KNOXVILLE - The preparation began with a little sneak peek all the way back in the spring.
Yet Tennessee's Volunteers have been thinking about their next game even longer than that.
They have had their collective minds on Friday night's opener against North Carolina State at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta throughout the offseason.
"The whole summer," cornerback Prentiss Waggner said Thursday after Tennessee's last practice, "the only thing we've been thinking about was Atlanta."
With the memory of what happened the last time Tennessee took the field still in the back of their minds, the Vols amped up their summer work and began studying the Wolfpack before going full-bore into game-planning last week. Instead of Western Kentucky, UT-Martin or Montana coming to Neyland Stadium for the opener, Tennessee is facing a experienced team with talent that finished last season strong.
As expected, that has given an edge to the Vols' offseason work.
Coach Derek Dooley believes it would have been like that anyway.
"I think that has more to do with the team," he said. "I think this team, no matter who we played, wouldn't have been much different just because of how things ended and how the offseason went. Does it give you a little more edge? Of course it does, but I think that's a team-to-team thing."
After all the offseason talk about everything from Dooley's job security to Tennessee's efforts to improve its ability to run the football and its new defense, the Vols finally get a chance to let their play do the talking.
But they know it will not be a walk in the park.
"I think N.C. State could blend right in in our league and be able to whip anybody in our league," Dooley said sternly. "We look at them and see great athletes on the perimeter, a lot of [NFL] draft picks. We see a hard-nosed, physical, tough football team."
The Wolfpack's secondary has caught Dooley's attention more than anything. In addition to 6-foot-3, 194-pound cornerback and 2011 interceptions leader David Amerson, N.C. State has "probably three or four NFL draft guys," Dooley said. The Wolfpack were 31st nationally in pass-efficiency defense, first nationally in interceptions and sixth in the country in turnover margin.
"They make you pay for an inaccurate throw, they make you pay for a mistake and they set you up," Dooley continued. "They can recover and make a play on a ball that most people can't. They want to get you in third-and-long and start doing a lot of stuff to create confusion, [bring] a little pressure, and those DBs are back there waiting on you to make a mistake."
Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray already knows what it'll take against N.C. State's top unit.
"Staying patient, taking my checkdowns, not trying to force the ball down the field," he said. "We've been watching a lot of N.C. State. We've been going and breaking everything down. Pretty much we've watched every clip."
It's the same story for Tennessee's defense, as players have thrown in N.C. State video to break up reviewing themselves as they learn a new scheme. The Wolfpack's attack features a 3,000-yard passer in senior quarterback Mike Glennon and an offensive line with four returning starters and 99 projected career starts combined. N.C. State averaged 41 points per game in its season-ending three-game win streak.
Waggner said first-year coordinator Sal Sunseri introduced the Wolfpack "a little bit here and there" back in the spring.
"It's continued a lot," linebacker Herman Lathers added. "We've been watching film since January, trying to prepare and trying to be on point of what they're going to do to you - how to adjust and the timing and spacing on everything. It's a lot of stuff they're going to throw at us, and I think we're well-prepared for it.
"They trade and shift about three times in one play, and they do it almost every play."
The Vols believe it'll be a challenge, but it's one they've been anticipating and one they prefer to begin what they believe will be a breakout season.
"I kind of like the first game [being] how it is, because we can't sit back at all," receiver Zach Rogers said. "We can't lay on our heels. We've got to be ready to go and ready to fight from the first game and the first snap."