Let’s imagine for a moment that things didn’t go awry so quickly, so woefully at Georgia. Bear with me.
I’m not saying that the Vols were close to beating the Bulldogs. They weren’t, but what if the circumstances leading into the game weren’t so lined up against the Vols? What if there wasn’t a public questioning of Sanford Stadium and its fans ability to get rowdy? Moreover, what if the Vols hadn’t let a punt go out of bounds inside the one-yard line? What if Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker had been a bit more accurate? Would the Vols have at least been in the game in the fourth quarter?
It’s at least feasible. Perhaps plausible that Tennessee could have hung tight with the No. 1 team in the nation. While we’ll never know, there is one thing that is certain. There’s no need to stir up a hornets’ nest when the Vols travel to Columbia, S.C., to take on the Gamecocks. South Carolina is a more difficult road environment than many realize. Had you asked me before the Georgia game, I would have said playing at South Carolina and Georgia are comparable. Needless to say, Georgia upped their game so that’s no longer the case.
That, however, doesn’t mean South Carolina fans can’t get rowdy. They can and they will if the Vols give them a chance. That’s where that high-paced offense is supposed to come in. The Vols should be able to quiet the crowd with quick, early scores, stay ahead of the chains and keep the crowd out of the game, especially in key third downs. That plan has worked before, but after things didn’t go so swimmingly at Georgia, that plan is under scrutiny.
So do the Vols rely more on pre-game preparation for crowd noise or is there also an element of learning as you go during the game?
“It’s a combination,” Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel said during his weekly press conference on Monday. “We’ll continue to do some of the things that we’ve done here at home. In the moment, we’ve got to be able to reset and play. On dead balls in particular, you have to be able to handle it.
“We’ve done that in different road environments. This will be a great one. Having been there before, it’s going to be loud and you have to handle that part of it. We talked about it this morning. It has to be a point of emphasis to do the ordinary things at a really high level in this game.”
That point of emphasis can be another log on the burning bonfire of motivation for the Vols. The Vols have to prove a lot to the College Football Playoff committee in order to make its final four. However, the Vols have another newfound challenge, to prove those that questioned their road management are incorrect.
“Honestly, I feel like everyone on the offensive side of the ball is excited to go into this atmosphere,” Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker said. “We’ve seen what it was like at Georgia and, moving forward, we know what to expect. Anytime going into an environment like this, you want to prepare and do different things to get ready for that environment, so crowd noise at practice is a thing. But really just going out and locking in and communicating at a high level is what we need to do.”
The Vols didn’t do that against Georgia. If they don’t do that against South Carolina, things could again go awry. Not handling challenges on the road can open the door for an upset or, at least, a close game. That’s not something Tennessee wants the College Football Playoff committee to see.