Just how much N. C. State missed Russell Wilson and its departed trio of rangy receivers (Williams, Spencer, and Davis) last year is most evident in how infrequently the team was able to break long plays from scrimmage. Mike Glennon does not possess the legs to turn lemons into lemonade and there was no one to take advantage of a size mismatch with a smallish corner to claim a deep jump ball. The Pack managed just 36 plays of 20+ yards on the season, a total that ranked 108th in the nation. The Wilson-led Pack of 2010 nearly doubled that total, going for 20+ 61 times (32nd in the nation). The Pack's third-down conversion rate was an identical 43.3% in each of the last two seasons, but they put nearly 4 more points per game on the board in 2010 thanks to that big-play ability. Clearly, it is harder to put points on the board when a team must convert numerous third downs and sustain long drives.
Unfortunately for the Pack, bending but not breaking seems to be the calling card of the UT defense, though it is difficult to predict how that unit will perform under a new coordinator. The Vols did not pressure the passer well last year (107th in sacks), they did not play particularly tough against the run (74th in opponents' yards per attempt), and they did not turn teams over all that often (91st in turnovers forced), yet they allowed a very respectable 22.6 points per game (36th in the country) against a tough schedule by doing one thing really well: limiting big plays. UT surrendered just 41 plays of 20+ yards, the 14th best mark in the 120-team FBS. That's approximately two less big plays per game than what State gave up and a big reason why State allowed more points per game despite showing better than the Vols in just about every other defensive metric. (The Pack yielded 24.7 points per game, 2.1 more than the Vols and 53rd in the country.)
If State's offense cannot find a way to break a big gain against UT, and if Justin Hunter, Da'Rick Rogers, or another of UT's talented athletes hits a home run or two against State's gambling defense, this could be one of those frustrating games where the Pack out possesses and even outgains an opponent but comes up short on the scoreboard. And if you have followed Pack football in recent years, you have seen that script play out one too many times already.
Third down will be a key barometer in the game, especially given the Pack's tendency toward incremental offense. The Pack has been in the top third among FBS squads three years running in offensive third down conversion rate, so the team is better than most at avoiding 3-and-outs and sustaining long marches, and that is something it will likely have to do to succeed on August 31st.
In recent years, third down has been an even better barometer for the success of the State defense. In most measurable ways, the Pack were better defensively in 2011 than in 2010, but last year's squad was merely average when it came to getting off the field on third down. Opponents converted 38.8% of third-down tries, putting the Pack 53rd in the nation. In 2010, the Pack did a remarkable job on third down, holding opponents to a 33.2% conversion rate, 7th best in the country. In 2011, State had a pretty average scoring defense, allowing 24.7 points per game (53rd). Lo and behold, 2010's inferior unit surrendered a more respectable 21.3 points per game, the 29th lowest total in the FBS. The difference? Third down. To win the kickoff classic, State will need to limit or eliminate big plays and get off the field when it has the chance to maximize possessions for that sometimes plodding offense.
Neither UT or N. C. State is likely to find itself ranked in preseason polls, which makes it interesting to look at how the respective teams have performed against unranked, non-conference FBS opponents in recent years. Tennessee is 4-1 under third-year coach Derek Dooley in such situations, while the Pack is just 7-7 with Tom O'Brien at the helm. However, the Pack are trending in the right direction, having gone 5-1 in their last 6 games against unranked FBS non-conference foes, including winning 3 straight. Much has been made about the Pack's sluggish ticket sales for the game, a development that could turn the Georgia Dome into a de facto home field for the Vols; nonetheless, let's look at how the teams have fared away from home and at neutral sites in recent seasons. Tennessee is just 2-8 (.200 winning percentage) away from the friendly confines of Neyland Stadium during Dooley's tenure, while State is a slightly more respectable 10-18 (.357) under TOB, including a nearly .500 mark of 6-7 over the past two seasons. Both teams clearly miss them some home cooking, and getting better away from home will be a key for both programs if they want to climb into the conference championship picture in their respective leagues.