The competition won't be relegated to the on-field action Saturday at Neyland Stadium when Tennessee hosts SEC East rival Florida. The list of highly touted high school recruits -- the lifeblood of any program's future success -- making official visits to UT this weekend reads like a who's who of the top-rated prospects at every position.
Ridgeland four-star safety Vonn Bell is included.
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Bell made an official visit to Alabama last weekend, just after trimming his list of potential colleges to the Crimson Tide, Ohio State and Tennessee. He whittled the list from seven after asking coaches three questions each about their academic program and their plans for how he would fit into their program.
He already has been to all three finalist campuses, so these official visits are designed to help him gauge the game-day atmosphere at each and build relationships with coaches and potential teammates.
"It's all about the people and how comfortable I am around the coaches and other players," said Bell, who is rated among the top five safeties in the nation by most recruiting services. "That's the next step in the process for me, is the relationship and the feeling on game day.
"All three are really good programs, so now it's just where I believe I would fit in best. And I don't have any idea when I'll make my decision. I'll just know when the time is right."
Asked what stood out most from his trip to Tuscaloosa last weekend, Bell replied simply, "Coach [Nick] Saban."
Bell said he expects a lot of excitement on the UT campus with ESPN's "College GameDay" set and a fan base hungry for a win over a big rival. Among the numerous prized prospect expected to be at the game with Bell are UT's top three running backs targets -- five-star recruits Derrick Henry, Derrick Green and A.J. Turman -- as well as North Carolina prep star receiver MarQuez North (he has 10 TD catches in two games this season) and four-star junior college receiver Jonathan Rumph.
"I think a lot of guys are curious to see what the atmosphere will be like on the sideline before the game and in the stadium for the game," Bell said. "I expect a huge crowd, and a lot of excitement from the time we get there, all over the campus. UT hasn't been ranked in a while, so everybody is excited about their future right now.
"I talk to some of the other guys. We keep up with each other and ask how visits are going and what we think of certain schools we've been to. I'm sure we'll get together and talk about our experience at Tennessee while we're there. It's just another way of getting to know some guys who could be your future teammates and seeing what they're like to hang out with."
Bell burst onto the recruiting scene last season. During the winter and spring, attention grew from college coaches, media and recruiting services to the point that his phone and social media and Panthers coach Mark Mariakis' cellphone began receiving calls and messages at all hours of the day.
From the time Bell stepped onto the field turf at Calhoun for the season opener two weeks ago, his every move -- from pregame stretching to every snap -- was followed by five cameramen, each zeroing in on Bell. He has decided simply to embrace the process, knowing it goes with being one of the top high school prospects in the nation in the modern-day world of recruiting, where fans' thirst to find out how many stars their teams' signing class has is never quenched.
"Vonn has all the information on the academic side, and the fluff of all the campuses," Mariakis said. "Now he gets to go watch football games and concentrate on that and getting a feel for the coaches and players. He's going there to get an education and to play football, so he wants to look deeper into the football environment at each place.
"If you're a major prospect you have to look at Alabama right now for what they've done in the last few years and their history. There's a pull toward Knoxville because he's been a UT fan his whole life. And Ohio State has been that steady school since day one of the process. They all bring something different to the table, so these visits will determine where he decides to go."
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 20 years, starting at the News-Free Press as a 19-year-old reporter. He has been with the Times Free Press since its inception and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation ...