If Da'Rick Rogers' suspension last week was a deflating letdown at the end of an otherwise optimistic August, imagine how much more it will sting if Rogers' absence contributes to a loss in the Georgia Dome.
Tennessee has been preparing for Friday's Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game against North Carolina State for at least a week, but the abbreviated game week begins in earnest today.
The focus will be on getting Rogers' replacements up to speed while preparing for a Wolfpack team that is strongest in the areas that Rogers, an All-SEC receiver, would have been able to negate.
N.C. State won eight games last year and many pundits predict that Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien has the most talented team in his six-year tenure.
Dooley said that Tennessee fans looking down their noses at N.C. State or the ACC are making a mistake.
"I think N.C. State could blend right in our league and be able to whip anybody," Dooley said Thursday in a comment that raised eyebrows when it bounced around on Twitter.
In context, Dooley's statement wasn't so radical: N.C. State's talent is comparable to other teams in the SEC.
"I don't see a difference," Dooley said. "We look at them and we see great athletes on the perimeter, a lot of draft picks and a hard-nosed, physical, tough football team. They could fit right in in our league. I don't view it as SEC-versus-ACC. There is no significant difference in my opinion."
Until last week, the strengths of N.C. State and the strengths of Tennessee intersected in a way that offered intriguing matchups.
The Wolfpack's defense was among the nation's best in turnover ratio last year (6th), and its top playmakers in the secondary are all back.
Cornerback David Amerson had 13 interceptions last season. Safeties Brandan Bishop (5) and Earl Wolff (3) combined for eight.
Tennessee's top two receivers in the post-Rogers era have liabilities. Justin Hunter hasn't played in a game since tearing his ACL last year and Cordarrelle Patterson hasn't played in an SEC game ever. But Patterson won't have the luxury of easing slowly into a prime role. The Vols need him to catch a lot of passes from Game 1.
Pressure also will fall on quarterback Tyler Bray, who will have to make smart decisions and not rely on his targets to bail him out.
Bray said offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has been preaching patience, telling him not to force the ball into dangerous spaces.
"(N.C. State) will make you pay for an inaccurate throw," Dooley said. "(The defensive backs) can recover and make a play on a ball that most people can't.
"That will require some patience."
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.