Tennessee's Cordarrelle Patterson (84) pulls in a 41-yard touchdown reception in front of N.C. State's David Amerson (1) during the first half. ETHAN HYMAN - email@example.com
ATLANTA — The first "S-E-C!" chant started in the Georgia Dome with 4 minutes left in the third quarter.
And why not?
Tennessee, the last-place team in the East Division a year ago, showed why college football is the Southeastern Conference's domain and everyone else is just paying rent with a 35-21 win against an over-matched N.C. State team in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff on Friday night.
The Volunteers, just 1-7 in the SEC last year, were bigger, stronger, faster than the Wolfpack, which posted an 8-5 record last season and is one of only two ACC teams with consecutive bowl wins, in every phase.
The national showcase, the first of two ACC-SEC matchups in Atlanta, was supposed to be an opportunity for the Wolfpack and the ACC to measure itself against the best and make statement.
And the statement N.C. State made?
"We had our opportunity and we didn't make the most of it," Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien said. "We have to find a way to get ourselves back together, get our minds right and win a football game."
The only statement was made by Tennessee, winners of the first BCS title in 1998, and its proud fan base, which has had to suffer through consecutive losing seasons and watch four other SEC teams combine for the past six national championships. The Vols' roar drowned out the Wolfpack whimper.
The Vols used a 16-point flurry, in 38 seconds, at the end of the first quarter to assert their authority. And they did it by exploiting All-American cornerback David Amerson on defense and forcing four interceptions of quarterback Mike Glennon.
Receiver Cordarrelle Patterson caught a 41-yard touchdown for the Vols and ran for a 67-yarder to give the Vols a 22-7 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Tennessee kicked leading receiver Da'Rick Rogers off the team last week but it didn't need him, not with the debut of Patterson, a junior-college transfer. Patterson burned Amerson on a 41-yard stop-and-go route at 11:31 in the first quarter.
State responded with its first touchdown drive, capped by a 2-yard run by Tony Creecy, to take a 7-6 lead at 5:15 in the first. The Wolfpack was barely in the game over the final 45 minutes.
The bottom fell out at the end of the first quarter when Glennon, who finished with 288 passing yards, threw an interception on a fourth-and-3 from inside Tennessee territory.
On the next play, receiver Zach Rogers blazed past Amerson for a 72-yard touchdown.
After Rogers' touchdown, Glennon rolled out, from his own 19-yard line, and then fumbled the ball into the end zone, which went for a safety.
The Vols then answered with an end-around to Patterson, who sprinted past Amerson for the 67-yard touchdown. Amerson set an ACC record with 13 interceptions last season but he had a tough start to the 2012 season.
"It was completely my fault," Amerson said. "I take all the blame (on both touchdowns). They got the best of me today."
The Pack's secondary, which led the country with 27 interceptions last season, got sliced up by Bray for 333 yards. In the third quarter, UT compounded State's problems on defense by running the ball squarely down the field.
Running back Rajion Neal completed a soul-crushing 14-play, 87-yard scoring drive with an 8-yard touchdown run to give the Vols a 29-14 advantage. Neal finished with 53 yards and a touchdown and Marlin Lane added 75 rushing yards.
"It was just a bad loss," N.C. State senior safety Earl Wolff said. "They ran the ball on us, they threw it on us. We know we're better than that."
Kicker Michael Palardy tacked on a 20-yard field goal with 1:28 left in the third quarter to stretch the lead to 32-14 and a 34-yarder with 1:44 left to close out the scoring.
Glennon got State back on the board with a 5-yard touchdown pass to receiver Bryan Underwood with 13:46 left in the fourth quarter.
Down 32-21, the Pack's defense, which made a goal line stand at the end of the first half for its only turnover for the game, forced a punt and got the ball back to Glennon with 10 minutes left.
Glennon threw his third interception of the game to put out any hope of a late Wolfpack comeback.
On the bright side for N.C. State, it was looking for new options at receiver and junior Quintin Payton caught four passes for 129 yards. Payton set up James Washington's 2-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, which cut Tennessee's halftime lead to 22-14.
And running back Mustafa Greene, who missed all of the 2011 season with a foot injury, returned to add life to the running game with 53 yards on 11 carries.
But it wasn't nearly enough to kick off what the Pack had anticipated would be a big season. N.C. State's defense melted under Tennessee's strength in the third quarter and Tennessee's defense closed the door on Glennon in the fourth quarter.
With 5 minutes left in the game, the "SEC!" chant turned into a "It's great to be a Tennessee Vol!" chant.
After that show of force, N.C. State had no argument otherwise.