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Vols prove down-ticket teams are good in SEC

Tyler Bray, Cordarrelle Patterson shine as Vols' record 528 yards in season-opening win over Wolfpack.

ATLANTA — Even among second-tier teams, the SEC leads the competition.
   
The Chick-Fil-A Kickoff game pitting Tennessee against North Carolina State illustrated that fact with perfect clarity.
 
The Vols won 35-21 but it could have been a lot more one-sided. Tennessee put up 22 points in the first quarter, 16 of those coming in three consecutive plays from scrimmage that spanned 38 seconds. The defense scored the first safety of the 2012 college season, and Tyler Bray looked like a first-team All American, pitching and catching with Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson and Zach Rogers for 333 yards.
 
Patterson, a juco transfer playing his first game as a Vol, scampered for 67 yards on a reverse for one Tennessee touchdown and caught a 41-yard bullet from Bray to open the scoring. Rogers gave the Vols the lead for good with a 72-yard scoring bomb.
 
The Wolfpack scraped and clawed to keep it close, but the size of the Tennessee linemen proved too much in the end.  Volunteer nose tackle Daniel McCullers, at 6-feet-6, 377 pounds, is just slightly smaller than the Kia Sol sponsors gave away to a fan in the fourth quarter. He and the other linemen and linebackers kept pounding away, eventually creating four turnovers.
    
"I've always said that the difference between winning and losing is turnover ratio and big plays and we had both," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said.
 
But as good as Tennessee looked — and viewed in the vacuum of this game, the Volunteers looked awfully good — it is still at best a second-, third-, or fourth-place team in the SEC.  

In fact, neither the Vols nor the Wolfpack is expected to win their conference. N.C. State should, charitably, finish behind Florida State, Clemson, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech in the ACC, while the Vols would be thrilled to be mentioned the same sentence with Alabama and LSU.
 
And therein lies the rub for teams like Tennessee as well as those from other conferences who play them.
 
With the offensive weapons they have and the size and speed of their linemen, the Vols, like many down-ticket SEC teams, could contend for a title in most conferences, at least until late in the season.
 
In the SEC, they are many more wins away from entering the conversation.
 
As for teams from other conferences, the problem is obvious: The best in the SEC is the best in the country, but the second-tier teams are no slouches. That doesn't get showcased often enough as Georgia and Florida schedule Buffalo and Bowling Green for their openers. Alabama is the lone exception, opening with a ranked team almost every year and taking on No. 8 Michigan on Saturday.
 
Tennessee is an example of a solid team that would win somewhere between nine and 11 games in a conference other than the SEC. With Bray and his big, fast receiving corps reeled off 79 offensive plays for 524 total yards. This without last year's leading receiver Da'Rick Rogers.
 
"If they'd had that kid, holy cow, that would have been some weapons," N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien said.
 
But Dooley knows where he stands in his own league. He articulates it in his own imitable way, but he knows.
 
"This is one game, one," he said, raising a single finger to make the point. "We are 1-0 and made a lot of mistakes.  We had third-and-one and fourth-and-one and we didn't convert.
 
"I already know that you guys are going to say ‘We're there, we're on our way,'" Dooley said. "All that matters is that we are 1-0 and we have to clean up a ton of mistakes and get ready for the next opponent. We're not going to sit here and pat ourselves on the back. It was a good win, but we've got 11 more and a lot of things to work on."
 
The Vols have their Buffalo next week when they play Georgia State University, a team still in its infancy formed and coached by Bill Curry. By all rights they should be 2-0 before hosting Florida.
 
After that, the weeks get long and grueling.
 
But as Dooley said, "We're happy to have a win. That is a good N.C. State team."  
O'Brien, for all his disappointment at leaving Atlanta 0-1, would have agreed with that assessment.
 
"We just didn't play good enough," the Wolfpack coach said.
 
Unfortunately, when playing against the SEC, very few do.