“The great thing about this league is every trip is going to be a great environment,” Odom said minutes after the game at Tiger Stadium. “If I do things right and our team does things right, then Columbia, Missouri, will be an intimidating place to go play.”
A late-season trip to Tennessee provided more inspiration for Odom to grow Missouri football to the pinnacle of SEC play. On a chilly late afternoon in Knoxville, with the Volunteers needing an LSU win over Florida to championship game contention, there were 101,012 orange-clad fans still packed into Neyland Stadium.
The SEC introduced its new slogan, “It just means more,” at its 2016 football media days. The slogan rings especially true in places like Knoxville.
“People just care more,” said Mizzou student and Tennessee fan Michael Murphy.
Murphy and his brother James, St. Louis natives, grew up on Volunteer football but each attend Mizzou, James as a senior and Michael as a sophomore. Their mother attended Tennessee and they have family across the state.
“In Tennessee, you have 100,000 fans compared to 70,000 at Mizzou,” said James Murphy. “Fans are just a lot more passionate (in Tennessee).”
The 100,000-plus fans that pack Neyland Stadium each week contribute to one of the most fascinating college football atmospheres in the country. Best College Reviews ranked Neyland Stadium the fourth-best college football stadium in its 2016 rankings.
Part of what makes Tennessee an elite college football venue is fan participation throughout the game, in chants and in song. “Rocky Top,” Tennessee’s unofficial fight song, is repeated after every Volunteer score, opposing turnover or whenever the 350-piece Pride of the Southland Band feels like playing it. Fans join in to sing the catchy refrain that describes an affinity for Tennessee living.
Tennessee’s football program grabbed loyalty of its citizens with six national championships, most recently the Tee Martin-led squad in 1998. Martin took over as the Volunteers quarterback after Peyton Manning, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft, who single-handedly changed the name composition in the state.
Since the mid-1990s, Peyton consistently ranks in the top 100 most popular names each year in Tennessee, according to the Office of Social Security. However, nationally, Peyton didn’t even crack the top 250 baby names in 2015, according to nameberry.com.
The intense dedication and tradition behind certain SEC football programs consistently fuels the debate from southerners if Mizzou should really be in the SEC. Combine a step down in tradition with a Midwestern location and the recent downturn of Missouri athletics and skeptics rise to dismiss Mizzou from SEC culture.
On Nov. 15, Knoxville News Sentinel’s John Adams wrote a column titled “SEC needs to swap Missouri for West Virginia.” In his article, Adams wrote that long-time SEC fans must be wondering: “What good are they?”
“I don’t think they deserve to be in the SEC,” said long-time Tennessee fan Matt Kotsianas. “There are other teams actually in the southeastern region of the country.”
While SEC fans may rather play winning southern programs like Florida State and Clemson, Missouri continues to venture into intimidating SEC venues gaining inspiration to build one of its own.
“I think we need some stadium renovations and better traditions,” said Mizzou sophomore Michael Murphy. “We need attendance to go up and we need to sustain success.”
“It’s just a matter of time,” said Mizzou cornerback Aarion Penton. “You start by getting on a winning track, start building facilities, adding onto it.”
Missouri’s home loss against Georgia on Sept. 17 produced the lone big game atmosphere Faurot Field has seen in 2016. In their 3-8 season thus far, the Tigers have yet to draw a crowd above 60,000 fans. In order to sell out games and produce an intimidating environment, they must start winning.
“Once we start winning, (Faurot Field) will get rocking,” said Mizzou offensive lineman Kevin Pendleton. “Coach (Josh) Heupel is big on talking about absorbing the energy of whatever environment you’re in. It’s exciting to play in places like (Neyland Stadium), LSU and Florida.”
With Saturday’s announced attendance of over 100,000, all five road games Missouri has played in 2016 have drawn more than 60,000 fans.
West Virginia, LSU, Florida, South Carolina and now Tennessee have provided the inspiration for Missouri. The next step is winning.
You can follow Charlie Clarke on Twitter at @CWClarke18.
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