Aug. 31: NC State vs. Tennessee in Atlanta
Kickoff time: 7:30 p.m.
Location: Atlanta, Ga.
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Team overview: NC State hasn't had much success against SEC foes, with an all-time record of 38-55-6 against the league. The Wolfpack hasn't had much success against the league in season openers, either, with an 0-2 mark in that category (vs. South Carolina in 2008, 09).
This tilt with the Volunteers, who were a misleading 5-7 last year, will be no walk in the park, either. Quarterback Tyler Bray is being touted as a future first-round draft pick and has one of the top wide receiving corps in the country, featuring Da'Rick Rogers (1,040 yards, 9 TD in 2011), Justin Hunter (9 TD in 16 career games) and transfer Cordarrelle Patterson, one of the top JuCos from last fall; all three stand at least 6-foot-3.
The signal caller has already broken two of Peyton Manning's school records (10 straight games with at least two passing touchdowns and 1,328 passing yards in first four games of a season) and he began his career with 300 yards through the air in five of his first seven starts. However, he's also been prone to inaccurate throws - he completed 57.7 percent of his throws last year and averages one interception per game in his career - as well as mental lapses and injuries, and there is no proven running back to help take the pressure off the junior.
The offensive line is stout in the passing game, as well. The fivesome up front is huge, and only allowed 18 sacks last year. Only one protector on the spring's two-deep checks in under 300 pounds, and the projected starters' average size is 6-4.8 and 314.4 pounds, but the group must do better than last year's paltry 2.76 rushing yards per attempt.
The offense will undoubtedly be the Vols' strong point in the third year under coach Derek Dooley, but major questions arise on the other side of the ball, where new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri, most recently of Alabama, will install a 3-4 alignment. The defense certainly needs to make more plays than last year, when they tallied just nine interceptions and allowed 4.4 yards per rush while opponents averaged 12.0 yards per reception.
The defense has a few stars, led by junior defensive lineman Jacques Smith, who tallied eight tackles for loss last year, and a pair of linebackers who accomplished the rare task of starting for the Vols as true freshmen in consensus freshman All-America A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt. Senior Prentiss Waggner leads the secondary after he totaled two interceptions and two sacks last year, but the Vols could really benefit from him regaining his 2010 form, when he hauled in five interceptions.
UT was ranked in the top 25 poll at some point during every season from 1985-2008, but haven't cracked the rankings since then. This is a crucial year for Dooley and the program with the opener against NC State the most important out of league contest of the year. The offense is reminiscent of a top 25 unit, but a lot will depend on the defense's performance if the squad wants to break the streak of two straight losing seasons, and three in the last four years. Returning 19 starters, which is ranked as the second-most in the country, will help the Vols greatly.
Why NC State can win: It's a case of strength vs. strength, and one that all college football fans should be looking forward to, when one of the best receiving corps in the land faces off with one of the nation's top group of defensive backs. Tennessee likes to spread the field with a lot of receivers, so the Wolfpack will need more than just its top four members of the secondary playing well.
Should the Tennessee passing attack be cancelled out by the opportunistic pass defense of the Pack, State should have a clear edge on the offensive side of the ball, as the Vols will be playing their first game in their new defense. This could be a high scoring affair where NCSU needs just a few stops on defense to pull away from their competition.
Why NC State can lose: NC State has not played well in the beginning of the year under coach Tom O'Brien. They haven't been that successful on the road, either. In the coach's five years, the Pack has gone 12-10 in September (including August games, when applicable), and just 3-9 against teams from fellow BCS leagues, to go along with a 10-18 showing away from home in the O'Brien era.
A neutral site season opener on the national stage could magnify those two problems the team has experienced in the past five years. The Tennessee offense will score, no matter how good the State secondary is, and, if a receiver or two doesn't emerge from Glennon's inexperienced group of pass catchers, it could be a long day of playing catch-up in Atlanta for the Red and White.
Sept. 8: NC State at Connecticut
Kickoff time: 12 p.m.
Location: Storrs, Conn.
Team overview: There are a lot of questions under center for the Huskies, but the good news is that whoever wins what looks to be a wide-open competition will have running back Lyle McCombs to lean on. The diminutive speedster (5-8, 166) came out of nowhere to rush for 1,151 yards and seven touchdowns as a redshirt freshman in what was an otherwise disappointing year under first-year coach Paul Pasqualoni. McCombs was named Big East Rookie of the Year, second-team all-conference and earned a spot on the FWAA Freshman All-America team.
The winner of the quarterback battle royale - JuCo transfer Chandler Whitmer seems to be the favorite out of the five possibilities - will also return the top tight end in the Big East in senior Ryan Griffin, a 6-6, 247-pounder who totaled 33 catches for 499 yards and three scores while he was named second-team All-Big East last year. However, the Huskies will have to replace 2011's top two receivers, as well as both all-conference selections along a front line that quite frankly underperformed last year.
The defense should be in better shape with eight starters returning, including all three linebackers. Seniors Jesse Joseph and Trevardo Williams give the squad a nice bookend combination on the defensive line and they return five of last year's top eight, although they must replace both of 2011's starting tackles. Joseph had 8.5 sacks in 2010, but just one last fall, while Williams tallied 12.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss last year en route to All-Big East second-team laurels. Williams ranked second in the country with 1.04 sacks per game in 2011, and he has 19 career sacks, and will lead a front size that allowed just 2.7 yards per rush last year.
The linebackers are led by Apex, N.C., native and resident playmaker Sio Moore, who finished second in the Big East with 16 tackles for loss last year, in addition to 86 tackles, 6.5 sacks, three interceptions, two forced fumbles and six pass breakups. Moore was third on the team in stops last year, and last year's top two also return in Jory Johnson (97, including seven for loss, and two interceptions) and Yawin Smallwood (94).
The secondary is also experienced and returns a lot of impact players from a year ago. Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Dwayne Gratz and Ty-Meer Brown are all returning starters, and the trio combined for eight interceptions and 18 pass deflections, while projected starter Byron Jones added a pair of picks and four more pass breakups in his first year of eligibility.
The defense should improve on last year's 366.7 yards allowed per game and if they can find a quarterback to get the job done, UConn will likely be bowling. They notched at least eight wins every year in the four years prior to last year's debut under Pasqualoni and while that number may be a little high for this group, expect a return to the postseason, thanks to a manageable schedule.
Why NC State can win: This is a game NC State should win, but the Pack hasn't always taken care of business in these situations, especially when playing on the road. However, UConn has a lot of question marks on the offensive side of the ball and the defense allows a lot of yards, while relying on turnovers and big plays to keep them in the game.
The Huskies were outgained by 111.1 yards per game in conference play last year while playing a pretty lackluster slate of out of conference opponents. NC State's offense, led by Mike Glennon's arm, should hit their stride in Storrs and the gap between the two offenses' production will be significant. NC State will limit the mistakes, the defense will bottle up McCombs and this will be a big road victory.
Why NC State can lose: As mentioned above, the UConn run defense was stout last year, and expects to be similarly good this year, with a playmaking front seven. If NC State gets off to a slow start in this contest like they sometimes do on the road and the opportunistic Huskies' defense is clicking, it could be some tough sledding for the Pack, especially if the inexperienced receivers aren't playing well.
On the offensive side of the ball, McCombs could take advantage of the new linebacking corps of NC State and wear down the front seven. If UConn gets a lead, they could grind this one out at home, where they have been very good over the past 10 years, with a record of 46-18.
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