As uncertain as a football season can be from a preseason vantage point, Tennessee at least knows its opener won't be anything like the last three.
The Vols opened the 2011 season with a 42-16 victory over Montana at Neyland Stadium. That fell merrily in line with the previous two openers, a 50-0 rout of UT Martin in 2010 and a 63-7 victory against Western Kentucky in 2009.
None of those openers should to be confused with what's next: an Aug. 31 game in the Georgia Dome against North Carolina State, which could be a preseason top-25 team and should pose a significant challenge for a UT team coming off a 5-7 season.
The more formidable opening opponent already has gotten the Vols' attention. They began checking out videotape of the Wolfpack in May, as soon as they completed their final exams.
"With a bigger game like this, it gives you an edge," UT cornerback Marsalis Teague said. "You want to get on it earlier."
N.C. State will present a potent passing attack — led by senior quarterback Mike Glennon, who threw for more than 3,000 yards and 31 touchdowns last season — and a defense that returns seven starters, including All-American cornerback David Amerson.
"They're a good team," UT cornerback Prentiss Waggner said. "It's going to be a challenge for us."
N.C. State, which was 8-5 last season, started slowly in 2011 but finished
strong, winning its last three games, capped by a victory over Louisville in the Belk Bowl. The stretch run was highlighted by a 37-13 victory against nationally ranked Clemson.
"They're obviously a good team," Teague said. "We will have to come up with our best game."
UT's defensive challenge could be compounded by its switch to a 3-4 alignment and the different looks presented by a varied N.C. State offense.
"We've been watching all their shifts and motion," UT linebacker Herman Lathers said.
A more difficult opponent won't be the only season-opening change. The game will be played Friday night in the Georgia Dome.
"When August 31 rolls around, I don't care if it's Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday," Teague said. "We'll all be ready to go.
John Adams is a senior columnist. Follow him at http://twitter.com/johnadamskns