No place like home?

As far as football facilities, there are few better than Neyland Stadium. The crowd and intimidation factor? It's not there, according to Matt Hayes of the The Sporting News. In fact, he doesn't think Knoxville is a tough place at all for visiting teams.

Hayes ranks Tennessee No. 8 among toughest home venues in the SEC. He's got Auburn No. 1, followed by Florida, Georgia, LSU, Alabama, Arkansas and South Carolina. Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Kentucky and Vanderbilt are ranked 9-12.

Neyland Stadium is a marvelous facility. It seats over 107,000. It sits on the banks of Lake Loudon. It has beautiful skyboxes, a pristine field. But at times, the atmosphere is tomb like. Unless the Vols are playing a top 10 team or scoring at a frequent clip, the place can become somewhat sterile, almost like Thompson-Boling Arena before Bruce Pearl arrived.

Perhaps that the product of winning at a high level for so long. Fans don't get geared up for Kentucky or Memphis or Vanderbilt or South Carolina.

Statistics support Hayes' claim that Neyland at times doesn't show its teeth.

Tennessee has lost the home field advantage that served the Vols so well during the 1990s and for much of the 1980s. In fact, since 2000, Tennessee has been a much better team on the road than in the friendly confines of a massive stadium.

Tennessee has not beaten a top 10 team at home since edging Georgia in 1999. The Vols are 0-6 against the top 10 at home since 2000. What's more, they've lost those games by an average of 18 points, having been competitive in just once. In 2002, they lost three home games to ranked opponents by an average of 20 points.

Over the same span, they are 4-4 against top 10 teams on the road, having won at No. 2 Florida, at No. 3 Georgia, at No. 3 LSU and at No. 6 Miami.

Since 2000, Tennessee is 7-9 against the ``tough'' teams on the schedule. A tough team is defined as one of the upper tier teams in the SEC – Georgia, Florida, LSU, Alabama, Auburn -- or a team that was ranked at the time of the game or at the end of the season.

Since 2000, Tennessee is 13-6 against tough teams on the road; the Vols were 12-3 against tough teams until going 1-3 last season.

Tennessee's overall home record is 29-11 over the past six seasons.

Nobody has an explanation for Tennessee's home failures, especially when you compare them to Fulmer's record in the previous decade.

In the 1990s, Fulmer's home record was 46-3, with losses to the Nos. 1, 4 and 10 ranked teams in the nation. He was 5-3 against the top 10 and 17-3 against tough foes.

So what's the criteria for ranking the toughest places to play? Record is one. Home atmosphere is another. Crowd noise and the ability to play better at home than on the road are certainly factors.

We'll base our rankings on what has happened since 2000.

I put Auburn No. 1 with Georgia No. 2. The Bulldogs have had the best program in the SEC over the past five years, but has suffered some key losses at home.

Florida is No. 3. The Gators weren't all that tough at home during the Ron Zook era. LSU has recaptured the magic of Saturday night in Tiger Stadium and ranks No. 4.

No. 5 is a tough call. I'm giving Arkansas a slight edge over Tennessee because the Hogs' home record is superior to the Vols'.

Tennessee comes in No. 6, just ahead of Alabama, which scored a big win over Florida last year, but hasn't had much luck at home with Auburn or LSU.

At No. 8 is South Carolina, which might become much stronger at home as Steve Spurrier brings in more talent.

Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Kentucky and Vanderbilt round out the list.

If Tennessee doesn't hold serve at home this season, Fulmer is in for some trying times. The Vols play host to a top 15 team in California. Florida, Georgia and LSU likely will be in the top 20 when they come to Knoxville. And Alabama won't be a pushover.

Tennessee went 3-3 at home last season. Three home defeats this season will lead to a disastrous season and – perhaps – a coaching change.


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