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It wasn’t long ago that I wrote a piece about Tennessee needing to prove to the fans that the product on the field is good enough to pay for, and that stance hasn’t changed. But this past weekend, the atmosphere inside the stadium slowly started to return to form. No, it wasn’t a sellout, mostly because South Carolina did not take their full allotment of tickets, but you could feel the energy pick up, especially when the Vols produced another offensive explosion in the first half.
The crowd on Saturday night will no doubt be a sellout, as Lane Kiffin and Ole Miss roll into town for a 7:30 pm kickoff. Most Tennessee fans circled this game on their calendars the minute the 2021 schedule was released, and rightfully so. Besides the fact that the Rebels are ranked 13th in the country, this game felt like a measuring stick of potential progress.
One example of excitement would be Tennessee AD Danny White officially announcing that they will “CheckerNeyland” Saturday night, another indication this administration is listening to the fan base.
There will be a lot of talk this week about Kiffin, as he returns to his one-year layover as a head coach. This game is so much bigger than the opposing coach, as it represents an opportunity for Tennessee to take another step up the ladder.
But the fans attending this game are also showing up because Josh Heupel has brought back an early excitement level. No, I am not saying you should buy into the program, just six games into his tenure at Tennessee, but you should definitely be paying attention to how this team is representing the university.
The emergence of quarterback Hendon Hooker has brought life to an offense that was trying to correct overthrown footballs just 4 weeks ago. The fans started to see what this offensive unit could bring to the table against Missouri and South Carolina. The passing game has since picked up, thanks to the 1,063 yards and 13 TDs Hooker has thrown through five games. He has also rushed for 282 yards and 3 TDs.
So, you’ve got a quarterback who is playing really good football, a rushing attack that has 1,522 yards on the season and a defense that is playing really well considering the injuries they’re dealing with. I would say the fans are starting to see progress, especially considering what they had to watch last season.
It is very easy to wait for a product to show up on the field before you invest more money into a program. Hell, I don’t blame you. But I will say that you don’t get the opportunity every year to host the 13th ranked team in the country, on a beautiful Saturday night. Between that, the Vols offense and Kiffin’s return, well you’ve got a potential powder keg waiting to explode.
This Tennessee football team is working their tails off to bring you the entertainment you’ve been clamoring for, and have done a darn good job over the last few weeks doing it. But, I will say, this game feels different. The Vols’ home schedule didn’t have many games that fans could get excited about, but Saturday night is definitely one of them.
Josh Heupel praised the fan base during his Monday press conference, thanking them for their support during the South Carolina game. But he also pleaded with them to give this team a “Hostile Environment” advantage against Ole Miss, the kind of atmosphere these players deserve to feel inside Neyland Stadium this season. I was tagged in multiple tweets on Monday, from fans hoping to spread the word about “Checkerboard Neyland”, which the athletic department put their full support behind on Monday afternoon. Being in attendance during that Oklahoma game, it’s truly a sight to behold.
So if you are still unsure about attending the game this week, I certainly don’t fault you. But I will tell you that you’re only going to get one more game this season that could resemble the atmosphere you could see on Saturday night, and that’s against Georgia. Whether you are watching from home or in the stands, just know Josh Heupel is putting on an offensive showcase for the fans to enjoy and a defense that continues to play spirited football, while being shorthanded at a few spots.
Who knows what will happen against Ole Miss, but I do know this fanbase is ready to explode with excitement. Maybe, just maybe, if you’re in attendance on Saturday, this team can make you start to believe again.
It’s been an uphill battle, but this squad is 4-2 with the 13th ranked team — and a former head coach — coming to town.
This football team continues fighting for your respect, not just expecting it. That’s all you could ask for, especially when the previous administration expected you to show up, no matter what they put on the field.