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Electric Environment Energizes Rocky Top Ahead of Top-20 Matchup

It was a cloudy morning, with a cool breeze blowing through Rocky Top, but that didn’t stop the atmosphere in Knoxville from shining bright. The wind carried chants like ‘It’s great to be a Tennessee Vol’ and the chorus of Rocky Top from the thousands in Vol Nation. Well before 5 am, fans donning the Power T with painted faces and tall signs walked up The Hill to Ayres Hall.

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

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

Children sat on the shoulders of longtime fans and alumni as not even an inch of space was spared on the green lawn in front of Ayres Hall, the oldest building and staple of UT’s campus, and the backdrop College GameDay chose for its showcase. The checkered crowd showed out in number that could rival the number of bricks holding up the landmark building. The show was the heartbeat of pre-game festivities, as the energy and excitement spread across campus, setting the tone and previewing what was to come later in the day.

Fans huddled together in a crowd of checkered overalls and wearing the name and numbers of VFLs and legends of campus–as well as a few of today’s stars. Far in the back, those that didn’t set their alarms before sunrise peered over the crowd, trying to get a glimpse of the action from the most-watched college football show in the country.

volunteer head coach Josh Heupel took the stage, and the audience on Tennessee’s hallowed hill craned their necks forward, hanging onto every word he said. “This is college football. This is as good as it gets: Knoxville, Tennessee.” With just those two short sentences, shockwaves rippled across The Hill as the crowd’s roar could be heard across campus.

Repeating the words he has been saying leading up to the game, he confidently declares, “There’s not going to be a louder stadium in all of America.” Vol Nation responded in kind. Knoxville becomes vibrant and shaking, buzzing with anticipation, excitement, nerves, and most of all noise. Heupel tells the crowd, one of the most passionate fanbases in America, “I cannot wait to see what happens today.”

Tennessee and Vol Nation are looking to keep the momentum rolling into the mid-day game inside a sold-out Neyland Stadium and onto the field. Last Sunday morning, UT announced #CheckerNeyland is back for the sixth time in program history, a fan-driven initiative showcasing the iconic checkerboard pattern through Neyland Stadium. It’s not a question today. Neyland Stadium will truly be electric and reminiscent of the golden days.

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

“Look at this. It’s perfect. It’s God’s country,” Wojciechowski said as he described the atmosphere around campus and what he expects from the game. “I hope for bedlam, craziness. I hope it’s like how it used to be. It’s gorgeous weather, the place is going to be packed, they’re doing the checkerboard. Was it Heupel who said he thinks this will 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 for this to be a memorable day for Tennessee.”

Wojciechowski is correct. Within two minutes of the student ticketing portal opening, it crashed when tens of thousands flooded the site in hopes of getting a view of the top-20 rivalry matchup. Neyland Stadium sold out of all 101,915 seats more than a week before game day, and the constant buzz around Knoxville grew every week.

A stream from The Hill runs down the Ped Walkway as people make their way to the different areas of campus following the morning show. In a gameday experience that is one of a kind, the Tennessee river is lined with more than a hundred boats, Vol Navy flags waving high. Cars honk their horns as they drive over the Henley Bridge. Fanfare extends well beyond campus.

Every inch of the fan-favorite location for tailgating, G10 parking garage, is packed and lined with tents, TVs, barbecues, cornhole and more. A pool of orange just beyond the stadium signals that a zealous crowd awaits the opening of the gates. On campus greenspace, kids play catch, tackling one another and calling their own plays. Toyota Vol Village is packed with viewers surrounding TVs to view ESPN’s spectacle followed by the first slate of games to kickoff the day. There is not an inch of campus that is not celebrating the Volunteers.

As the day goes on, grill smoke fills the air and the scents of barbecue pleasantly lingers across campus. Friday morning, College GameDay host Rece Davis said, “I get the sense that the Big Orange Nation, they’re not hungry… they’re starving.” To him, today has the makings of being a “landmark moment.” Starving, indeed. In more than one tent this afternoon, grilled alligator highlights the menu.

The sun finally came out, and The Pride of the Southland Band began its march, playing all throughout campus, leading the way to Neyland Stadium. Two hours before kickoff was when the pulse of campus turned to Peyton Manning Pass. Fans crowded the path to the stadium. As the band played Rocky Top, the cheers and singing of the pack grew louder and louder to a crescendo as the Vol Walk began. Everyone on campus turned their heads to the historic stadium. Here come the Volunteers. It’s almost football time in Tennessee.

Who is cheering? The alumni; the VFLs that watched Tennessee win its first six national championships; the children that sit on their shoulders now; the students of today, the students of tomorrow; their professors; the proud parents wearing ‘Tennessee Mom’ and ‘Tennessee Dad’ shirts. A community rallied around a team. Today, Vol Nation showed what it means when it’s football time in Tennessee.

The team parted the orange sea. Students pressed up against fences, and families leaned against barriers. Kids outstretched their hands for autographs and high fives as the Tennessee Volunteers made their way from The Torchbearer to Gate 21 at Neyland Stadium.

One of the premier rivalries in college athletics, Tennessee vs. Florida, is ready for the next installment of a crazy and passionate series.