Happy Homecoming?

You'll find insights at InsideTennessee.com that help explain the wacky world of college football. Check out this story on the Vols' dramatic rise in efficiency when playing at home:

Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, the Tennessee Vols keep chanting, "There's no place like home." They think the home-field advantage could be the winning edge in Saturday's showdown with No. 7 Auburn.

No wonder. Almost every team plays better at home but the Big Orange takes the tendency to an extreme. Tennessee gave by far its two finest performances of 2013 at Neyland Stadium in early October – outplaying No. 6 Georgia only to lose 34-31 in overtime, then outplaying No. 11 South Carolina in a 23-21 upset win. This is the same team that has been putrid in losses at Oregon (59-14), Florida (31-17), Alabama (45-10) and Missouri (31-3).

Clearly, the Vols rise to a different level when playing at Neyland Stadium.

"I think they're excited to get back home," offensive line coach Don Mahoney said. "Playing at Neyland is the ultimate for them, for us. It isn't something where they come out and say it but you can tell in their body language. It's good to know there's a bounce in their step because there's no place like home."

The bounce in their step is nice but that doesn't fully explain why the Vols play so dramatically better at home. One player thinks he has the answer.

"Our energy," receiver Alton Howard said. "Playing on the road you've got to create your own energy. South Carolina and Georgia were home games, so we had that advantage. I think it's important to try to stay positive, continue to carry the energy to motivate each other. The home-field advantage helps us as a unit."

Obviously, having 90,000-100,000 home fans cheering for you boosts a team's level of play.

"There's intensity and energy," Howard said. "This is going to be an advantage to us, so we've just got to go out there and play hard."

With the Vols carrying a 4-5 record and coming off three consecutive losing seasons, optimism is in short supply. Drawing off the positive feedback of the home crowd gives the players an emotional lift that proves especially critical when adversity hits.

"Confidence brings a different type of fight in us," senior defensive end Jacques Smith said. "As you can tell, when bad things happen we get down on ourselves. We just have to believe in the process – believe that we give the most effort on the field and that no one can break our effort. That's going to carry us on through the rest of the season."

Senior center James Stone thinks Tennessee's concentration peaked against Georgia and South Carolina, then slipped at Bama and Missouri.

"I just feel like the overall focus (was different)," he said. "I feel like guys were trying to be focused. It was just sometimes you have these pre-snap penalties that put the offense in situations that we can't overcome."

Sophomore safety Brian Randolph readily admits that the Vols are drastically better at home. That gives them hope against an 8-1 Auburn team.

"Home-field advantage is definitely a big thing for us," he said. "Having our fans – our home crowd – there's nothing better than that. That's probably going to be the boost that we need."

Tennessee, 0-4 on the road, probably would be 5-0 at home except for a fluke: Howard fumbled as he was reaching for the pylon in overtime against Georgia. Clearly, the Vols are a totally different team in Neyland Stadium.

"I just think we have a mentality that no one comes in our house (and wins)," Randolph said. "We're not going to be denied."

A glaring example of the disparity between Tennessee's home and road performances is the play of its young cornerbacks. They surrendered 471 passing yards at Oregon and 275 at Alabama. Playing at home, however, they limited Georgia's Aaron Murray to 19 completions in 35 attempts for 195 yards and South Carolina's Connor Shaw to 7 of 21 for 161 yards. The young DBs seem to have a comfort level at Neyland Stadium that is lacking elsewhere.

"We have some practices there during the course of the year," Randolph said, "so we kind of feel great at home – like it is home, a comfortable environment."

Tennessee also has been dramatically better running the ball at home. The Vols hung 189 rushing yards and 31 points on Georgia, then 146 rushing yards and 23 points on South Carolina. The same team subsequently went on the road and sputtered at Alabama (127 rushing yards, 10 points) and Missouri (94 rushing yards, 3 points).

"We put ourselves in some long-yardage situations (at Bama and Missouri) with penalties and negative-yardage plays," offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said. "Playmakers made plays against Georgia and South Carolina. We had a bunch of guys break tackles, make people miss. It wasn't just the home-field advantage."

Maybe not. But the Vols believe the home-field advantage could be decisive in Saturday's Homecoming game. And, sometimes, believing is half the battle.

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