NC State has high expectations heading into 2012, and coach Tom O'Brien and his players are confident heading into the Chick-fil-A kickoff game on Friday night against Tennessee.
The contest will mark the Wolfpack's first neutral site season-opener since the 1992 Kickoff Classic, when they defeated No. 15 Iowa in East Rutherford, N.J. This tilt will also mark the Pack's third against an SEC opponent in the last five seasons - the pervious two came against South Carolina, in 2008 and 2009.
Here are the Keys to the game:
NC State bottles up the Tennessee passing attack, specifically Justin Hunter
This is an exciting matchup of Tennessee's explosive aerial attack against NC State's experienced and loaded secondary that all college football fans and NFL scouts should be looking forward to. It's strength-on-strength, and two potential All-Americans will battle it when the Pack's star junior cornerback David Amerson lines up across from UT junior Justin Hunter, who tore his ACL in the third game last season but had already racked up 314 yards and two scores through the air.
Amerson checks in at 6-foot-3 and 194 pounds, while Hunter, a prep track star, is listed at 6-4 and 200 pounds. UT has a terrific trigger man in Tyler Bray, a potential first-round draft pick, and top JuCo transfer Cordarrelle Patterson, a 6-3, 205-pounder, opposite of Hunter.
However, there is an imposing secondary waiting to matchup with them. Safeties Brandan Bishop, a 6-2, 205 pound veteran of 33 starts with nine career interceptions, and Earl Wolff, a 6-foot, 207 pound All-ACC preseason selection with 30 starts under his belt. Meanwhile, 6-3, 196 pound cornerback Dontae Johnson emerged as a play-maker down the stretch last season and beat out returning starter C.J. Wilson for the job, according to coach Tom O'Brien, although Wilson is currently out with an NCAA eligibility issue.
The Wolfpack linebackers do their jobs
The NC State linebacking corps have produced some great college defenders in recent years, including Nate Irving, Terrell Manning and Audie Cole - who are all currently in the NFL - but they probably don't have that elite defender in the middle of the defense this year.
Redshirt junior Rickey Dowdy, the starter on the weakside, sophomore Brandon Pittman, who will open the game on the strongside, or even one of the reserves could emerge as a playmaker, but the aforementioned trio set a very high standard.
However, NC State, with its experienced and talented secondary, coupled with a deep defensive line full of emerging players, does not need its linebacks to be stars. They need their group in the middle to play smart, solid defense and do their jobs. O'Brien is counting on the experienced coaching duo of defensive coordinator Mike Archer and linebackers coach Jon Tenuta to bring along the group, which boasts a total of 24 snaps on the defensive side of the ball in 2011 and also features fifth-year senior captain Sterling Lucas after a knee injury forced him to miss last fall.
The offense gets off to a good start
NC State has not beaten an FBS opponent in the season opener since a 34-14 victory over New Mexico on Aug. 24, 2002. It's a fairly even match-up against the Volunteers, but their cause will be greatly aided by getting off to a good start.
In their previous two contests against SEC squads in season openers, the Pack has put up a total of three points. However, this State squad is much different than the 2009 edition that fell to South Carolina, 7-3, and they'll have their chance to prove they can hang with UT's revamped defense on Friday.
The Red and White's wide receiving corps is inexperienced outside of fifth-year senior Tobais Palmer, who notched seven starts and ranked second on the 2011 squad with 496 receiving yards in his first year of competition at the FBS level, but redshirt sophomore Bryan Underwood will be a game-time decision and the tight ends and running backs will also have a hand in the passing attack. This is quarterback Mike Glennon's first chance to shine on the national stage.
The offensive line lives up to their experience
The Wolfpack's offensive front returns a grand total of 112 combined starts and features four starters in their last year of eligibility, while the other is Rob Crisp, a former five-star recruit who is now a junior stepping into the role of protecting Glennon's blind side.
Although the group is experienced and full of upperclassmen, the trio surrounding center Camden Wentz and right guard Zach Allen, who have started every game in the past two years, are all playing new positions. Crisp started the first game of his true freshman season at left tackle, but hasn't since - he played in every game and started twice at right tackle last year.
Left guard R.J. Mattes, a veteran of 30 starts, is playing his fourth position up front in his fifth year, while classmate Andrew Wallace, a veteran of 14 starts and 26 games, will line up at right tackle, but he missed a lot of the 2011 season with an ACL reconstruction after starting every regular season game of 2010 at left guard before suffering a knee injury before the Champs Sports Bowl.
Keeping the starting quarterback upright and healthy is always important, but that job is of ultimate importance with true freshman Manny Stocker, despite high praise from the coaching staff, backing up Glennon.
Matchups to watch
Tennessee wide receiver Justin Hunter vs. NC State cornerback David Amerson: This is a matchup of two near surefire first-round draft picks in the 2013 NFL Draft. ESPN's Mel Kiper, Jr. ranks Amerson No. 7 on his first big board of the top prospects available next spring, while Hunter is not far behind at No. 11.
The NC State secondary vs. Tennessee passing attack match-up as a whole will be interesting to watch, but this is individual competition deserves marquee billing. Two other things to watch are if the Pack's All-American trails Hunter around the field, and how much (or little) the Vols decide to test Amerson.
Tennessee offensive line vs. NC State's defensive line: The UT offensive front is HUGE , with an average among the starters of 6-foot-5 and 319.2 pounds, and experienced, with an average of 16.4 games started among the top fivesome. The smallest of the group is James Stone, their 6-3, 310 pound center.
There are also a pair of experienced 300-pound guards on the bench, who have combined for 17 starts, and the crew allowed just 18 sacks last year. However, the same group was not very successful on the ground, with an average of 2.8 yards per rush.
If the Pack's defensive linemen are nearly as deep and talented, particularly at end, as the coaching staff believes, they should be able to make some plays. The advantage for UT might come on the inside, where their threesome of mammoths have combined for 57 games started, a much higher number than the Pack's starting defensive tackles. The Red and White's Thomas Teal and T.Y. McGill have opened one game apiece, while backups Deylan Buntyn and Carlos Gray are appearing in their first games at the FBS level.
Stats to watch
3: Three or more turnovers is the key for NC State - it was last season, and probably will be again this year. The team was undefeated 8-0 when forcing at least that many, while it was 0-5 when forcing two or less.
38: Sacks by the Wolfpack last year, and that is another of the most important statistics to watch. The Pack defense can give up yards, and probably will, but that's fine provided they make the big plays their defensive success relies upon - sacks and turnovers. This is a match-up of what should be two explosive offenses, so it might come down to which defense has the better day. The Pack defense is obviously most successful when it pressures the quarterback.