ATLANTA — So this is what a Tennessee football team can look like under Derek Dooley when healthy, happy and blessed with a coaching staff that mirrors its head coach's desire to attack rather than react.
It can look like this: Tennessee 35, North Carolina State 21.
This wasn't some directional school answering to Southeastern North Dakota Western from college football's hinterlands that the Big Orange beat inside a Georgia Dome where it had lost six straight times.
This was a team picked no worse than fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference. A team that counted 13 seniors among its starters. A team that boasted an all-world secondary. A team whose quarterback, Mike Glennon, is a graduate student expected to graduate his 6-foot-6, 232-pound frame to the NFL next season.
Well, that all-world secondary gave up more than 300 passing yards and that quarterback was picked off four times, sacked once and hurried at least six times that often.
And while N.C. State certainly is to be commended for hanging around after falling behind 22-7 in the opening quarter, this game might have been far more one-sided than it was if UT quarterback Tyler Bray had been granted the touchdown he maybe/probably scored right before halftime.
Instead, the officials ruled both on the field and through a replay that Bray had fumbled a millisecond before the point of the football crossed the goal, which meant the Volunteers led 22-14 at the break instead of 29-14.
Still, this never felt like a close affair. It felt as though the Vols were the better bunch from the outset, and certainly by a much more commanding measure than the 3.5 or so points they were favored by at opening kickoff.
Cynics may justifiably question what this really means against an ACC team ranked outside the Top 25.
And the Vols did allow two rushing touchdowns without touching the ball carrier. Early on, Sal Sunseri's aggressive defense gave up big-yardage completions. But it also forced turnovers and negative yards and at least a few dropped balls that appeared to be as much the result of the Vols' physical play as imperfect throws.
Perhaps this was Dooley's plan all along last winter as seven coaches left his staff. Perhaps he preferred it that way. He had been forced to cobble together his assistants on extremely short notice in the winter of 2010.
He had largely kept that group intact through last fall. But whether it was the fault of the players, the lack of chemistry Dooley felt with those coaches -- or the basic belief that after 14 losses in his first 25 games running the Vols, any change was better than no change -- something wasn't working.
Friday night, it all worked better than it had at almost any time in Dooley's first two seasons.
Just look to Bray, who reportedly couldn't hit a dumpster with a beer bottle from his apartment balcony a month ago. Against the Pack he completed 27 of 41 for 333 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions.
And it took him less than four minutes to make his presence felt, lofting a perfect strike toward the left end zone from 41 yards out to Cordarrelle Patterson, who beat that vaunted N.C. State secondary by a full 2 yards.
Then, following a safety, Patterson struck again on a reverse that covered 67 yards with 29 seconds left in the opening period.
To put that 22-point opening quarter in perspective, that was more points than Dooley teams had scored over four quarters in 11 of the 25 UT games he'd coached before this one.
This isn't to say the Big Orange Nation should start dreaming about meeting Lane Kiffin's Southern Cal Trojans in the BCS title game, exciting as that might be.
But to listen to Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien, the Vols sound like a contender.
"It boiled down to two things," he said. "Too many big plays and too many turnovers."
And that's what Dooley wanted when he brought Sal Sunseri in from national champion Alabama to run his defense and Sam Pittman in to toughen a soft offensive line.
Yes, N.C. State gained 407 yards, but it didn't produce an overabundance of points. And the Vols' 524 offensive yards, including 191 on the ground, may be duplicated often the rest of the way.
Sounding much like a man who knows his future could suddenly turn as bright as his orange slacks, Dooley said, "We made a lot of mistakes we'll correct by game two."
Unlike years past, he could smile as he spoke.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...