As good as the Vols looked in Sunday night’s 38-7 season-opening blowout of Utah State, there are still problems to be fixed before the Big Orange is nationally relevant again. Fan support is not one of those problems, however. Head coach Butch Jones estimates that 55,000 fans showed up for the Game 1 Vol Walk. And, despite some pre-game showers, more than 100,000 folks crammed into Neyland Stadium to watch the opener.
That’s amazing when you consider the following:
Tennessee is coming off four consecutive losing seasons.
Many experts project another losing record this fall.
Tennessee’s overall record the past six seasons is 33-41.
Tennessee’s SEC record the past six seasons is 14-34.
Tennessee hasn’t won an SEC title in 15 years, matching the longest drought in program history.
Despite the recent futility and a gloomy weather forecast, a huge crowd turned out two hours and 15 minutes before Sunday night’s kickoff to cheer the players as they filed toward Neyland Stadium.
“You show up and there are about 55,000 people to greet you at the Vol Walk,” Jones said. “That is a powerful, energetic experience in and of itself.”
Having 100,000 inside the stadium is pretty powerful, too. The Vols clearly fed off the energy of the crowd in building a 17-0 halftime lead.
“One of the reasons I came here is that we’ve got the greatest fans in the nation,” redshirt junior guard Marcus Jackson said. “We love ‘em. The crowd definitely helps how we play. As a player you’re really focused in but there’s nothing like having a loud crowd and all of that energy in the building.”
Freshman defensive end Derek Barnett was shocked by the decibel level Sunday night.
"You can't even hear on third down," he said. "I had to lean in and ask A.J. (Johnson) like 10 times what the call is and stuff but I'm going to get better with the crowd noise."
In addition to motivating the home team, an animated crowd tends to rattle the visiting team.
“No matter if you try to prepare for it or not, that crowd’s going to play a factor,” senior defensive lineman Jordan Williams said. “Our sideline energy and everything will break a team down psychologically.”
The home-field advantage is probably worth seven points to most teams. It may be worth twice that to Tennessee.
“I don’t know a point total but I think our fans have done a great job of supporting us through thick and thin,” senior quarterback Justin Worley said. “They’re a tremendous fan base, and they really add to the atmosphere and to how we play.”
A supportive and vocal home crowd is especially helpful when a team features as many freshmen in key roles as Tennessee.
“It’s a huge stage to play on – in front of 102,455,” Worley noted. “Them being your home crowd makes it a little more special and a little easier.”
While attendance is declining at programs across the country, Tennessee sold nearly 5,000 more season tickets than last year. That’s a testament to the fans. So is the fact 100,000-plus showed up to watch a team from the Mountain West Conference.
“It’s incredible,” Worley said. “It falls back on our fans and their support. They’ve done a great job of bouncing back from year to year, whether we went 10-2 or 5-7. It’s a testament to their pride and their support for us.
Senior running back Marlin Lane admits that the Game 1 crowd fired up the players.
“By being sold out for the first time in a while, and it being a Sunday opener, I felt a little juice coming in,” he said.
Tennessee’s players are acutely aware that a significant portion of the fan base expects another losing season. That makes the Vols even more appreciative of the people who make the effort to buy the tickets, brave the traffic and show up at Neyland Stadium.
“It helps us a lot, knowing we’ve got people that are rooting for us,” Lane said. “We hear a lot of down talk, which motivates us. Just playing the game in Knoxville and knowing you’ve got all the fans 100 percent behind you gives us some push.”
Tennessee lacks the depth and experience to win on talent alone, so another sellout crowd for Game 2 against Arkansas State could be a factor Saturday afternoon. Tennessee’s head man certainly thinks so.
“We need Vol Nation,” Jones said. “We are going to need everyone. I am told again that we are close to a sellout. We need everyone to buy their tickets and support this football team, continue to make it one of the greatest venues in all of college football and a home-field advantage for this young football team."
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