Vols ready to ‘reset and play’ in season’s final hostile environment

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel talks to his players during the 27-13 loss at Georgia on Nov. 5. The Volunteers (9-1, 5-1 SEC) struggled with the crowd noise inside Sanford Stadium and hope to improve in that regard Saturday night at South Carolina (6-4, 3-4).

The Tennessee Volunteers believe they are well equipped to handle the storm.

Their continued quest for a berth in the College Football Playoff runs through South Carolina's Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday night, where the No. 5 Vols will look to limit the popular "Sandstorm" dance track as much as possible. It's the final hostile atmosphere of the season for Tennessee, which expects to have a decided crowd advantage next week at Vanderbilt before its unknown, neutral-site postseason destination.

"We've got to be able to reset and play," Vols second-year coach Josh Heupel said. "On dead balls in particular, you have to be able to handle it. We've done that in different road environments, and this will be a great one. Having been there before, it's going to be loud, and you have to handle that part of it.

"It has to be a point of emphasis to do the ordinary things at a really high level in this game."

The Gamecocks will be playing their seventh game this season at their 77,559-seat facility, and it will be their sixth Saturday sellout. The scheduled Oct. 1 matchup against South Carolina State had to be moved up two days due to Hurricane Ian.

Tennessee has played just two Southeastern Conference road games to this point, and to drastically different results. The Vols traveled to LSU on Oct. 8 and quickly pounced on the Tigers, grabbing a 23-7 halftime lead on their way to a 40-13 rout, but their trip to Georgia on Nov. 5 didn't transpire as smoothly.

Against the Bulldogs, the Vols struggled in their surroundings and committed eight pre-snap penalties in a 27-13 loss that serves as the only blemish on their 9-1 record.

"Honestly, I feel like everyone on the offensive side of the ball is excited to go into this atmosphere," Tennessee sixth-year senior quarterback Hendon Hooker said. "We've seen what it was like at Georgia, and moving forward we know what to expect. Any time you go into an environment like this, you want to prepare and do different things to get ready for that environment, so crowd noise at practice has been a thing.

"Really, just going out and locking in and communicating at a high level is what we need to do."

The Vols are averaging a nation-leading 523.7 yards and 47.4 points per game. They have averaged 43.8 points in their past four SEC contests, when they faced four of the nation's top-15 statistical defenses: Alabama (12th), Kentucky (11th), Georgia (fifth) and Missouri (13th).

Another big Tennessee offensive effort would go a long way in putting Williams-Brice on ice.

"It's got to be better execution and everybody being ready and prepared for it in a better way," Heupel said. "We've done the ordinary things, and I believe we'll handle it in a better way."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.