After four disappointing seasons in a row, things are looking up for the University of Tennessee football program. In fact, senior associate athletics director for operations Chris Fuller sees encouraging similarities to 2006.
Despite a 5-6 record in 2005, Vol fans showed up in full force and full voice for the '06 opener versus California. Feeding off the crowd's energy, Tennessee raced to a 35-0 lead, stunned the ninth-ranked Golden Bears 35-18 and went on to post a 9-3 regular season.
Fuller senses the same type of excitement building in the fan base as the 2012 opener approaches. He thinks Tennessee may sell out its allotment of 32,000 tickets for the Chick fil-A Kickoff Classic against North Carolina State on Aug. 31 in Atlanta.
"I expect we're going to be very close, if not completely sold out," Fuller told InsideTennessee. "I expect we're going to move 30,000-plus."
The Vols have a huge following in the Atlanta area, so the walk-up crowd on game day could give The Georgia Dome a decidedly orange tint.
"I expect our fans will be behind us full-bore," Fuller said.
Tennessee is getting a lot of help from Knoxville-area high schools. Several have moved their games from Friday, Aug. 31 to Thursday, Aug. 30. This will enable fans to watch their favorite high school team on Thursday night, then view the Vols on Friday night.
Fuller says school officials were reluctant to schedule Tennessee's opener on a high school football night but felt it was the more palatable of two difficult options.
"That was a sensitive issue for us. We are very sensitive to Friday night high school football," Fuller said. "But it came down to playing on Friday or Monday."
Playing on Monday would have left Tennessee with just three practice days to prepare for Game 2. Also, it would have forced some fans to travel home on a work day (Tuesday, Sept. 1).
"It came down to balancing a quick turnover (for Game 2) and asking your fans to travel on the backside of a holiday weekend instead of the front side," Fuller said. "If we played Monday people would have to miss a day of work on Tuesday or have to travel really late."
In addition to scarfing up Chick fil-A tickets, Tennessee fans are responding favorably to the so-called "triple-option" ticket package. Those who passed on the seven-game season-ticket package have the option of buying a ticket to one of the two marquee home games (Alabama or Florida), plus any two of the other home games at a cost of $150. The response to this offer has been excellent.
"Sales are going very well," Fuller said. "We had sold 3,200 packages as of Monday. I don't have a game-by-game breakdown but there's a pretty good distribution of games."
In other words, not everyone is choosing Alabama, Missouri and Kentucky as their three-game trifecta.
"Sometimes the schedule works out that it's better to see Troy or someone else," Fuller noted. "Hopefully, (this plan) is meeting our customers where they are."
Head coach Derek Dooley helped boost interest with some optimistic remarks at SEC Media Days last week in Hoover, Ala. A little positive energy helps sell tickets.
|Wide receiver Robert Meachem (3) and the Volunteers electrified the crowd at Neyland Stadium with the victory over California in 2006.|
"Absolutely, it does," Fuller said. "I can see it in Coach's approach and body language. Inside (the athletics department) we know how huge the challenge he faced was when he came here two and a half years ago. We can tell that he's walking a little different and feeling a little different. The staff can pick up on it."
Although the Vols were picked to finish fifth among the seven SEC East teams at Media Days, that snub seems to be motivating them.
"I personally know a lot of folks aren't going to pick us to do anything special in the SEC East," Fuller said, "but sometimes there's an advantage in this league to not being the hunted.
"I keep being reminded of when we played Cal in the 2006 opener. We were coming off a difficult season and facing a challenging opponent but I don't know that there's been a more electric environment at Neyland Stadium than that night. On the opening kickoff we lit up their tight end, knocked him so silly that he got up and walked toward our sideline."
Tennessee's victory in the 2006 opener provided a springboard to a successful season, and Fuller believes a replay could be in the works this fall. He sees signs that 2012 is going to be a break-out year.
"Very much so," he said. "We get to see some things inside the building, in terms of how the team looks, how they're getting prepared, how the coaching staff has come together.
"It's a really positive vibe here right now. The fan base, the team, the university community can't wait to kick off. It's been an offseason that has required some soul searching and I think we're going to be ready to play."
Perhaps the Vols will be ready to play. Perhaps they will rise to the occasion, much as the '06 team did in its opener versus Cal. Perhaps they will win enough games to galvanize a fan base that had precious little to cheer about the past four seasons. Fuller hopes so.
"Our fan base needs to know how important they are in this equation," he said. "They really deserve something good to happen."