Tennessee Stat Book
ATLANTA — The talk ended Friday night.
A team that has been insisting all year that better days were ahead brought its words to life against North Carolina State in the Georgia Dome.
The opener was as different from the 5-7 season of 2011 as it was Tennessee's past six ventures in the Georgia Dome.
Tyler Bray completed 27 of 41 passes for 332 yards, wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson made a spectacular debut, and a new 3-4 defense produced a safety and four interceptions as UT ended a six-game losing streak in the Georgia Dome with a 35-21 victory in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game.
UT fans haven't enjoyed a trip to Atlanta this much since they celebrated an SEC championship on the premises in December of 1998. The stadium has been the site of one UT misadventure after another since then.
The Vols went from glaring to glowing in the Georgia Dome on Friday night. They also distanced themselves from all that past futility — of last season and in this building.
The season-ending loss to Kentucky finally can be forgotten. So can All-SEC wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers, who parted ways with the team in preseason.
Patterson, Rogers' replacement, was dazzling on a 41-yard touchdown reception when he raced past All-American cornerback David Amerson for UT's first score and later when he ran 67 yards on an end-
around, outrunning Amerson again along the way.
The Vols answered one question after another while dispatching the Wolfpack, who won their last three games to finish 8-5 last season.
n The passing game proved it could get by just fine without Rogers.
n A running game that was so dreadful last season improved as the game went along, totaling 191 yards — UT's highest total since a 41-10 victory over Buffalo in the fourth game of last season.
n The defense had some shaky moments against veteran quarterback Mike Glennon, who passed for 271 yards. But it played with unwavering intensity and created the big plays that coach Derek Dooley had hoped for when he hired Sal Sunseri as his defensive coordinator after last season.
Add up all the improvement, and you had Tennessee's biggest season-opening victory since it beat Cal in 2006 after a 5-6 season the year before. It also was the program's most impressive season-opening victory on the road since 1998 when it defeated Syracuse in the Carrier Dome.
The game was almost as significant for UT's quarterback as its program.
Until Friday night, Bray's biggest victory had been a blowout of Cincinnati last September in Neyland Stadium. His only close-game victory had been against Vanderbilt last season. His most significant road victory had been against Memphis two years ago as a freshman.
Bray didn't just deliver NFL-like passes against N.C. State. He didn't throw an interception, and looked completely in command of coordinator Jim Chaney's offense.
At times, that offense looked as though it might turn the game into a rout. But the Wolfpack was too good for that.
It just wasn't good enough against a team that repeatedly has told anyone who would listen how badly it wanted to put the Tennessee program back on sound footing.
Running back Rajion Neal put that as succinctly and passionately as anyone a couple of weeks ago.
"We've matured," he said. "We've grown. We're ready to come out and show people.
"We're ready to roll."
He was right.