KNOXVILLE — Ryan Johnson said the Florida-Tennessee game experience at Neyland Stadium is not easily described.
But the Tennessee redshirt sophomore center painted a vivid picture this week of what the rivalry meant to him growing up in middle Tennessee and attending games in Knoxville with his family.
"I still remember walking out of the stadium — actually, I was riding on my dad's shoulders," said Johnson, who is now 6-foot-6 and 302 pounds. "I was that small, if that tells you how little I was, chanting "It's great to be a Tennessee Vol!" when we won. That's something that sticks with you."
Johnson and his teammates will have the chance to provide similar memories for an expected crowd of more than 100,000 Saturday night when Florida visits the Volunteers in a pivotal game for both teams.
The Gators (2-1, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) have won 12 of the series' past 13 games, but the Vols (2-1, 0-0) will have the nostalgia of better days on their side.
Members of Tennessee's 1998 national championship team will be honored on the field before the game and at the end of the first quarter in a 20th anniversary commemoration. It's a fitting night for the tribute, considering the Vols edged Florida at Neyland Stadium in a night game that went to overtime that season.
"I'd like to say that brings a lot of pride, first of all, to have those guys back and know we're playing for them and we're a part of something bigger," Johnson said. "Just not this team, but we're part of over a hundred years-long program. I think that's really important, and I think that's something special."
Many players on Tennessee's current roster were not born in 1998. First-year Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt was the defensive backs coach at Plainview High School — his alma mater — in Rainsville, Alabama, during the 1998 season.
The players from that national championship team are roughly Pruitt's age. The 44-year-old head coach even played against some of them in 1995 and 1996, when he was a reserve defensive back at Alabama. He called it a "huge deal" to honor the 1998 team.
"I think it's great for Tennessee, I think it's great for those guys," Pruitt said. "I hope those guys get around our guys, because the most important people to me in the program are the players. The guys who work, sweated, bled to build this university to what it is. Those guys done it at the highest level.
"So I'm excited they're back; I'm looking forward to meeting a lot of guys. I've met a lot of them, but I want them around our guys. I want them around our program. Hopefully some of what they have will rub off on the people around here."
With the 1998 team tribute combined with the general frenzy surrounding a rivalry game that represents Tennessee's best chance at an SEC win before November, the in-game atmosphere should be the best yet for a Vols home game this year.
"I expect Neyland Stadium to be sold out like it usually is for Florida," Tennessee senior safety Micah Abernathy said. "That's just how it is. It's a rivalry, and as a player you just have to calm your nerves and just play how you're going to play."
Florida did not sell its whole allotment of tickets, and as of Friday some tickets still remained on Tennessee's official ticket sales website. Most expect there to be few, if any, open seats by kickoff.
"It means a lot," said Tennessee linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr., a redshirt junior. "It has been a long rivalry. It has been here long before I got here, longer than our whole team has been here. Looking forward to this rivalry is fun, especially for our fans. We are looking forward to a big, electric game on Saturday."