The lush Smoky Mountains roll into the banks of the Tennessee River. A lukewarm October sun climbs above the hills, splashing the sky with a kiss of orange.
The crisp silence is broken by humming boats cruising down the restless river and cars rolling into tailgate lots that open at 7 a.m.
It’s football paradise.
The smell of deep-fried tailgates fills the air. Beer funnels swish and gurgle. Footballs fly. An electricity pulses though the fan base to the familiar beat of Rocky Top.
Fans arrive in floods, boasting about tradition and bragging about Neyland Stadium – its noise, hostility and chaos – over blackened bratwursts and baby-back ribs.
It’s the scene of a home football game at the University of Tennessee.
It’s almost perfect.
There’s just one problem.
Odds are when the Vols rush the field to host Georgia on Oct. 5, large patches of barren aluminum benches will glare down from the grandstands.
The sore spot?
The student section.
What was once an asylum for 13,000-plus orange-clad students has now turned into the stadium’s largest blemish.
The student section stretches across pristine Neyland Stadium real estate. It claims Sections DD to FF in the upper bowl and continues from Sections E (on the 30-yard line) to K (next to the tunnel in the south end zone) in the lower bowl. The upper deck sections are desolate. The lower bowl is patchy at best.
Students claim an average of 8,503 tickets per game, according to fall 2013 athletic department figures.
“I can’t understand it,” Vols linebacker Dontavis Sapp said.
Sapp isn’t alone.
Plenty of players have noticed. It’d be hard not to.
“I’m not going to lie, I see it,” Sapp said. “I don’t like it. You wonder why they’re not here to support you.”
All student section seats are $10, can be claimed with just a click of a button online, and tickets can be printed at home. It’s a hassle-free process.
Struggling student attendance has become so noticeable that Butch Jones dedicated a chunk of his regularly scheduled press conference to address the issue.
The first-year head coach needs the students. So does his football team.
“They're wanted, and they're needed," Jones said. “Neyland Stadium is very, very special and them knowing that we need them, that they're a part of us and that they can directly influence and impact a game.”
Enticing students to come to a football game shouldn’t be that hard. Especially not in the Southeastern Conference, home – arguably – to the nation’s best programs and most feverish fans.
And especially not at the University of Tennessee, an institution where roughly 90 percent of students come from in-state.
“They grew up being Vol fans, and we need to get them in the stands,” Jones said.
As players pace in the tunnel before running through the “T,” the student sections stares directly at them.
“I’ve noticed it, yeah. I mean, you always want to see a full crowd. Not having students in the stands, you kind of wonder why they’re not there,” Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley said. “You ask yourself ‘Why? Why don’t they want to be here?’ We need them.”
Michael Palardy also has spotted the problem. Most of the kicker’s game is mental, so he tries not to pay attention to the crowd. But he looks from time to time. He can’t help it.
“If I had a message for the student section it would be to be as passionate and supportive as you can,” Palardy said. “I mean, we’re out there busting our butt every single day. Seeing them stand for the entire game and fill the stadium up has a huge impact on us. The more people that are there, the tougher it makes it on the other team.”
Safety Brian Randolph relies on the student section. The louder the crowd, the more mistakes the opposing offense is bound to make.
Mistakes result in turnovers. Miscommunication results in three-and-outs.
Neither can be happen with an empty crowd.
“It’s very helpful for us. Being on defense, it makes it hard on the offense to get their checks in. You may not think it, but crowd noise plays a huge role. It’s why they call it home field advantage,” Randolph said. “We need ‘em. If we have open spots in the student section, we need to get them filled. The noise level really helps.”
The relationship between the crowd and the team changes when the offense takes the field. Fans are silent, making it easy for the home team to hear the signals.
Offensive guard Zach Fulton hasn’t noticed the student section’s bareness, or so he says.
“Honestly, I try to focus on the game,” Fulton said. “I could barely tell you where (the student section) is. I have a slight idea. I mean, I’ve never sat there, so I couldn’t tell you.”
Fulton may not be focused on how many of his classmates show up to support him on game day, but even he sees the need to fill Neyland to its brim in the coming weeks.
Meaningful games are lurking.
Georgia is next up at Neyland, followed by a South Carolina and Alabama.
“We have to make a bowl game,” Jones said. “That’s the goal. Always has been.”
Crowd noise is vital to that goal once Vols reach the thick of November play.
“Anytime you can get a big crowd, that helps,” Fulton said. “Especially in SEC play. The noise is really important.”
Tennessee fields hoards of inexperience each Saturday, playing an average of 13 freshmen per game.
The Vols need all the extra help they can get.
“Hopefully with the SEC teams coming up we’ll get the students back into it and loud. I think the ones who are here are doing a great job,” Worley said. “They’ve been real loud. But the more the merrier. It’s like having an extra man on the field. We need them, bad. It’s part of what makes Tennessee special – Neyland Stadium. We need it full and loud.”