By Frank Gale
This past weekend, the excitement was back at Neyland Stadium. Long time attendees told me they had not heard that amount of noise since the late 1990s. Younger members of the Vol Nation, who had not experienced that kind of atmosphere, now know what it will take going forward to make the 12th man relevant in future games.
Tennessee had a large number of recruits attending the Georgia game and the atmosphere last Saturday, despite the overtime loss, could help sway some of the recruits in the direction of Knoxville to apply their talents.
The “Smokey Gray” uniforms certainly impressed more than one recruit as well.
Many players have grown up this season before our eyes. This team, at the halfway point of the season, does not resemble the fledgling team No. 117 that Butch Jones inherited when he came to Rocky Top. The team that took the field last Saturday has developed poise and confidence allowing them to compete against the best, at least at home.
Butch Jones has developed this team the way he told us he would before the start of the season.
Forget the record and look at the process, sound familiar? Improvement along the way is already evident and with so many underclassmen playing at a high level, the future of UT football has a great upside.
Top 25 teams still loom in the second half of the season. But none will be any better than the competition they have already played in the first half. No. 1 Alabama and Missouri will present challenges for the Vols on the road but No. 25 Auburn and No. 12 South Carolina will have to deal with the Vols on their home turf.
The Vols have won the games in the first half of the season they were supposed to win and almost had that elusive victory over a top 20 team. It was certainly a bitter loss, but a glimpse into the future of Vol football under Coach Jones.
Speaking of the future, the Vols are rumored to have agreed to a game at the Bristol Motor Speedway in 2016 against Virginia Tech, something that has been in the works for years. It could break records for attendance with over 150,000 fans expected to attend. The good news — Tennessee should be a championship quality team by then.
Building on the progress attained in the first half of the season is the next challenge facing Team No. 117. With South Carolina on the horizon, it is important to keep the intensity on the field and in the stands. Not an easy atmosphere to duplicate week in and week out. Just remember, this team adjusts well at half time, something Vol fans have not seen over the past few years.
The Vols will be taking a well deserved week off along with their foes down I-40. Jim Butler can relax as his Commodores finished the first half with an identical record as the Vols. The second half for them includes that showdown at Neyland Stadium on Nov. 23 that could decide bowl eligibility. You might want to hold off on any bowl trip plans Jim.
The Vols have been able to keep most of their playmakers on the field the first half of the season. The defensive line benefited with the return the past few games of Corey Vereen and Jacques Smith to the line up. A few others are expected back over the coming weeks which should make this team deeper and stronger the second half of the schedule.
Buckle up Big Orange Nation, you could be in for a wild ride to the finish line this season. Go Vols.
(Frank Gale is a Chronicle correspondent and his column appears regularly.)