Tennessee football: Tapping into the Volunteers' unexpectedly good vibes
So back on Saturday, I went to the Tennessee/UT-Martin game. As expected, the result was never in doubt, with the Volunteers winning on Homecoming Weekend 65-24. They improved to 7-0 on the season for the 1st time since 1998.
The Vols racked up 52 points in the 1st half against the Skyhawks, their highest output in a single half in the history of the program.
Hendon Hooker looked like Hendon Hooker, completing 75% of his passes for 276 yards and 3 TDs, and he was pulled before the 1st half ended. Jalin Hyatt looked like Jalin Hyatt, catching all 7 of the footballs thrown his way for 174 yards and 2 scores.
I could keep going with the numbers, but you get the idea. This was a game that Tennessee was expected to dominate against an FCS opponent, and the Vols did.
But that solid performance is not what stood out to me the most. Instead, it was something that you can’t really define. It’s a feeling that hasn’t been around Neyland Stadium for a long time, a feeling of overwhelming positivity and excitement for the future of Tennessee football.
Basically, the good vibes around the Vols are off the charts right now.
Tennessee sportsbooks are live in the Volunteer state since November 1, 2020. Tennessee was the first SEC state to legalize sports betting.
Wins over Florida and Alabama have changed how UT is perceived as a football program, not only across the nation but inside Big Orange Country. Far too often, the Vols found ways to lose games like those over the past 15 years. Instead, Tennessee made key plays when it had to against the Gators and Crimson Tide, and the Vols were rewarded with a positive outcome.
UT-Martin wasn’t exactly a marquee opponent. The game got an early 12:03 p.m. kickoff time. A week after one of the biggest games in the history of Tennessee football, you’d excuse a letdown in the bleachers. But Tennessee didn’t have a ticket to spare as a sellout crowd of 101,915 packed Neyland Stadium and, yes, most of those seats were filled.
And here’s the other thing. They were loud. I mean, not a Neyland Stadium-record 125.4 decibel loud like they were against Alabama, but they were involved into the 3rd quarter. By then, the Vols were up by 51 points and many began to file out, as the tailgates still had a few beverages left to consume.
With Kentucky coming to Neyland Stadium on Saturday night, it was almost like the fans were keeping their voices in game shape, knowing that the Wildcats will be the toughest home game left on the schedule. An upset loss could derail Tennessee’s SEC and College Football Playoff hopes, so they’ll be ready.
I remember back in 2017 when over 80,000 showed up at Neyland Stadium for the LSU game … during what was basically a monsoon … a week after Butch Jones was fired … in what would turn out to be the worst season for Tennessee football.
Tennessee fans are extremely supportive of their team. But when the Vols are winning? That takes things to an entirely different level.
Last weekend, the Vols destroyed an inferior opponent (the 1990s are back!) and the crowd did the wave (the 1980s are back!). Tennessee played a ton of reserves, giving its younger players much-needed game action while resting players it’ll need at their peak the rest of the way. Head coach Josh Heupel couldn’t have scripted it any better.
Recruiting is going well since the Alabama win, with in-state 4-star defensive back Kaleb Beasley committing to the Vols last week for the Class of 2024. That moves Tennessee up to 6th nationally in the 247Sports rankings for that Class. The Vols stand 10th nationally for the Class of 2023.
And there’s no better recruiting tool for Tennessee than the product the Vols have been putting on the field lately. Well, there’s NIL, but that’s a discussion for another day.
I got my master’s degree at Tennessee back in the mid-1990s. Not a bad time to be around the UT football program. I brought my oldest daughter to the UT-Martin game, and in less than 2 years she’ll be in college, maybe at Tennessee. She’s a big football fan, so her timing might prove to be even better than mine.
The present day looks nothing like the recent past for Tennessee football.