With a solid win under their belt, Tennessee's overall outlook on their 2012 season has become a shade lighter.
Head coach Derek Dooley can by no means rest easy just yet, but winning the Chick-fil-A kickoff game against N.C. State definitely loosens the strain on his career. Dooley said he was proud of the way the team transferred what they practiced at training camp to real game-time play.
"That was my number one thing for those guys, just to make sure that the same team that had been performing out there in practice was reflected on game day, and it was," Dooley said. "I was proud of the team for that."
With record-breaking starting quarterback Tyler Bray and two (arguably more) star receivers in Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson (despite the loss of former wide receiver, Da'Rick Rogers), Tennessee's offense is sitting pretty. Regardless, Dooley said, according to his standards, the N.C. State game was hardly a win. He hopes for more big plays in the future.
"When you look at the three big factors of winning and losing that I always emphasize are big plays, turnovers and fourth quarter," Dooley said. "In the big play front, the appearance is that we won it, but we really netted out zero because we gave up some big plays, too — more than we needed to, and ours were really huge plays."
As the team heads into game two against Georgia State on Saturday, Tennessee will be focusing on two game-making factors. Dooley said number one on the list is making an improvement leap from week one to week two. The second is mainly focusing on the season as a whole.
"The second thing is trying to define a standard of how we compete every week regardless of the opponent, regardless of the environment, the venue," Dooley said. "We need to learn to come out there and perform with the same intangibles, the same level of execution and intensity every week, and that's what good teams do. We have a lot to prove over time and this will be step two in proving we're a good football team."
Dooley said he feels the team has improved in maturity and experience, which should help as the season progresses.
"We're getting older, more experienced, more mature," Dooley said. "We'e teaching them differently this year, which we needed to emphasize in practice more the right way this year."
A sign of the growing maturity on the team, sophomore offensive lineman Antonio "Tiny" Richardson wasn't disappointed with Friday's game, but said he's not satisfied with a win. He graded himself and the o-line harshly.
"Overall we grade it out about a B minus," Richardson said. "We could've done a lot better but we're just going to continue to improve."
More sure of himself and the team is junior wide receiver Justin Hunter, who returned to the field for the first time since his ACL injury last September. Hunter received nine passes for a total of 73 yards and the second-highest reception total of his career.
"We all think about our season last year," Hunter said. "We had a good run and then started falling off, so I think everybody is staying focused and trying to keep the streak going."
Away from the offense, senior defensive back Marsalis Teague said he's confident in the defense as a whole, regardless of what package they use.
"Like I said, if we can keep doing what we are doing, we will be a special team," Teague said.
With the home opener on Saturday, Dooley said it will be good to go into the game and the season with a win.
"I think it was good to get out there — more than anything, to show 'hey guys what we're doing it works, if we execute the right way.' Because that's probably an issue any time you put a new anything in. It was good on offense too," Dooley said. "We made a real philosophical change offensively. I was worried about a lot of offsides and administration and all that stuff. If it doesn't look good, you start doubting. I hope the first game at least validates that we're in the right direction, schematically. We just have to now show an ability to perform every week."