KNOXVILLE — It's been 25 years since Tennessee opened a football season on a Thursday.
Fortunately for the ninth-ranked Volunteers, most of their coaching staff has experience preparing for and playing games on a day or night other than Saturday.
Head coach Butch Jones and the assistants who have followed him from Central Michigan know what it's like to play midweek games, which became the norm for Mid-American Conference programs the past decade.
"When we were at Central Michigan and even Cincinnati," Jones said Monday, "we played almost on every day of the week. We played on a Monday, we played on a Tuesday, we played on a Wednesday, we played on a Thursday and we played on a Friday. I do think that helps a little bit.
"But when it's the first game of the year, you just always think in terms of a football calendar."
The calendar at Tennessee has been different this month with the season opener against Appalachian State slated for this Thursday. The Vols are 25-20-7 all-time in Thursday games and haven't played a regular-season one since 1996. Peyton Manning led Tennessee to a 41-3 rout of Ole Miss in Memphis in the fourth game of his junior season.
Tennessee played non-Saturday season openers two years ago, when the Vols rocked Utah State 38-7 on a Sunday night, and in 2012, when it opened Derek Dooley's ill-fated final season as coach with an encouraging Friday night triumph against North Carolina State at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.facebook
While many programs across the Southeastern Conference and nationally were kicking off their game weeks with news conferences, Tennessee was treating Monday like a Wednesday after having a Monday practice on Saturday and a Tuesday practice on Sunday.
Confusing, isn't it?
"The hardest part is what you do in your head," defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. "You're going, 'Saturday was like a Tuesday, Sunday' — see, I just screwed it up. Saturday was like a Monday, Sunday's like a Tuesday, today's like a Wednesday, tomorrow's like a Thursday and Wednesday's like a Friday.
"Try to figure that one out real quick. That's what you're going through in your head. That's the one thing that's a little bit weird is it's just kind of backwards to you."
Shoop has the most recent experience of playing a Thursday night season opener.
He was on James Franklin's staff at Vanderbilt when the Commodores hosted South Carolina and Ole Miss to open the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
Then-No. 9 South Carolina edged Vanderbilt 17-13 on a fourth-quarter Marcus Lattimore touchdown run, and the 2013 Rebels rallied from a 28-17 third-quarter deficit and won the game on a 75-yard touchdown pass to running back Jeff Scott.
"Coach Jones has done a great job," Shoop said. "He constructed the training camp schedule and the schedule leading up, and I think that's one of his greatest assets as a coach. He has the pulse of the team and he knows when to push forward and he knows when to pull back. I think he has as good a feel of that as anybody, like Coach Franklin did at Vanderbilt as well."
Playing non-Saturday games as openers is easier than during the season when schedules require more tweaking, though openers always come with an element of mystery with new sets of players and/or coaches.
"There's always the unexpected in any opener," Vols offensive coordinator Mike DeBord said. "They may change some things up for us, and they may do some different things defensively. There's some questions on personnel, where some guys may line up exactly, so you've always got the unexpected that way.
"We as a coaching staff, we're going through, 'What if they do this? What if they do that?' and playing the what-if game."
Of course, at this point of the calendar coaches and players are just ready to play games after a nine-month offseason.
"Kids are kids. They're just anxious to get out on the field," Shoop said.
"You just count backwards," he added. "To our players, right now all they know is today's a Wednesday practice. They're ready to rock and roll and do the things that we would ordinarily do on a Wednesday practice."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.