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That's different: Volunteers leave Georgia Dome with a win, optimism

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The Vols win at the Georgia Dome for the first time since the title season of 1998. (US Presswire)  
The Vols win at the Georgia Dome for the first time since the title season of 1998. (US Presswire)  

ATLANTA -- Tennessee has suffered through a lot of heartache at the Georgia Dome.

In 2001 the Volunteers came here needing a win over LSU in the SEC Championship Game to secure a spot in the national championship game against Miami. But Nick Saban's second LSU team beat the Vols 31-20 and sent them to the Citrus Bowl.

In 2004 Tennessee made it back to the SEC title game but could not handle No.3 Auburn, losing 38-28.

In 2007 Phillip Fulmer had what would be his last chance to win an SEC championship, taking on No. 7 LSU. Tennessee had its chances but let the game slip away, 21-14. LSU went on to win the national championship. Fulmer was fired after the 2008 season.

Throw in three forgettable performances in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and the Volunteers had lost six straight in this building, located just about three hours from the Knoxville campus. In fact, Tennessee had not won here since 1998, the year it won the national championship.

"Somebody told me that before the game and I couldn't believe it," said quarterback Tyler Bray.

Friday night's 35-21 win over N.C. State in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game didn't make up for all that anguish, but it was a good start on what appears to be a make or break year for the Volunteers under Derek Dooley.

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"It's only one game but I'm proud of the way our guys played, especially in the second half," said Dooley, who comes into this season with a record of 11-14 at Tennessee. "We made a ton of mistakes but we've got some things we can build on."

And that's important, given the fact that Tennessee's last outing was an inexplicable 10-7 loss to Kentucky, snapping a 26-game winning streak over the Wildcats. Kentucky not only won the game with a quarterback who hadn't played the position since high school, the Volunteers, even by their own admission, basically mailed it in.

"There was nothing good you could say about it at the time," said Dooley, in his third season at Tennessee. "But looking back, it was one of the best things that could have happened to us."

Dooley's point? If Tennessee had gone 6-6 and won a bowl game last season "people would have thought we were still moving in the right direction. We weren't."

Friday night's win over an N.C. State team that figures to be in the mix in the ACC Atlantic Division certainly doesn't mean that Tennessee is back or even a serious challenger for South Carolina and Georgia in the SEC East. But it has been a while since the words "optimism" and "Tennessee" have been uttered in the same sentence.

Based on some of the signs Friday night in Atlanta, there is reason for Volunteer fans to hope:

 Cordarrelle Patterson: It's pronounced "CORE-dare-uhl." Remember it because you'll be hearing it a lot this season. He was the No. 1-rated junior college transfer in the nation and Friday night we found out why. On the second catch of his Tennessee career, Patterson streaked past David Amerson for a 41-yard touchdown pass. Amerson, you should know, led the nation in interceptions last season with 13.

Later in the first quarter Patterson took a handoff and exploded for a 67-yard touchdown run.

Now we understand why Dooley felt secure in dismissing Da'Rick Rogers, the team's leading receiver from a year ago, just one week before the first game.

"He's big and he's fast," said N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien. "Their receivers are going to give lots of teams problems."

 Tyler Bray: The junior from California has one of the best arms in college football but a year ago missed five games after breaking a thumb against Georgia. Friday night against a defense that led the nation in interceptions with 27 and returned seven starters, Bray was smooth and in control of the Tennessee offense, completing 27 of 41 passes for 333 yards. He had touchdown passes of 41 and 72 yards.

"It felt great," said Bray. "We've got a lot of guys who can do a lot of things on this offense."

 New defense: Among the seven new coaches who came to Tennessee for this season was Sal Sunseri, who left Alabama to become Dooley's defensive coordinator. Sunseri installed the 3-4, which always has a distinct learning curve. Early in the game the Tennessee defense blew a bunch of coverages but things changed when Prentiss Waggner intercepted a Mike Glennon pass on fourth down to stop a drive. Another interception in the third quarter set up a field goal that gave Tennessee a 32-14 lead. Still another interception stopped an N.C. State drive with 9:16 left and Tennessee holding a 32-21 lead. Tennessee finished the night with four interceptions of Glennon.

 Ability to face adversity: A year ago Tennessee did not handle disappointment well. But right before halftime the Vols had a major disappointment. The Volunteers were on the N.C. State one-yard line with the halftime clock winding down. Bray tried a quarterback sneak and held the ball near the goal line. It came loose and N.C. State recovered.

Tennessee claimed that Bray had broken the plane of the goal with the ball. The officials thought otherwise after reviewing the play. Tennessee responded by taking its first possession of the second half and driving 87 yards on 14 plays for a touchdown.

"We didn't handle adversity well in the first half but we handled it very well in the second half," said Dooley. "That was good to see."

Again, we can't read too much into Friday night's performance by Tennessee. But the Vols are 1-0 and now have three straight home games against Georgia State, Florida, and Akron before going to Georgia on Sept. 29. A 4-0 start is possible, something that seemed a million miles away last November in Lexington.

"After what this team went through last year this is a great way for us to start," said wide receiver Justin Hunter, who missed the final nine games of the season with a knee injury. "Coach Dooley is right. It's only one game. But it was a good game for us."

Watch the Tony Barnhart Show on Tuesday at 9 p.m. on The CBS Sports Network.


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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