Rocky Top In Nashville: Good For City, Bad For Vols

10 reasons why this season opener should have been played at Neyland

DAVE LINK | The Ledger

I can’t help but get fired up for a college football game between Tennessee and Virginia Tech in front of 150,000 people at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Brilliant idea.

Too bad “The Battle of Bristol” won’t happen until Sept. 10, 2016.

First, UT will play another neutral site game here Saturday against Bowling Green at Nissan Stadium.

Bad idea.

Let me explain.

It all began in 2014 when Tennessee suspended its previously scheduled games at Connecticut on Sept. 26, 2015, and against Connecticut in Neyland Stadium on Sept. 3, 2016.

Why cancel those games?

The going trend in college football is for neutral site games, and Tennessee was all in with UT athletic director Dave Hart leading the way.

Maybe Hart didn’t want to miss the boat.

There are five neutral site games to start the 2015 college football season this weekend. They began with Thursday night’s game between North Carolina and South Carolina at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.

The four others are Saturday: Alabama vs. Wisconsin in Arlington, Texas; Arizona State vs. Texas A&M in Houston; Auburn vs. Louisville in Atlanta; and UT vs. Bowling Green in Nashville.

Tennessee originally was scheduled to play Alabama-Birmingham in the 2015 opener in Nashville, but UAB dropped its program (briefly), so Hart went searching for another opponent.

When Hart announced he was pulling out of the Connecticut games to play in Bristol and Nashville, he said a game in Nashville “is a priority for us from the perspective of recruiting, our fans and our alumni.”

I asked UT coach Butch Jones this week what he thought about playing in Nashville as opposed to playing the season opener at home.

“We’re excited about playing in Nashville for many reasons,” Jones responded. “First of all, when you look at our recruiting success, it stems in the state of Tennessee first and foremost.

“You look at both of our freshman All-Americans who are from Nashville in Jashon Robertson and Derek Barnett, and you look at all the individuals. Jalen (Hurd) had an opportunity to go home and have his high school jersey retired this (past) weekend (by Hendersonville Beech High).

“Nashville, the entire state of Tennessee, is critical for us getting Tennessee football back, and it’s not recruiting talk. For a young man in-state to stay at home and play for his state institution, that has ramifications that last forever, for his family, everything. Once a Vol, always a Vol, Vol for Life, so to be able to go to Nissan Stadium is very big for us.

“It’s an opportunity to reward our great fan base in Middle Tennessee. That’s why selling the game out, that’s why getting people in the stands is absolutely critical in creating that home-field advantage, so we are really looking forward to Nashville.

“So that’s very big for us, and I know our players will handle it very well.”

I’m not handling it so well.

I see the game at Nissan as a financial loss for UT and the Knoxville economy, a pain for Vol fans, and a missed opportunity for a rare eighth home in front of 100,000-plus fans dying to see their team in venerable Neyland Stadium for the season opener.

At least one Vol, starting free safety Brian Randolph, agrees – to an extent.

“It’s neat, being somewhere different (in Nashville),” says Randolph, a senior from Marietta, Georgia. “I’d definitely rather have a home game, but going over there gives our young people a chance to be on the road, a different atmosphere, so I think it will be a good experience.”

Let’s go over the contract details for Saturday’s game.

Bowling Green will receive a $1.2 million guarantee from UT for playing the game. Tennessee was to pay UAB $925,000 for that game, so this is an additional payout of $275,000.

Why Bowling Green?

Bowling Green was in the same situation as UT. The Falcons were scheduled to play South Carolina State on Sept. 3, but S.C. State backed out. Bowling Green needed a game, so a deal was worked out and signed in December of 2014.

UT should turn a profit at Nissan Stadium, but nothing like it would by playing some team, any team, in the 2015 opener at Neyland Stadium.

Simple math tells me that.

Neyland Stadium seats 102,455 fans; Nissan Stadium seats 68,798.

That means 33,657 fewer fans can attend the game at Nissan than at Neyland.

Still, UT won’t lose money at the gate, assuming an average crowd is there.

Tennessee gets the first $2 million of gate receipts, but the Music City Bowl is guaranteed $400,000 for the game per its prior agreement through the Nashville Sports Council when UT was playing UAB at what was then called LP Field.

