week three of the 2011 season.
Since that time, the Vols are 3-7 with two of those wins against Buffalo and Middle Tennessee State.
The Wolfpack, on the other hand, finished their final eight games of the season with a record of 6-2. In those six wins they had a blowout win over then-No. 8 ranked Clemson 37-13 and a win over Louisville in the Belk Bowl.
The Wolfpack and Volunteers finished the 2011 season in vastly different ways but the ACC is still 0-3 against the SEC in the the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game.
Senior quarterback Mike Glennon will lead the dangerous Wolfpack offense. Last season, Glennon's first as a starter, he threw for 3,054 yards and 31 touchdowns. He will lead an offense that features talent and experience at several positions but none greater than their offensive line. The Wolfpack returns four of their five starters from last season and welcomes senior tackle Andrew Wallace back from injury.
On defense the Wolfpack will bring into this game the best secondary in the ACC anchored by cornerback David Amerson and safety Earl Wolff. If the Vols are going to expose the North Carolina State defense it will be at the linebacker position.
The Vols offense took a major hit this week with the departure of All-SEC wide receiver Da'rick Rogers. However, there is still a ton of talent at the wideout position with Justin Hunter and junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson.
In my opinion, Hunter will be the SEC's top deep-ball threat and Patterson is as good of a JUCO wide receiver as I have seen in the last five years. However, Rogers was the more physical receiver who could go over the middle and make the tough catch.
The matchup to watch, of course, will be Tyler Bray versus the Wolfpack secondary. Even though Bray will be a third-year starter, he has still not won a game outside of the state of Tennessee. Although he has great physical tools, he has not shown the mental toughness and composure needed in a starting quarterback. Will he evolve into that player this season?
Tennessee should be drastically improved on the offensive line but running back is still a major question. Raijon Neal will try to boost an anemic rushing attack that only averaged 2.8 yards per carry and 1,081 total rushing yards.
Neal only had 269 yards receiving and 134 yards rushing in limited action last season but has been impressive in the fall practices. In the Vols first two scrimmages of the season, he rushed for 181 yards on 17 carries (10.7 YPC), including a 68-yard touchdown.
Perhaps the biggest question for the Vols in 2012 will be how they respond to their new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri and his 3-4 scheme. The Vols are unlikely to run a full 3-4 scheme because of the lack of linebacker depth. This is not uncommon for teams when they change to this scheme.
Tennessee has talent on the defensive side of the football but Sunseri is an unproven commodity as a defensive coordinator. He only has three seasons on his resume as a defensive coordinator, both at small universities (Alabama A&M, Illinois State). Is he as good as most believe? Time will tell.
Who wins this game?
I will not pretend to be neutral on my preference—I want the Vols to win. However, with so many question marks, my paperwork tells me to go with North Carolina State. I believe Bray can make the big plays and Dooley can make the proper adjustments but that has not been proven yet.
Until that time, I have to believe the Wolfpack pull off the victory with a late field goal because of a Vols turnover. Tennessee is the more talented team but North Carolina State is the more proven team. Perhaps the Vols will change that on Friday.
Prediction: NCST 31 Tennessee 28
Stat Line: Tennessee: 3 turnovers