July 23, 2012; Greensboro, NC, USA; North Carolina State Wolfpack head coach Tom O'Brien talks to reporters during the ACC media day at the Grandover Resort in Greensboro NC. Credit: Sam Sharpe-US PRESSWIRE
The prevailing attitude that the Wolfpack under Tom O'Brien get off to a slow start each year followed by a mad rally to bowl eligibility (or a win short of it) is based partially in fact, but a look at his coaching tenure as a whole shows that September is TOB's month. State's early-season struggles mirror the program's overall struggles under the former BC coach, but TOB struggled early at BC too. Once he got the program on firm footing, the former marine rattled off 8 or 9-win seasons in 7 of his last 8 campaigns in Chestnut Hill. After back-to-back seasons of 8+ wins, hopefully the Pack is poised for a long run of sustained success, and the notion that the Pack always gets off to a slow start will be buried in the annals of history along with the 3 consecutive 7-loss seasons that began TOB's stay in Raleigh.
In August and September, State is 12-10 under TOB for a .545 winning percentage; for the rest of season, State is just 21-20 (.512). State started 3-1 in 2009 before an injury-riddled total collapse doomed its season (not unlike what UT experienced last year). In 2010, State was 4-0 out of the gates. True, TOB's State squads were better once October rolled around in his first two seasons and again last year, but there is just not enough of a consistent pattern or a large enough sample for State fans to fret about TOB not having his club ready for August 31st's Homophobic-Fil-A Kickoff Classic.
If we examine TOB's career as a whole, we should actually expect the opposite of the conventional wisdom. During his last 8 years up north, BC was 24-9 in August and September; that's a whopping winning percentage of .727, a mark better than the career winning percentages of Les Miles, Steve Spurrier, Vince Dooley, and, to name a few. As those 3 consecutive 7-loss seasons show, it took TOB a little longer than hoped to get things rolling in Raleigh, but if the ship is indeed righted, State fans should expect strong starts for the foreseeable future.
But what can we expect from Tennessee? With just 5 years as a head coach and only two at UT, Derek Dooley does not exactly have an extensive track record to examine, but Dooley-coached squads are 4-1 in season openers. However, only one of those wins came against an FBS opponent, and overall none of Dooley's teams have been particularly strong during any stretch of the season. He's 9-9 in August and September and only 19-25 (.432) thereafter, with just one winning season to his credit. It is probably a good thing that Vince is his dad, as that is really the only explanation for how he got the UT gig after going 17-20 at La. Tech.
While examining teams' early-season results makes for interesting conjecture, the past does not always help us predict the future. Especially in the case of Tennessee, the most important record is probably this: 9-4. That's UT's mark when Tyler Bray starts or at least attempts the majority of passes for the Vols (in 2010 he shared QB duties with Matt Simms for part of the season). With a healthy Bray, Dooley should have the Vols ready to take a big step forward in 2012. And they better, or 2012 will likely be his last season in Knoxville. But, now that TOB has had 5 years to stabilize the program, State's tendency to start slow, whether real or imagined, should be a thing of the past.
The tighter the microscope is focused on this game, the harder it becomes to declare a clear favorite, so fans of both schools should expect to chew their nails down to the quick as this game goes down to the wire on August 31st. But if State fans really need to find a negative to harp on after so many years of futility in revenue sports, there is this: the last time the Pack faced an SEC opponent in August to open the season Russell Wilson got concussed and South Carolina won a laugher, 34-0.