KNOXVILLE — The University of Tennessee football team hasn’t particularly impressed first-year head coach Derek Dooley during its first four games this season. And all four were played in big, friendly Neyland Stadium.
“Who knows what it would’ve looked like if we were on the road?” Dooley said.
Come Saturday, everyone will have a pretty good idea.
The inexperienced, depth-depleted Volunteers will play (2-2, 0-1 SEC) will play 12th-ranked LSU (4-0, 2-0) in big, hostile Tiger Stadium.
Dooley said he’ll have “66 to 68” players on the traveling squad.
“And it’s going to be the first road game for about half of them,” he added. “I think I counted about 30 guys that have never even been on a road trip at Tennessee.”
Several more, including third-year sophomore offensive tackle Dallas Thomas, have traveled with the team but never played a significant role away from Neyland.
“Oh, I think we did real good,” Thomas said about the Vols’ road work in 2009. “We just try to carry that over from last year to this year.”
They’ll have to do that with several new faces playing prominent roles.
“I’d rather play at home than on the road, but eventually they have to learn to play on the road,” Dooley said.
UT junior quarterback Matt Simms joked that there were “probably 50 people” in the stands at most of his El Camino (Calif.) Community College games last season, and “I knew most of them.”
“I was actually just looking at the [LSU] media guide and just imagining what it would be like to run out on the field,” Simms said. “I’m super excited to go there and play. ... From what I hear, everyone tells me this stadium and the Swamp [at Florida] are the two best stadiums in the conference besides ours, so I can’t wait to run out there on that field and hear a few boos.
“It will be a little different, but it will be exciting.”
It also will be challenging for a UT offense that’s ranked 119th out of 120 major college football programs in third-down conversions at 11-for-58 — a dismal 18.97 percent. The only major college program with a lower conversion rate is San Jose State, which has played at No. 1 Alabama, at No. 11 Wisconsin and at No. 13 Utah.
“Even though our stadium is a little loud when we’re on offense, it’s going to be a whole other level when we take the field against [LSU], especially since it’s a conference game and we don’t like each other,” Simms said. “They’re going to be pretty rowdy. We just need to stay composed and make sure we don’t let the crowd affect us.”
Dooley, a former LSU assistant who took two of his three Louisiana Tech teams to Tiger Stadium, joked about making aesthetic changes to Haslam Field this week to help the cause.
“I was going to paint the field, but that didn’t work for Oregon State,” he said. “If they had beaten Boise, I might have put a big [tiger] eye on our field.”
The Vols will pump in extra crowd noise this week and try to get the offense on the same page with its hand signals, but Dooley said “there’s only so much you can do.”
“I don’t know how you simulate Tiger Stadium unless we had a practice and we had all our fans come to Neyland and just start screaming against us, because that’s what it’s like,” he said.
Contact Wes Rucker at firstname.lastname@example.org or 865-851-9739. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wesrucker or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.