Daniel Hood on the beginning of the Vols' fall camp
Even as I write that, I'm well aware of the counterpoint. No matter what transpires in the first game, a team still could finish 11-1 or 1-11.
Teams have lost their first game and won a national championship. Teams have won their first game and lost everything else.
But there's more relevant history to consider when suggesting that it would be in the Vols' best interests (a euphemism for "must-win game") to win their season opener in the Georgia Dome.
Once the Vols lose an early season non-conference game, fame and glory rarely are waiting in the wings.
In 2010, they lost to Oregon in the second game. They finished 6-7.
In 2009, they lost to UCLA in the second game. They finished 7-6.
In 2008, they lost their opener to UCLA. They finished 5-7.
Still think the Aug. 31 game against N.C. State isn't a must-win game?
In the last 28 years, UT has lost an early season game to a non-conference opponent six times. Its record for those seasons is 41-34. Not once did it have fewer than four losses, and three times it had losing records.
Go back further and you will find similar results.
In the last 40 years, UT has lost an early game to a non-conference opponent 14 times. Only once did it lose fewer than four games (9-3 in 1983).
The correlation between non-conference losses and less than sensational seasons is hardly surprising for any SEC program. If you can't beat someone from outside the conference, how can you expect to flourish in a league as tough as this one?
A top-10 non-conference opponent would qualify as an exception. But only one of Tennessee's last six early-season, non-conference losses came to a top-10 teams; three of the six losses came to un-ranked opponents.
The flip side to UT's opener is more encouraging for its fans. In the last 25 years, early-season, non-conference games have sometimes served as turning points for the better.
Coming off a 5-6 season in 1988, UT overpowered sixth-ranked UCLA 24-6 in the second game of the 1989 season. The Vols were off and running to an 11-1 season.
After a 5-6 season in 2005, UT overwhelmed ninth-ranked Cal in the 2006 season opener. The Vols won eight more games that season and 10 in 2007.
Now, more than ever, the Vols need a pivotal victory. They have had three losing records in the last four seasons. They haven't won more than seven games since 2007.
They could lose to N.C. State and still have a turnaround season. But history tells us they won't.