Fair or unfair, when toe meets leather on Friday night in the Georgia Dome, there will be a lot on the line for Tennessee's Derek Dooley.
The third-year head coach of the Volunteers finds himself on the hottest seat in America, even though he lost his best wide receiver in Justin Hunter in Game 3 last season, and his star quarterback Tyler Bray missed five games with a broken thumb.
It's hard for any coach to succeed under those circumstances, especially one that's in charge of a team that was left in as big a mess as former head coach Lane Kiffin left the Vols in.
Tennessee is a three-point favorite over ACC foe N.C. State on Friday night according to the good folks at VegasInsider.com. This is a dangerous game for the Vols, and if they're not careful, they could walk away from the Georgia Dome with a loss.
Here are a few keys for the Vols to avoid a loss.
Get Wide Receiver Justin Hunter in the Mix Early
The loss of star wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers hurts, but it's the timing of his departure one week before the season that really hurts the Vols.
But the ace in the hole is Justin Hunter, who is probably Tennessee's best wide receiver anyway.
Hunter had 17 catches for 314 yards and two touchdowns in two-and-a-half games last season before tearing his ACL in Game 3 vs. Florida.
Hunter is back now, and Rogers' departure means that he's being counted on to be the unquestioned leader of Tennessee's ultra-talented wide receiving corps.
N.C. State's secondary is stout, so it's imperative that Bray gets Hunter back in the mix quickly because there won't be much of a feeling out period.
Stop the Run
New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri installed his new 3-4 defense this spring, and job No. 1 for his Vols is to make the Wolfpack one-dimensional.
N.C. State finished last season 11th in the ACC in rushing offense, with an average of just 104.85 yards per game.
Senior James Washington rushed for 897 yards and seven touchdowns last season, but he enters the game behind sophomore Tony Creecy on the Wolfpack depth chart.
Mike Glennon is a really good quarterback, but shutting down the running game with a solid defensive front and star linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt will make the Wolfpack one-dimensional, and one-dimensional teams are ripe for the picking.
Find a Running Game
Tennessee's offensive line can pass block, but it was a big reason why the Vols' rushing attack finished last in the SEC in 2011 with 90.08 yards per game—roughly 34 yards per game behind 11th-placed Kentucky.
The emergence of 6'6", 329-pound Antonio "Tiny" Richardson should help that veteran offensive line, but I'll believe in the revitalization of the Vols' offensive line when I see it.
Rajion Neal and Devrin Young will get the majority of the carries, but those two players combined for only 143 rushing yards last season.
It's strength vs. strength in the passing game when Tennessee has the ball, so the Vols' ability to make things happen on the ground will probably be determine the outcome of the game.
Be Strong in the Secondary
N.C. State quarterback Mike Glennon was solid down the stretch last season, throwing for more than 220 yards in each of his final four games, including 11 touchdowns and only three interceptions during that stretch.
Cornerbacks Prentiss Waggner and Justin Coleman and safeties Brian Randolph, Byron Moore and Brent Brewer will be tested.
A solid pass rush will certainly help, but the Vols' secondary needs to get some turnovers and put Bray, Hunter and the rest of the Vols' offense in good field position.
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