By Frank Gale
The 2012 season is here Vol fans — ready or not. It all gets started tonight inside the Georgia Dome. The Vols will have some 30,000 members of the Big Orange Nation on hand to welcome in a season that has more questions than answers. Although the outcome tonight against North Carolina State will not make or break the entire season, a win would go a long way to bolster the confidence of both the team and an apprehensive fan base.
The positive of having Tyler Bray and Justin Hunter back on the field together was dampened a bit with last week’s suspension and subsequent transfer of Da’Rick Rogers to Tennessee Tech.
Hunter is a quality receiver but most likely will see a lot of double coverage for the foreseeable future. Having Rogers on the field with him last year allowed Hunter to make an instant impact before the injury shortened his season.
The questions go way beyond wide receivers Hunter and junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson, who is playing his first major college game. Will the influence of new offensive line coach Sam Pittman and running back coach Jay Graham improve what only can be described as a dismal run game last year?
The Wolfpack defense will have more than just an improved ground attack to worry about tonight. Tennessee’s versatile backs can create significant match up problems as pass receivers in this high powered offense. The team that runs the ball well and wins the war in the trenches usually comes away with a “W." Tonight, Tennessee fans expect that to be the team in Orange.
The defense will be playing their first contest under new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri and will have their own set of unknowns entering this game. A new defensive scheme and integrating new players into a solid returning core of defenders certainly will have everyone’s attention.
This game could come down to a group of special team players that have been anything, but special the past few years. The reports from practices and scrimmages have been encouraging as kicker Michael Palardy, at least in the pre season, has shown improved accuracy.
The special teams could very well be the deciding factor in this opening game. The Vols plan to utilize Patterson’s speed on special teams tonight. It sure has been a long time since Tennessee returned a kick for a score. Could this be the night?
Last season, the Vols outscored their opponents 160-76 in the first half of games and had a complete reversal after halftime being outscored 161-111. For the Vols to reach their full potential this season, this will have to change. Improved depth should help to reverse the second half woes for the Vols.
The Vols put an undefeated streak of games played in August (6-0-1) on the line tonight. The last time they played on a Friday during the regular season was 73 years ago against, ironically, NC State. The Vols prevailed that day 13-0.
The game tonight will be a colorful affair, in the stands and on the field, with both teams donning their respective home jerseys. Rumor has it that the Wolfpack could resemble giant tomatoes by wearing all red. Be sure and tune into ESPNU starting at 6:30 p.m. CST to catch all the action.
There are so many questions going into this season opener but, ready or not, some of the answers will start to unfold in just a few short hours. The Vols success tonight and going forward hinges on how they respond to these unknowns. With that in mind, look for the Vols to feed off the large contingent representing the Big Orange Nation and run the Pack back to Carolina with "Rocky Top" ringing in their ears. Go Vols!
(Frank Gale is a Chronicle correspondent and his column appears regularly.)