Tennessee first-year football coach Josh Heupel has accomplished something in two months that predecessor Jeremy Pruitt couldn't achieve in three years.
When the Volunteers take the field Saturday night against No. 13 Ole Miss inside Neyland Stadium, they will do so before a capacity crowd at the 102,455-seat facility. Saturday will mark the first sellout in Neyland since 2017, when roughly 30,000 Georgia fans traveled to Knoxville to enjoy a 41-0 dismantling of the Vols in the spiraling final season of the Butch Jones era.
This season's Vols are 4-2 overall and 2-1 in Southeastern Conference play, and they have created a stir with Heupel's up-tempo offense that has decked Missouri and South Carolina the past two weekends by scores of 62-24 and 45-20.
"We've got the greatest fan base in America, which is why the stadium looks the way that it does," Heupel said Wednesday. "For them to recognize what's going on on the field as far as the effort, strain and progress that our players are making — I'm excited for that. Personally, I'm excited to come through the Vol Walk and see about 45,000 fans there, and then to come out to a checkerboarded stadium that's packed out.
"I'm excited for our players and the effort they've put in during the 8 1/2 months that we've been here. It's an extremely exciting opportunity for our players."
The sellout against Ole Miss (4-1, 1-1) occurs in the 100th year of a famed venue that housed Associated Press national champions in 1951 and 1998. Tennessee's largest crowd this season was last Saturday's announced audience of 89,437, so this week is no small jump.
"From the time that we started this thing, I've talked about the journey that we're on this season and the race that we're in just against ourselves to get as good as we can as fast as we can," Heupel said. "Our kids continue to buy into the process. We're playing an exciting brand of football, and we're playing aggressively on defense.
"I expect us to be able to continue to sell out Neyland Stadium."
The 41-0 loss to Georgia four years ago enhanced the demise of Jones and the erosion in fan support as Tennessee stumbled to a 4-8 season that included an 0-8 record in SEC play. The Vols had never endured eight losses in a season or a winless run through league competition, and Pruitt's debut season in 2018 yielded a 5-7 record with six losses by at least 25 points, which set another dubious program standard.
Tennessee's high-water mark under Pruitt was an eight-game winning streak that encompassed the final six games of the 2019 season and the first two contests last year, but the teams that visited Neyland during that stretch — South Carolina, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Vanderbilt and Missouri — were hardly big draws from a crowd standpoint.
This week's opponent is not only ranked with a dynamic offense guided by Heisman Trophy hopeful Matt Corral at quarterback, it is coached by Lane Kiffin, who led the Vols to a 7-6 record in 2009 before bolting to his dream job of the University of Southern California. Kiffin returned to Knoxville as Alabama's offensive coordinator in 2014 and 2016, but this will be his first venture as a head coach.
Kiffin was asked Wednesday how he expects to be received.
"I don't know that," Kiffin said. "I feel like it's gotten better over the years in general and in just messing around on Twitter and stuff like that. A few years back, when there was an opening, someone sent an article of all the email requests from fans to (Phillip) Fulmer about hiring us back there.
"It may be one thing to say that and feel good about people and relationships, but then you jog out there in a different color, and for those next three hours, you need to beat them, so I don't know."
For Tennessee's players, having a sellout is wonderful, but it's already been wonderful to this point. A year ago, when COVID-19 restrictions were in place, the Vols averaged 22,532 in their five home games.
"It's very fun having the fans back," senior defensive end JaQuain Blakely said. "It feels like actually football again. With COVID last year, the fans really couldn't be there, so while we were playing, it was kind of bland. The fans are there now, and the energy is better. Everything is really up and going."
Said senior receiver JaVonta Payton, a graduate transfer from Mississippi State: "This will be my first game with the checkered stadium. I'm extremely excited to see how that is."
Leaving for USC
Kiffin doesn't view his departure from Tennessee to USC on Jan. 12, 2010, as a mistake.
Five months after Kiffin left, the Trojans were leveled by NCAA sanctions. He led them to a 10-2 record in 2011 but was fired midway through the 2013 season with a 28-15 record at USC.
"I don't think of it that way, because we didn't know what was going to happen," Kiffin said. "We went there and were being told by the powers there that there was a Reggie Bush situation and that there was nothing to it. Then, all of a sudden, we go there and put a staff together and start recruiting, and we get a two-year bowl ban and lose 30 scholarships.
"Think about it: You go in and all your juniors and seniors can transfer with no penalty. They can just leave. It's hard to recruit when kids can't play in bowl games, so there was no way to say we should have stayed when we didn't know that."
Payton was asked this week to describe Vols fifth-year senior quarterback Hendon Hooker because the Virginia Tech grad transfer often appears calm and reserved in news conferences.
"Goofy. He's very goofy. Hendon is goofy," Payton said. "You can catch him on the field, and he'll be over there dancing by himself. You'll catch him dancing in the locker room.
"He'll rap every once in a while. It's different stuff like that."
As impressive as Tennessee's offense has been in scoring 28 first-quarter points the past two weekends, the defense has been equally stout in the early going. The Vols allowed a field goal at Mizzou within the first 15 minutes and then held the Gamecocks scoreless.
"Our defense has played extremely physical and has communicated really well and has found ways to get themselves off of the field," Heupel said. "All three phases of the game can play off each other, and when momentum is going your way, you want to build on it. I think we've done that the last couple of weeks, and if it's not going well, you need to be a mature competitor and flip that momentum."