RALEIGH, N.C. — Trying to underscore the importance of N.C. State’s season-opening game versus Tennessee on Friday night in Atlanta would be a fruitless venture. It’s big. Really big.
The Wolfpack under Tom O’Brien has had two previous chances to start seasons versus SEC teams, losing both times to South Carolina in games that saw NCSU generate a total of just 271 yards and three points.
But Friday should be different. If nothing else, the Pack should find the end zone, probably a few times, and it’s expected to emerge with a victory. But considering recent history with ACC teams playing big, early contests, nothing is a given. Especially success.
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O’Brien somewhat downplayed it during his weekly press conference Monday afternoon, but it was clear the sixth-year Wolfpack coach knows the significance of this game.
“Well, the first all isn’t the end all, but there are always special games,” he said about the early-season ACC/SEC matchups in the Georgia Dome. “This certainly is a special game because of the state and because of the opponent and because of conference affiliations. It’s a great opportunity for us.”
O’Brien emphasized the brand name of Tennessee and that it is second in victories in SEC history. That’s an easier sell to fire up his team than the recent reality of the Vols, who have gone 23-27 over the last four seasons. Add to it that UT has suffered a couple of recent injuries, further depleting its depth, and the suspension of wide receiver Da’Rick Rodgers, who may have been the best at his position in the SEC before trouble found him.
That N.C. State has one of the top secondaries in the nation, including arguably the top cornerback in David Amerson, who at 6-foot-3 and 194 pounds has Tennessee coach Derek Dooley’s attention.
“Long, athletic, instinctive with a play-making attitude,” Dooley said Monday about Amerson, who led the nation with 13 interceptions last fall. “He’s as good as there is out there at corner. And, it starts with height, weight and speed position skills, which he obviously has.
“But there’s also an intangible dynamic play-making attitude that usually the great ones in the back end have, and he’s got that.”
Another interesting caveat is that O’Brien coached Dooley when he was an assistant at Virginia in the 1980s. Dooley has done nothing but rave about the Wolfpack, though O’Brien has an easy explanation.
“That’s because I coached him and probably hollered at him,” he joked, “so he’s trying to be nice to me.”
Dooley doesn’t plan on being nice Friday night, and his team has one clear edge: Its massive indoor practice facility has helped it prepare for the noise that will envelop the players in the dome. N.C. State doesn’t have such an advantage, and will just have to wing it.
The Pack also had to practice at nearby Cardinal Gibbons High School to get used to playing on field turf. But football is football, and it shouldn’t take long for NCSU to adjust. After all, there’s a growing number of ACC schools playing on the fake stuff, including Boston College, Wake Forest and now Maryland.
Most important, however, will be blocking and tackling, and seeing if the Pack can finally get into a groove against a big, fast SEC defense. Looking at the big picture, can N.C. State give the ACC an early nudge toward national credibility?
This game is important to the entire conference, which O’Brien acknowledged. But for now, while the other 11 schools see it through that lens, don’t fault the coach and his team for being a bit self-centered.
“We do, but it’s down the road,” O’Brien said regarding their acknowledgement of the importance to the ACC. “We’re going to do this for ourselves first, for this football team. We’re going to play it for our university, our student body, faculty and out fans. Then the ACC falls in line after that.”