Although the season-opener felt like a home game, the University of Tennessee football team makes its real home debut Saturday when the Vols return to Neyland Stadium to host Austin Peay at 5 p.m. ET (SEC Network+/ESPN+).
It will be the first time in 294 days the Vols have played a game at Shields-Watkins Field against an opposing team. Tennessee finished 7-0 at home last season, the final one a 66-24 romp over Missouri on Nov. 12.
“Look forward to seeing 102,000 of our closest friends here on Saturday evening. For our program, it’s been a long time since we’ve been inside of that stadium with our fans, and look forward to that,” Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel says. “For a lot of our guys, it’s the first opportunity that they’re going to have to drive by Vol Navy, walk in front of 40,000 fans in the Vol Walk before the game and run out to 102,000.”
The Vols will wear special jerseys honoring former quarterback Condredge Holloway.
The “Artful Dodger” Smokey Grey uniforms will make their debut 51 years to the day of Holloway’s first start at Tennessee. Holloway, nicknamed the Artful Dodger, became the first Black quarterback to start in the SEC when he led the Vols to a victory over Georgia Tech on Sept. 9, 1972.
“Pretty special opportunity to honor a great legacy, somebody that meant so much through who he is, his character, how he handled himself here and post-playing career, as well,” Heupel says. “And the legacy that he’s left behind, like all of the guys that have statues and are honored outside of our stadium. It’s an awesome way to honor their legacy.”
Tennessee wide receiver Bru McCoy likes the look of the new uniforms, and appreciates the sentiment behind them.
“I think it means a lot, especially as a Black student-athlete, you get to look back to see the first Black quarterback at Tennessee,” McCoy says. “It’s nice to be here in 2023 still commending something that happened a long time ago. It means a lot, and it’s a special thing that we get to celebrate that at the first home game in Neyland. I’m excited.”
Nissan decked out like Neyland
Tennessee (1-0) opened the season last weekend with a 49-13 victory over Virginia at Nissan Stadium in Nashville. The game set the attendance record for the largest crowd at a sporting event ever held at Nissan Stadium. The official attendance was 69,507, beating the previous record of 69,489 that also featured the Vols at the 2021 Music City Bowl.
The pro-UT crowd that filled Nissan Stadium with orange saw the Vols display a strong rushing attack and promising early results from the defense.
Tennessee, which ranked No. 90 nationally last season by allowing 405.3 yards per game, gave up just 201 against Virginia and recorded four sacks. The Vols finished with four sacks and 11 tackles for loss.
“We all work real hard, and I think the young guys came along a lot this offseason. Bonding to know that we need them, and we need them to perform,” UT redshirt senior defensive back Wesley Walker says. “They took that, and they accepted that like a pro so we can win big time games. That was just a glimpse of it (against Virginia).”
Jaylen Wright led the UT running backs with 115 yards on 12 attempts while fellow running back Dylan Sampson finished with four total touchdowns (three rushing and one receiving).
Sixth-year senior quarterback Joe Milton III completed 21 of 30 passes for 201 yards with two passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns before giving way to Nico Iamaleava. The highly touted freshman completed 2 of 3 passes for 11 yards in his UT debut.
Toughest ticket in town
The Tennessee fans who didn’t make the trip to Nashville will be eager to see how the team performs against an FCS opponent in Knoxville. It may be one of their few chances.
The Vols have become a hot ticket again in the Heupel era.
Tennessee home games versus UTSA, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Georgia this season are sold out for the 101,915-seat Neyland Stadium. Entering the week, limited tickets remained for the home games against Austin Peay, UConn and Vanderbilt.
Tennessee announced in May it had exhausted its football season ticket inventory with 70,500 purchased, including 9,000 new season tickets. The sellout figure eclipsed the athletic department’s strategic plan goal of 61,000 by 9,500.
It marks the second time in the past 22 seasons that UT has sold out of its football season ticket inventory, last doing so in Aug. 2016.
Last season, Tennessee finished with the fifth-highest average home attendance at 100,532. The Vols sold out every home game aside from the season opener against Ball State on a Thursday night. Tennessee trailed only LSU (100,596), Ohio State (104,663), Penn State (107,379) and Michigan (110,246).
Although Austin Peay may not elicit as much hype as some of the bigger games on the schedule, opponents usually leave realizing how special the environment is.
“That is the loudest place I ever played,” former Notre Dame quarterback and current Fox Sports analyst Brady Quinn said last year. “I swear to God, our center turned around on third down in the third quarter and said ‘the ball is moving.’ It was so loud no one outside of my guards could hear me under center.”