Twice during a Tuesday teleconference, North Carolina State coach Tom O'Brien referred to Tennessee as "an SEC powerhouse.''
Five years ago I wouldn't have blinked. Now, it occurs to me that O'Brien was either thinking long-term tradition or viewing the SEC as a one-size-fits-all juggernaut.
Which, of course, it's not. But O'Brien isn't the first to make that generalization in the era of six consecutive SEC national titles.
Friday night, O'Brien's Wolfpack meets Derek Dooley's Vols in the first of two Chick-fil-A Kickoff Games at the Georgia Dome. Auburn and Clemson complete the SEC vs. ACC season-opening extravaganza on Saturday.
This is the fifth year of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, an idea born to launch the college season with a marquee TV game and to fill Atlanta hotel rooms. The SEC is 3-0 vs. the ACC thus far. Last year, Georgia lost to Boise State.
Tennessee is a slight favorite over State. But "SEC powerhouse" is generous under the circumstances.
The three SEC triumphs in this format came from teams that went on to average 11.3 wins (LSU 11 in 2010, Alabama 14 in 2009 and Alabama 12 in 2008).
The Vols averaged six wins during those three seasons. As for 2012, eight wins would be viewed as at least a moderate success.
The point being this Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game isn't a clash of titans.
What it is, is a match of two pretty good clubs who are optimistic that 2012 will be their respective programs' best season in a while.
"If training camp is any indication,'' Dooley said, "I think we'll be a team that's fun to watch.
But, Dooley cautioned: "We've got our hands full.''
He's right, if for no other reason that UT's dismal record against the ACC in recent years — 1-4 since the 1998 Fiesta Bowl win over Florida State.
The Vols and Wolfpack haven't met since 1939 but share a few similarities in 2012. Namely, they appear to be pass-first offenses.
Quarterbacks Tyler Bray of UT and Mike Glennon of N.C. State stand out in stature and statistics. They even shared time over the summer at the Manning Passing Academy.
"It's unusual the opposing team has a quarterback of the same ilk as yours,'' said O'Brien. "So your secondary gets a good look for the quarterback you're going to have to play in the opening game.''
Bray, Dooley said, "has been outstanding" in camp. "His maturity as it relates to football has been great.''
Dooley has his fingers crossed that Bray will make mature decisions against a larcenous Wolfpack secondary. Cornerback David Amerson alone recorded an amazing 13 interceptions last year.
"What those guys do best is make you pay for any mistakes,'' Dooley said. "We've got to be very careful with the ball and not get ambitious pushing that ball downfield.''
As for pushing his own offense downfield, O'Brien admitted to watching a fair amount of Alabama videotape to get a feel for Sal Sunseri's impact on Tennessee's defense. Would it, in fact, be a 3-4 based front?
"We weren't sure until the depth chart came out,'' O'Brien said.
The Vols will wear orange Friday night, the Wolfpack red. "I don't think it has any impact on our perspective,'' Dooley said.
But then it might, he worried, perhaps thinking of Amerson:
"If our guys think red looks like orange, we'll be in trouble.''