It'll be church in the morning, Vols at night as Tennessee kicks off its season on a Sunday

It'll be church in the morning, Vols at night as Tennessee kicks off its season on a Sunday

April 9th, 2014 by Kevin Hardy and Patrick Brown in Sports - College

The University of Tennessee marching band takes the field before a game with Georgia.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

POLL: Should the Vols play their opening football game on Sunday?

KNOXVILLE -- Two of Tennessee's favorite religions will collide next fall - faith and football - as the Tennessee Volunteers take on Utah State in a Sunday football game for the first time in a decade.

Volunteers officials shook things up Tuesday by announcing that their 2014 season opener against Utah State was moving from Saturday to Sunday, Aug. 31, in a change that will make for a big weekend in Knoxville and help kick off the new Southeastern Conference television network.

Much like what happened in 2004, Boomsday -- the annual Labor Day weekend fireworks show in Knoxville -- will swap places with Tennessee's opening game. Utah State's Aggies are coming off a 9-5 season and feature one of the better under-the-radar players in college football in quarterback Chuckie Keeton.

"The way I look at it is the entire state of Tennessee and Vol Nation coming together for an entire weekend in Knoxville," second-year Vols coach Butch Jones said after Tuesday's practice. "We're very, very excited about that. It's also a great opportunity to perform on the SEC Network.

"I think it's a tremendous opportunity for our football program, and to me it's a compliment that we're going to be able to play on the SEC Network, but also to welcome the families to Knoxville for a great weekend. We're really looking forward to this opportunity."

In the Bible Belt, of course, Sundays are for church. But that doesn't mean the faithful can't be the Vols faithful, too. It will help that the game is slated for a 7 p.m. kickoff.

Sports have been creeping into Sunday timeslots for decades. Major league baseball, the NFL, NBA, NCAA basketball and even some youth sports leagues schedule games for Sundays. Kentucky and Louisville often match up in an early season Sunday football game.

Robby Holt, pastor of Mountain Fellowship on Signal Mountain, said the Vols' Sunday game isn't a big surprise. The world is changing. And the culture isn't explicitly Christian.

"As a pastor my job is to encourage God's people to worship and it would be kind of silly for me to expect the culture at large to have those same values," he said. "I think our parents and grandparents assumed we live in a Christian culture, but we really can't anymore."

Mountain Fellowship, a member of the Presbyterian Church in America, has a Sunday evening service, meaning Holt's service could face some tough competition on Aug. 31.

"Our Sunday evening service is kind of small," he said. "It's not a huge service but I know a couple people that will be torn in two directions when that's going on."

Churches that have Saturday evening services already have noticed college football's effect on attendance.

During football season, Saturday evening Masses at St. Jude Catholic Church are lighter than usual, said the Rev. Charlie Burton. Sometimes, one-third to a half of the regular Saturday evening crowd is gone during gridiron season. They'll come to Mass on Sunday instead. Some miss for Georgia or Alabama games, but usually it's a Tennessee game that's responsible for dips in attendance.

"It's primarily the Vols," Burton said.

In 2004, the last time the Vols opened the season on a Sunday, Tennessee got off to a good start with a 42-17 win against UNLV. The Vols opened the 2012 season on a Friday night against North Carolina State in a Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

This year, the Vols will play in one of at least three games to help open the SEC Network, which will televise a Texas A&M-South Carolina and Temple-Vanderbilt doubleheader that Thursday night and Auburn-Arkansas on Saturday.

"We are thrilled to have the Tennessee Vols' home opener on the SEC Network," ESPN senior vice president of college networks Justin Connolly said in the university's release. "Tennessee has a rich tradition of passionate college football fans, and we look forward to providing exclusive coverage of a packed Neyland Stadium [on] Labor Day weekend."

Jones and athletic director Dave Hart again have tweaked the schedule in hopes of creating more exposure for the Vols.

Last October, Tennessee announced it would play Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2016, and the Vols moved a 2015 game against UAB to LP Field in Nashville as part of an increased focus on the midstate.

West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck told the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette last week the Vols and Mountaineers are finalizing a 2018 game in Charlotte, N.C., and Hart and Jones have been public proponents of neutral-site games, so one or two more are likely on tap for future seasons.

For the next one, though, it's simply a change in date.

"We are very excited about this partnership with the university," said Kim Bumpas, the president of Visit Knoxville, "and I think this is going to make for an amazing weekend in Knoxville, Tennessee, to kick it off with Boomsday and then go right into the game. It's going to celebrate everything that is Knoxville and the University of Tennessee and the football game."

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