The Big Orange Nation will be fixated on the start of spring practice today. Missing from those practices, and possibly the roster this fall, will be the second-leading pass receiver from last year. Alton “Pig” Howard will be taking some time away from football to straighten out some “personal” issues. While that will open plenty of opportunities for others to make an impression, the loss of the experience Howard brought to the slot receiver’s position could be significant for this team in 2014 if he fails to return to the program. 

Greg Clark, one of the few experienced defensive linemen, has decided to forego football and will not be part of team #118 going forward. Clark saw limited time last season but was one of the few big bodies returning in a position where the need for players is immense. This will not be the last blow to a depth chart, but Butch Jones can only hope that future attritions will be kept to a minimum, especially where depth is an issue. 

There are still a few more things to occupy the rest of the Vol Nation, mainly basketball. The Lady Vols will make their first appearance in the SEC Tournament today taking on the winner of last evenings LSU/Alabama game. The  No. 2 seeded Lady Vols split the regular season games with LSU and won the only match up with Alabama on the road. 

The Lady Vols will enter this tournament with two first-team All-SEC players, Meighan Simmons and Isabelle Harrison. They most likely will be without point guard Ariel Massengale, who is still dealing with headaches from a head injury. Andraya Carter has amply filled in for her, garnering a position on the All-Freshmen Team along the way. 

Coach Holly Warlick has found a way to keep this team focused in their quest for their 17th SEC Tournament championship. They will be allowed to wear a version of the “Smokey Gray” uniforms if they make the finals; however, standing in the way, could be Texas A&M, the potential opponent in the semi-finals. The Aggies have already beaten the Lady Vols twice in close games during the regular season and are the defending SEC Tournament Champions. Could it be time for a little pay back? 

The Vols played one of their best games of the season last Saturday. The fact they destroyed Vanderbilt by 38 points made it even better. The Vols carried that momentum on the road to Auburn and left the plains with another convincing victory. They will have friendlier crowds on Rocky Top tomorrow when they tangle with Missouri at 3 p.m. CST on ESPN. 

The Vols came out on the short end of a hard fought game earlier in the season in Columbia and will be looking to reverse that outcome on Senior Day. Seniors Antonio Barton, D’Montre Edwards, Jeronne Maymon and Jordan McRae all will play their last regular season game. 

The Vols are 13-3 at home, but will need to tame the Tigers if they want to keep their NCAA Tournament dream from turning into a nightmare. Go Vols and Lady Vols!

(Frank Gale is a Chronicle correspondent and his column appears regularly.)