North Carolina State may not contend for the national title this season but the Wolfpack has a lot stronger pulse than recent Game 1 foes Western Kentucky (63-7 loser in 2009), UT Martin (50-0 loser in 2010) and Montana (42-16 loser in 2011).
Simply put, this isn't one of those openers the Big Orange can win just by showing up for The Opening kickoff. Realizing as much, the Vols say they feel an added sense of urgency as the season approaches.
"The first game is usually kind of a tuneup game to see where everything is," senior wide receiver Zach Rogers said. "Not this year. These guys are exceptional talents, so we've got our work cut out for us.
"They're a great program, have a great secondary for us wide receivers, so it should be a great matchup. We're working really hard."
Junior offensive tackle JaWuan James echoed those sentiments, noting: "There's a little extra urgency. We're going to go out here and work hard for camp. The season is right around the corner, so we've got to be ready."
Junior receiver Justin Hunter also admits feeling a little added excitement as the Vols prepare for a capable Game 1 foe.
"It's good to have some competition in the opening game, especially playing in a big atmosphere like The Georgia Dome," he said. "Everyone's going to be excited for it. We're going to be ready to play."
Knowing your opening foe is a solid team should make players more intense in preseason preparations. That certainly appears to be the case for most Volunteers.
|Wide receiver Justin Hunter has a tremendous amount of confidence in the 2012 Volunteers.|
Asked if his teammates feel the same way, Rivera nodded emphatically.
"Oh, yeah. Definitely," he said. "It's really good. You always want to take things one game at a time, and nobody's looking past North Carolina State."
Senior cornerback Prentiss Waggner says the Vols are pumped about facing a quality team like the Wolfpack in a high-profile venue like The Georgia Dome.
"It's a lot of urgency on the team," he said. "We know N.C. State's a good team. And playing in Atlanta, a lot of guys are hyped up about that. The sense of urgency on the team right now is real high. We know we've got to hit the ground running and keep on running."
Coming off a 5-7 record in 2011, several Vols say they have something to prove in the 2012 opener, no matter who the opponent might be.
"We want to come out and play our type of ball," senior offensive tackle Dallas Thomas said. "We want to come out, hit 'em in the mouth, do what we're taught the way we're coached to do it."
With his team coming off a humiliating loss to Kentucky in the 2011 finale, head coach Derek Dooley believes the Vols would be fired up for the 2012 opener, whether the opponent was North Carolina State or The Sisters of the Poor.
"I think this team, no matter who we play, it wouldn't have been much different," he said. "That's 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."
Sophomore safety Brian Randolph touched on the same theme.
"Right now I don't think it matters who we play," he said. "We just want to get out there and show people that we're not going to be the Tennessee team that's losing this year. A lot of polls have us behind Missouri and stuff. We're here to prove 'em wrong."
Perhaps. But you don't prove the pollsters wrong by waxing Western Kentucky or UT-Martin or Montana. You prove them wrong by beating a team that is good enough to beat you ... a team like North Carolina State. Right?
"I don't think nobody can beat us," Hunter said. "I can't go into the season thinking anybody can beat us. We're good. We have a lot of weapons on offense, and we can score at will if we want to."
Senior linebacker Herman Lathers returned to practice midway through this week. See what he said about his status and other items concerning the Vols in the video below:
Tennessee released its depth chart this week, and it has Waggner slated to start at cornerback. Hear the fifth-year veteran's response to that news plus more in this footage: