ATLANTA — Tennessee's most recent football game was nine long months ago, a miserable afternoon in Kentucky that ended the Vols' 26-year win streak against the Wildcats, eliminated UT from bowl contention and started the offseason far earlier than most had anticipated.
Today, football is back, and it can't come soon enough.
The Vols play North Carolina State today (TV: ESPNU, 7:30 p.m.) at the Georgia Dome, the first of two Chick-Fil-A Kickoff games pitting the SEC against the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"None of us wanted to be the team that was remembered for losing to Kentucky," said junior defensive tackle Daniel Hood. "That's our identity right now, so we've got to go out and change it."
Change was a constant during the offseason, starting with heavy coaching turnover during the winter. Seven of the nine coaches on staff are new. Sal Sunseri was hired from Alabama to revamp the defense.
Coach Derek Dooley took the team on a journey to Milligan College earlier this month, hoping the small-town cocoon of "Milligan's Island" would insulate the players from distractions and keep the focus on football.
Still, distractions cropped up to challenge the optimism of camp. Da'Rick Rogers, the SEC's leading receiver a year ago, was suspended indefinitely and left the team last week for what he said were multiple failed drug tests.
Rogers' absence highlights one of several uncertainties in Tennessee's lineup. Can top-ranked junior college newcomer Cordarrelle Patterson make an immediate impact in the receiving corps? Are newcomers Darrington Sentimore and Daniel McCullers ready to anchor the defensive line? Is Tennessee's running game truly better than it was a year ago?
Dooley is balancing optimism and caution.
"There's confidence in the guys who have produced that they're going to go out there and perform the way we expect them to," Dooley said. "There is high concern for the guys who haven't been out there and produced, and there are a lot of those guys, too.
"I don't know what the answer is. Now we have to go see."
The new defense might be the biggest unknown, but the offense has questions, too.
UT coaches said No. 1 running back Rajion Neal had a superb camp, but like all Tennessee backs, he is unproven as an every-down runner.
Fourth-year offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said if he wasn't anxious before an opening game, it would be time to get out of the coaching business.
"When I'm not nervous before a game, it's time for me to go farming," Chaney said. "And I love farming, so that's not a knock on farming."
Dooley has described N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien as a friend and mentor. O'Brien was offensive line coach when Dooley played for Virginia.
"He was a Marine, he was hard-nosed and tough," Dooley said. "I just really admired him."
Now Dooley will face his friend in the opening game of what could be the most important season of his career.
"We are going to have to go see what we look like," Dooley said. "Whatever we look like, we'll correct it and adjust moving forward."
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat