The second half of the season has arrived. Thanks to a spirited effort against Georgia, the expectations have taken an upward turn. This week the Vols face another highly-ranked SEC foe. Playing South Carolina in Knoxville has the Big Orange Nation thinking upset, especially when the Vols have won two of the last three games played on Rocky Top.
South Carolina is coming off an overwhelming road victory at Arkansas last week. The ‘Ole Ball’ Coach will arrive in Knoxville with another good team. Coach Steve Spurrier, being from East Tennessee, makes the match up with Tennessee special for him. Of course, Spurrier’s arrogance and thinking he is the smartest person in the stadium makes this game just as special for Volunteer fans.
The extra preparation from the bye week will help the good guys dressed in orange, gray or whatever color they decide to wear this week. The last time they beat Carolina they wore black! The Vols will have their work cut out once again. To Coach Butch Jones’ credit, he has been able, so far, to keep this team focused on the process and not the win/loss column.
The Vols made news off the field this week. They are set to play Virginia Tech at the Bristol Motor Speedway in 2016. By then, Tennessee football should be all the way back and the nation’s spotlight will be on the Vols and Hokies that night for a record-setting event.
The Vols added two more commitments to their 2014 class last week. Dontavius Blair, an offensive lineman from the junior college ranks and defensive end Derek Bennett from Brentwood Academy will not hurt the Vols national recruiting rankings. Bennett chose the Vols over Vandy, much to Jim Butler’s dismay.
It is not all bad for Jim as his Commodore team will play a depleted Georgia team thanks to Tennessee. Hopefully his beloved Vanderbilt team can take advantage of it.
Tennessee, who is headed into the second half of the season, is improving and getting a few players back. Thanks to the off week, they will get back two playmakers, Devrin Young and Marlin Lane. They will take all the experienced playmakers they can get.
The other news is not as upbeat. Curt Maggitt is headed towards a medical red shirt which means Tennessee will continue to struggle covering opposing backs in passing situations. While the Vols have improved this season, unfortunately, so have many of their second half opponents.
South Carolina has recovered from an early season loss and is positioned to challenge for the SEC East top spot. Missouri and Auburn are better than preseason expectations and then there is No. 1 Alabama to deal with. Finding three more wins to become bowl eligible could be a challenge.
This week will show how much this team has improved and matured after the heart breaking loss last game. Capturing the atmosphere and intensity from the Georgia game will not be easy for the home team tomorrow. The 12th man is the one intangible at home that can help put team No. 117 over the top in the second half of the season. With the students out of school for this game, the Vol Nation is going to have to step up.
Another October void of an SEC victory would be a hard thing to accept for fans. With No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa waiting for the Vols next week, tomorrow’s game might provide the best chance to avoid that all too familiar scenario that has happened since 2009.
Butch Jones says that football is a game of inches and the Vols will wear an inch long orange sticker on their helmets this week. Stickers, uniforms and other motivating props aside, the second half of the season will present the Vols with plenty of opportunities, no matter how “rocky” the journey appears! Go Vols!!
(Frank Gale is a Chronicle correspondent and his column appears regularly.)