It was about 5:00pm I’d guess. My dad and I always liked to get to our seats a little early to catch the end of warmups and enjoy the pre-game steps of the Pride of the Southland Marching Band in its entirety before watching the Vols storm the field. The strange thing about this night, however, was that it was 30 minutes before kickoff and the stands were already full. Neyland Stadium had a reputation for late-arrivals and early departures – especially for out-of-conference games – but tonight the crowd was early, and there was a unique buzz in the air.
It had been a crazy offseason. The Vols went 5-6 the year before and Phillip Fulmer was forced to make a lot of staff changes, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Out was Randy Sanders, and in was a familiar face at offensive coordinator in David Cutcliffe. I can’t be sure, but I think it was that familiarity that gave fans the hope that the 2006 Vols were going to be much better than they had been just a year ago.
Cal was good. Really good. They were a preseason top-10 team that many pundits had selected as a dark-horse national championship contender. Yes, they had a first-year starter at quarterback, but their offense was littered with future NFL stars…DeSean Jackson, Marshawn Lynch, Justin Forsett, Alex Mack…the list goes on. Cal’s offense was going to put up points by the truckload and Tennessee’s defense stood no chance. But on this night, it wasn’t Tennessee’s defense that was overwhelmed, it was Cal’s offense. And it wasn’t just the Vol defense that gave Cal fits, it was also the sellout crowd that made their presence felt early and often.
For four quarters Cal’s high-powered offense, loaded will future Pro-Bowlers at multiple positions, couldn’t do anything right. They couldn’t pass, they couldn’t catch, they couldn’t block, they couldn’t run, they couldn’t audible…they couldn’t win. Tennessee’s fans smelled blood in the water early, and the intensity level inside Neyland Stadium continued to rise well into the third quarter.
Tennessee’s defense feasted on the chaos.
Cal quarterback Nate Longshore couldn’t hear his coaches, and Longshore’s teammates couldn’t hear him. Communication for the Bear offense diminished to hand signals and full-throat screaming into the earholes of helmets…But none of that worked either.
On that night, as good as Tennessee’s football team was, the crowd assembled inside Neyland Stadium was elite. 106,009 people – nearly all of whom were clad in orange and white – made Shields-Watkins Field a living hell for Jeff Tedford’s squad from Berkely. Cal was rattled from start to finish, and the Vols would cruise to a 35-18 win – a final score that made the game appear closer than it really was.
“We’ve never seen anything like that. That’s a pretty impressive atmosphere, there’s no doubt about it,” Cal coach Jeff Tedford said after the game. “The environment they create gives Tennessee a real home field advantage.”
Longshore echoed his coach’s comments, “It’s static noise. You can’t hear anything. You go up and down the line, your wide receivers, your running backs, your tight ends, nobody can hear. Nobody.”
But that was 2006. And, frankly, the atmosphere inside Neyland Stadium hasn’t had that type of impact on a visiting team since. It’s been a strange nine years for Tennessee since that game, in fairness. Four different coaches, lots of turnover, lots of losses, and lots of disappointment. Since that 2006 season, Tennessee football has a combined record of 50-51 – and plenty of those losses have come at home. Tennessee’s national perception and the perception of its stadium as one of college football’s toughest places to play has, rightfully, taken a hit.
This weekend, however, Tennessee has a chance to change the perception of their program and their venue, and the fans have a chance to impact the game in a very large way – much like they did against Cal in 2006.
Oklahoma comes to town this weekend at 1-0 and ranked 19th in the country after a 41-3 win over Akron. And while this weekend’s road trip to Knoxville is sure to feature the largest road crowd in Sooner history – by about 14,000 or so – head coach Bob Stoops and starting quarterback Baker Mayfield don’t seem to be too worried about the environment.
Mayfield offered this following his team’s win over Akron when asked about the trip to Knoxville:
"We're still playing football. Big crowd…doesn't matter. We just need to play our game." – Mayfield on heading to Knoxville next.
— Oklahoma Football (@OU_Football) September 6, 2015
And here’s what Stoops had to say about the upcoming environment during his Monday press conference:
“Come on, we’ve had Notre Dame and Florida State prior to that. We’ve been on this stage before. We’ll have the music blaring in the stadium this week for every road game this season,” Stoops said. “It shouldn’t be any different. It’s exciting but exciting things happen in any stadium across the country,” Stoops said. “In the end, we’ll be on the field like every other game ready to go.
“All of those guys have played in big games on the road,” Stoops said. “We go on the road all the time. I have a hard time understanding all the questions about a stadium. When we go somewhere, it’s usually not half full.”
Stoops seems rather dismissive of what will certainly be one of the most hostile environments, not only of his career, but in the history of Oklahoma football. The largest crowd to ever see the Sooners play football is 96,009 – three times – in the annual Red River Rivalry between OU and Texas. That game is a neutral site game, however, with tickets split evenly between the Sooners and Longhorns. The largest true road crowd Oklahoma has ever faced? 88,119 in matchup against Ohio State…The year was 1977.
But Bob Stoops isn’t worried, however. The Sooners will have a first-year starter at quarterback, but NFL talent all over their roster on Saturday night…stop me if you’ve heard this before.
Tennessee fans didn’t need any extra motivation for this weekend as it was. It’s the home-opener, it’s an evening game, the Vols are 1-0, the Vols are ranked, and #CheckerNeyland will be in full effect. And even if Bob Stoops and Baker Mayfield had not mentioned the environment, or lack thereof, it would have still been impressive.
We don't take the back seat to nobody…. ou is going to get it this week! I can't wait to be in Neyland this Saturday.#CheckerNeyland
— Inky Johnson (@InkyJohnson) September 7, 2015
No lie.. I remember when we played a home game in 96' and it felt like the stadium was moving.. We need that on Sat..#102,455
— Leonard Little (@DBL_L_01) September 7, 2015
Seeing tons on quotes from people underestimating Neyland stadium. I hope y'all seeing this. Marshawn Lynch did the same in 2006 at Cal
— Jayson Swain (@SwainEvent) September 7, 2015
.@ErikAinge3 on OU downplaying the environment Saturday: “Don’t piss off Neyland before the game even starts"
— Rocky Top Insider (@rockytopinsider) September 11, 2015
But poking the bear? On game week, no less? Well, Stoops just guaranteed that Saturday night will be an all-time great Neyland atmosphere. A game that has been sold out for months now has even more fuel added to the fire.
Tennessee fans are a unique group, and one way to rile them up is to say they are no different than anyone else. Right or wrong, Bob Stoops has done just that…and the results should be spectacular. Regardless of the outcome on Saturday night, the atmosphere to start the game will undoubtedly be one of the best ever seen inside Neyland Stadium. And if the Sooners stumble early, then the party may last all night.