Electric environment energizes Rocky Top ahead of Top 20 game

It was an overcast morning, with a cool breeze blowing through Rocky Top, but that didn’t stop the atmosphere in Knoxville from shining. The wind carried chants like “It’s great to be a Tennessee Vol” and the chorus of Rocky Top among the thousands of Vol Nation. Long before 5 a.m., fans wearing the Power T with painted faces and large signs climbed The Hill to Ayres Hall.

It’s football time in Tennessee, but today is more than that. It’s the SEC opener against a division rival. It’s the No. 11 Tennessee Volunteers against the No. 20 Florida Gators. It’s one of the most anticipated games of the season.

The environment surrounding Neyland Stadium on match day is second to none, garnering media recognition from coast to coast. With three top-25 matchups this weekend, ESPN’s College GameDay picked Rocky Top for the big rivalry showdown.

The children sat on the shoulders of fans and longtime alumni as not even an inch of space was spared on the green lawn in front of Ayres Hall, the oldest and must-see building on the campus. UT, and the backdrop that College GameDay chose for its showcase. The checkerboard crowd showed up in numbers that could rival the number of bricks supporting the historic building. The show was central to the pregame festivities, as energy and excitement spilled across campus, setting the tone and foreshadowing what was to come later in the day.

Fans crammed into a crowd of checkered overalls bearing the name and numbers of VFL and campus legends, as well as a few stars of the present day. Far in the back, those who hadn’t set their alarms before sunrise looked over the crowd, trying to catch a glimpse of the action on the nation’s most-watched college football show.

Head Volunteer Coach Josh Heupel took the stage, and the audience on Tennessee’s hallowed hill craned their necks forward, clinging to every word he said. “It’s college football. It’s as good as it gets: Knoxville, Tennessee.” With just those two short sentences, shockwaves rippled through The Hill as the roar of the crowd could be heard across campus.

Repeating the words he said before the game, he confidently declares, “There won’t be a louder stadium in all of America.” Vol Nation responded in kind. Knoxville becomes vibrant and quivering, buzzing with anticipation, excitement, nerves and above all noise. Heupel tells the crowd, one of America’s most passionate fanbases, “I can’t wait to see what happens today.”

Tennessee and Vol Nation are looking to keep the momentum going in the midday game inside a sold-out Neyland Stadium and on the field. Last Sunday morning, UT announced that #CheckerNeyland is back for the sixth time in program history, a fan-led initiative showcasing the iconic checkerboard pattern across Neyland Stadium. That’s not a question today. The Neyland Stadium will be truly electric and reminiscent of sunny days.

College GameDay reporter and Tennessee alumnus Gene Wojciechowski stood outside Ayres Hall the day before the game. He spoke of Heupel’s influence on fans and the resurrection of a Tennessee program that ranked among college football’s elite.

“Look at this. It’s perfect. It’s God’s Country,” Wojciechowski said, describing the atmosphere around campus and what he expects from the game. “I hope there will be a ruckus, some madness. I hope it’s like before. It’s a beautiful weather, the place is going to be packed, they’re doing the checkerboard. Is it Heupel who said they think it’s going to be the loudest stadium in america tomorrow? I’m not going to dispute that. The game sold out in a nanosecond. Everything is set up to make it a memorable day for the Tennessee.

Wojciechowski is right. Within two minutes of the student ticketing portal opening, it crashed as tens of thousands of people flooded the site hoping to catch a view of the top 20 rivalry game. Neyland Stadium sold out all 101,915 seats more than a week before game day, and the constant buzz around Knoxville grew all week.

A stream from The Hill runs down Ped Walkway as people make their way to different areas of campus after the morning show. In a one-of-a-kind gaming experience, the Tennessee River is lined with more than a hundred boats, Navy Flight flags flying high. Cars honk as they cross the Henley Bridge. The marching band extends well beyond campus.

Every square inch of the fan-favorite tailgating location, the G10 Parking Garage, is filled and lined with tents, TVs, BBQs, cornholes and more. An orange pool just beyond the stadium signals an eager crowd waiting for the gates to open. On campus green spaces, children play ball, tackle each other and call their own games. Toyota Vol Village is packed with viewers surrounding the TVs to see ESPN’s show followed by the first slate of games to kick off the day. There isn’t an inch of campus that doesn’t celebrate volunteers.

As the day progresses, smoke from the grill fills the air and the smells of barbecue linger pleasantly on campus. On Friday morning, College GameDay host Rece Davis said, “I feel like the Big Orange Nation, they’re not hungry…they’re starving.” For him, today has the makings of being a “marking moment”. Hungry, indeed. In more than one tent this afternoon, grilled alligator takes center stage on the menu.

The sun finally came out and The Pride of the Southland Band began their march, playing across campus, leading the way to Neyland Stadium. Two hours before kickoff, the pulse of campus turned to Peyton Manning Pass. Fans thronged the way to the stadium. As the band played Rocky Top, the cheers and chants of the pack grew louder and louder until a crescendo at the start of the Vol Walk. Everyone on campus turned their heads towards the historic stadium. Here come the Volunteers. It’s almost football time in Tennessee.

Who is clapping? The diplomas ; the VFL which saw Tennessee win its first six national championships; the children who sit on their shoulders now; the students of today, the students of tomorrow; their teachers; the proud parents wearing ‘Tennessee Mom’ and ‘Tennessee Dad’ shirts. A community gathered around a team. Today, Vol Nation showed what it means when it’s football time in Tennessee.

The team separated the orange sea. Students crowded against the fences and families leaned against the gates. Children reached out for autographs and high fives as Tennessee volunteers made their way from the torchbearer to Gate 21 of Neyland Stadium.

One of the premier rivalries in college athletics, Tennessee vs. Florida, is set for the next installment in a wild and heated streak.

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