After the first $2 million guarantee, UT gets 80 percent and the Music City Bowl gets the other 20 percent. Tennessee is entitled to all revenue from concessions, parking and program sales.

Money isn’t the big issue with me, though, especially for a UT athletic department with a budget of more than $100 million.

Here are 10 reasons why UT vs. Bowling Green in Nissan Stadium is a bad idea.
1. Atmosphere:
No way Nissan Stadium can have the atmosphere of Neyland Stadium for a season opener. So what if Nissan is an NFL Stadium? It’s not as big a stage as Neyland. And with UT fans so amped for the 2015 season opener, historic Neyland would be rockin’. It just won’t sound right when we hear: “It’s Football Time in Tennessee!” somewhere other than in Neyland.

2. Fewer fans: There won’t be as many fans at the game even if it’s a sellout. Many East Tennessee UT fans would much rather go to Neyland Stadium, where they know how to navigate through the ocean of humanity, than drive more than two hours to a strange venue, park, find an overpriced hotel, face a drive home, etc.

3. Nothing new: UT already plays in Nashville every other year against Vanderbilt, so that sort of shoots down the idea of satisfying the Middle Tennessee fan base, alumni, donors and recruits with a game at Nissan. Plus, the Vols played in the Music City Bowl in 2010.

4. Opponent: Bowling Green is an upgrade from UAB, but how much of an upgrade? The Falcons won the Mid-American Conference’s East Division last year, but a loss to Northern Illinois in the MAC Championship was their third straight. They beat South Alabama in the Camellia Bowl. Instead of UAB to begin with, why not go after Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee or Memphis. Much more intrigue than UAB or Bowling Green.

5. Eighth Home Game: UT denied its fans of a rare eighth home game in Neyland this year. The Vols played eight games in Neyland Stadium in 2011 (Derek Dooley’s second season as UT coach) and in 2009 (Lane Kiffin’s only season as UT coach). Sure, those guys bring back bad memories, but another Saturday in Neyland would have been nice.

6. No Vol Navy: One of the marvels of a UT home game is the Vol Navy. Every type of boat imaginable roars up the Tennessee River and docks next to Neyland. Multi-million dollar yachts. Dinky houseboats. Every boat in between. They’ll all be docked at home Saturday – unless they can find a way up/down the Cumberland River into Nashville.

What’s a season opener without the Vol Navy? Sure, you could get from Knoxville to Nashville by boat, but it’s an estimated 10-day trip that would take you through parts of Alabama and Kentucky.

(Visit Knoxville)

7. Vol Walk: Jones says UT will have its traditional Vol Walk before the game at Nissan. That’s not really possible. It won’t be the same as watching the players file down the hill into Neyland Stadium through a throng of Vol fans.

8. Tailgating: I can’t imagine UT fans tailgating outside of Nissan Stadium like they do outside Neyland Stadium. It’s amazing what some folks do for tailgating before Vols games. Food, drink, giant televisions, all under big tents. There are actually people who tailgate before UT games and don’t even go to the games!

9. Recruiting: UT will miss another weekend for recruits to make official visits to campus. OK, so recruits can make unofficial visits to watch the Vols play in Nissan. But they won’t get to see the atmosphere of Neyland. They won’t get to spend the weekend on campus. They won’t experience postgame at the Cumberland Avenue Strip.

10. Nashville: Most UT fans have been to Nashville for games against Vanderbilt and done the sightseeing thing in the Music City. My sense is Knoxville sports fans (and that includes UT football fans) would rather go to Nashville for something different, like to see the Titans or Predators play, than to see the Vols play in Nissan.

Three matchups to watch
Joshua Dobbs
vs. Bowling Green defense:
Dobbs could have a field day against the Falcons. After being inserted as UT’s starting quarterback in 2014, Dobbs went 4-1 and the Vols averaged 36.7 points and 431 yards offense per game.

For Bowling Green, only two starters return from the 2014 defense, and that might be a good thing for the Falcons. Bowling Green gave up 33.5 points (12th in the MAC) and 493.6 total yards per game (12th in the MAC) last season, and has a new defensive coordinator in Brian Ward, who served the same duties the previous three seasons at Western Illinois.

Matt Johnson vs. UT’s secondary: Bowling Green’s offensive plans were scrapped in 2014 when Johnson, the starting quarterback, was lost with a hip injury after the first game.

