Getting warmer this season: Dooley's team or his seat?
Given that it's not even a six-hour drive from Raleigh to Knoxville, it's a little bit surprising to find out that Tennessee and N.C. State haven't played each other in 73 years -- and that once they once they break that interregnum, they will do so in Atlanta. It's also a surprise, given that the two teams boast a combined 27 conference titles, that they meet at a crossroads for both programs.
We don't need to belabor the problems that Tennessee faces, because they are familiar to most SEC fans by now: The roster attrition caused by having three head coaches in the space of three seasons; the seeming inability to consistently win in the SEC East as Georgia and then South Carolina became contenders; the immense pressure now facing the Vols to win now or watch Derek Dooley get fired.
N.C. State, meanwhile, has already been through its difficult period with Tom O'Brien. After going 16-21 in his first three seasons with the Wolfpack, O'Brien has put together a 17-9 run and gotten N.C. State into the postseason for two straight years. If there's time for him to put up or shut up in the always-hectic ACC, this season might be as good a time as any. (Though that could be difficult; they're in the relatively stacked Atlantic Division, also known as "the one with Clemson and Florida State.")
Then there are the questions on the field. Just how well will might the combination of Justin Hunter and Tyler Bray work against a defense that was one of the better teams in the ACC last year and returns seven starters? On a related note, how well will the Vols do after the abrupt departure of Da'Rick Rogers? (As for the N.C. State offense facing the Tennessee defense, it seems to be a matter of immovable object meeting unresisting force; both units were near the bottom of their respective conferences last year.)
On the other hand, it's difficult to take too much away from two teams meeting for the first time in more than 70 years when both are staring down a season that could define the arc of their program for years to come. Tennessee wins, by a deceptively large margin; defining what it means will become the hard part.
Tennessee 24, N.C. State 13