Vols players, coaches prep for 'different' season with reduced Neyland Stadium crowds

Staff file photo by C.B. Schmelter / There will be fewer fans in attendance at SEC football games this season, including at Tennessee's Neyland Stadium.
photo Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / A sparse Neyland Stadium crowd watches the waning stages of Tennessee's 47-21 loss to Florida in 2018. Due to the distancing guidelines stemming from the coronavirus, small crowds will be the norm for the 2020 season.

The 1955 Tennessee Volunteers under first-year football coach Bowden Wyatt posted a 6-3-1 record that included 20-0 blankings of Alabama in Birmingham and Florida in Gainesville.

Junior tailback Johnny Majors was the Southeastern Conference's player of the year and the unquestioned star of the 1955 Vols, who played before an average crowd of 24,990 at Shields-Watkins Field.

Attendance-wise, it's about time for 1955 to meet 2020.

Due to social distancing guidelines that have resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic, Tennessee is on track to average approximately 25,000 fans for the first autumn in 65 years inside what is now a 102,455-seat facility that has been known as Neyland Stadium since 1962. Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer said this past week that a 25% capacity was likely for the five home games against Missouri, Kentucky, Alabama, Texas A&M and Florida.

"I think that will be an interesting dynamic for us," Vols senior center Brandon Kennedy said. "It will be something new. The main thing and the biggest overall thing is just being able to play. We all want to play, and we're all in, but it will be interesting and it will be something we have to adjust to.

"Regardless, we're going to go out there and give it our all for Tennessee."

Sophomore running back Eric Gray is striking an appreciative tone as well, adding, "It's definitely going to be different, but I think 25,000 is better than zero for sure."

Tennessee's 25% capacity is similar to the plans that will be implemented by several other SEC schools, with Alabama and Auburn announcing 20% capacities and Georgia aiming for 20-25%. The Vols averaged 87,864 fans inside Neyland Stadium last year, their lowest single-season clip since 1979, but that figure will dwarf what's about to transpire.

"One of the great things about this league is that every week every stadium is going to be full, so that will obviously be something different," Tennessee third-year coach Jeremy Pruitt said. "We train year round with the exception of the eight weeks that we give them off, and we train when nobody is looking. That's the mindset that I believe that we have to have as a team. I know things have changed daily over the last six months, so who knows what's liable to happen as the season goes, whether in a positive way or a negative way.

"The way we're looking at it is that we're training when nobody is looking, so we've got to be ready whenever the time comes."

Another unique aspect to the upcoming SEC season, which begins Sept. 26, is that tickets will not be sold to visiting teams. So when Tennessee travels to South Carolina in the season opener, the only orange inside Williams-Brice Stadium may reside on the visiting sideline and in the visiting coaches booth.

The lack of traveling road fans will be noticeable, but not as noticeable as the reduced noise levels that Tennessee's Jarrett Guarantano and his fellow league quarterbacks will encounter at away venues.

"That's definitely going to be better for us going on the road," Gray said. "When you're listening for plays, and JG is back there trying to call plays, you will actually be able to hear now. You're not listening like, 'What's going on? What's the play?' I think that's definitely going to be to our advantage.

"I don't think home-field advantage is going to be a big deal this year. Everyone is going to have an even playing field."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.