Now, Johnson is healthy and ready for a season like 2013 when he threw for 3,467 yards and 25 TDs on the Falcons’ way to the MAC championship.

UT’s secondary appeared to be a strength going into the year, but the loss of starting nickel back Rashaan Gaulden (foot injury) and starting safety LaDarrell McNeil (neck injury) during camp suddenly left the unit shaky and looking for depth.

Vols’ D-Line vs. Falcons’ O-Line: Much has been made about UT’s strength on the defensive front with the additions of freshmen tackles Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle and the return of the 2014 members of the unit. Defensive ends Curt Maggitt (11 sacks, 15 tackles for loss) and Derek Barnett (10 sacks, 20.5 tackles for loss) are machines as pass rushers.

Bowling Green returns four starters from the 2014 offensive line and is projected to be one of the MAC’s better front units, but it gave up 28 sacks last season (tied for ninth-most in MAC) for minus-172 yards.

Five things to watch
When does Dormady play?
 You’ve got to wonder if Jones and first-year coordinator Mike DeBord will insert true freshman quarterback Quinten Dormady for meaningful snaps or wait to put him on the field for mop-up duty, assuming that happens against Bowling Green. Or what if Dobbs struggles?

Maybe not this game, but against Oklahoma or Florida or Arkansas, how soon do you put Dobbs on the bench and put Dormady in?

How fast are the Falcons? Bowling Green’s offense was dubbed “Falcon Fast” for a reason last year. With No. 2 quarterback James Knapke playing for the injured Johnson, Bowling Green was one of three fastest offenses in terms of running plays (it got a snap off every 18.6 seconds).

Tennessee’s ability to make defensive adjustments and shuffle players against an up-tempo offense will be tested early. On the other hand, UT’s defense has been practicing against the Vols’ up-tempo offense since last spring.

Are UT’s receivers OK? This preseason went about like the 2014 season for Tennessee’s receiving corps. The Vols lost six receivers at some point last year, and the unit has been hit again in camp. Von Pearson missed much of preseason with legal issues, and Marquez North and Josh Smith missed time with injuries.

Alton “Pig” Howard, who led the team in receiving last year, will serve a one-game team suspension against Bowling Green.

Junior Jason Croom and freshman Vincent Perry were UT’s latest additions to the injured receivers list; both had arthroscopic surgeries last Friday.

UT finally got five-star freshman recruit Preston Williams (Lovejoy High, Hampton, Ga.) eligible this week, and Jones said he will play Saturday. Freshman Jauan Jennings of Murfreesboro Blackman High is listed as a starting receiver Saturday along with Josh Malone of Station Camp High in Gallatin and Marquez North or Johnathon Johnson at the third receiver.

Is UT’s O-Line better than 2014? The Vols’ offensive line wasn’t up to snuff for much of the 2014 season, although it got better once the mobile Dobbs entered against Alabama in Game 8.

There was only one senior starter (tackle Jacob Gilliam) on the 2014 offensive line, but the Vols lost their best offensive lineman, guard Marcus Jackson, for the season due to an injury in camp along with Austin Sanders, a sophomore who figured to be in the rotation.

Their absences make room for three true freshmen O-linemen: Chance Hall of Northside High in Roanoke, Va., Jack Jones of Murfreesboro Oakland, and Drew Richmond of Memphis University School. Starters for Saturday: Kyler Kerbyson at left tackle, Jason Robertson at left guard, Coleman Thomas or Mack Crowder at center, Dylan Wiesman at right guard, and Brett Kendrick or Coleman Thomas at right tackle.

How are Vols at middle linebacker? UT has sophomore walk-on Colton Jumper of Chattanooga Baylor/Signal Mountain as the starter for Saturday after one of the most competitive position battles in camp. It was narrowed down to Jumper and true freshman Darrin Kirkland Jr. of Lawrence Central High in Indianapolis before Jones announced Jumper as the starter Monday.

Fourth-year junior Kenny Bynum was in the competition for that starting job, but is slotted as the backup at weak-side linebacker behind Jalen Reeves-Maybin. The bid for No. 1 middle linebacker began as a six-player competition, at one time with redshirt freshman Dillon Bates a frontrunner.

Dave Link is a freelance contributor living in Knoxville.