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In this Oct. 26, 2019, file photo, Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano looks for a receiver during an NCAA college football game against South Carolina in Knoxville, Tenn. Guarantano and the 16th-ranked Tennessee Volunteers are about to find out how much having the same offensive coordinator for consecutive seasons can help a quarterback. (AP Photo/Wade Payne, File)

Andy Bender had his perfect University of Tennessee football Saturday, at least the perfect COVID-19 edition, all figured out.

He and his wife Kellye were going to leave their Cleveland, Tenn., home early Saturday morning to spend a couple of days with friends in the Panama City, Fla., area. They would get there in time to catch a few waves in the afternoon, then settle in to watch the Tennessee-South Carolina game that night at 7:30 EDT on the SEC Network.

"Then we had something come up," he sighed Tuesday afternoon. "We're still going, but now it looks like I'll have to keep up with at least part of the game on the radio. I'm still excited, though. I never thought they'd end up playing."

As it stands now, all 14 SEC teams will end up playing this Saturday, the coronavirus willing. That doesn't mean it's yet a certainty. Notre Dame-Wake Forest was canceled on Tuesday due to coronavirus issues. The same could happen to any SEC game.

But for a lot of us (blush, blush) who thought there'd be no season, and who may still question the intelligence of playing through a pandemic without an ironclad "bubble," it is nevertheless exciting to see the nation's best football conference begin its league-only, 10-game season. If there's justice, the SEC will even allow Georgia transfer Cade Mays to play.

"I'm ready, 100 percent," said Andy Smith, the regional director of the YMCA's YCAP program and as big a Big Orange fan as you can find. "Every year a bunch of us have a Low Country boil to kick off the season and we'll have at least 20 friends come in from Winchester (Tenn.) to do it again this year and watch the game on TV. The one year we didn't do the boil was last year and you saw what happened (Georgia State)."

What Smith didn't do this year was buy the season tickets he's long held.

"We decided to roll those over to next year," he said. "Maybe everything will be back to normal by then."

He had expected to have already enjoyed a trip to Norman, Oklahoma, on the weekend of September 12 to watch the Vols face the Oklahoma Sooners. Andy and his wife Amber had purchased airline tickets, hotel reservations, game tickets, everything.

"Then the coronavirus canceled it," he said. "That was tough. That was a bucket-list trip for me."

Former UT cheerleader Buck Schimph has checked a lot of items off his bucket list over the years. Yet at or near the top of such a list for most UT fans is something Buck did every Vols home game during his cheerleading days.

"I wish every UT fan could run through the 'T,'" he said of the Vols' vaunted pre-game ritual. "It's indescribable."

Schimph, a 1971 grad, will watch this weekend's game against the Gamecocks from his back deck wearing orange and white. "So will Darlene," he said of his wife. "We've still got season tickets, but I like watching it from home these days. I've got my bar right there and a bathroom a few feet away. And when it's a night game, I don't have to fight the traffic to get home at 3 a.m."

Local architect Rob Fowler, a 1981 UT grad, used to own season tickets and went to most home games. For various reasons, including the fact that he and wife Patricia are avid weekend sailors, he mostly catches the games on TV now.

And come Saturday night he'll not only be in front of that TV wearing orange, hoping third-year coach Jeremy Pruitt can open a season with the win for the first time since he arrived, he'll also have at least a couple of momentum changers at the ready if the Vols fall behind.

"When I've been in Neyland and they're not doing well, I'll turn my hat backward," said Fowler of his rally cap move. "If that doesn't work, I can do one thing that's not a superstition, it's reality. Whenever I've been at Neyland and they need a touchdown, I go to the bathroom or the concession stand. It works every time. I always miss the big moment, but I'm more interested in us scoring than me seeing it."

His plan for Saturday night?

"If we're behind, I'm headed to the bathroom or the kitchen."

Polled for their predictions, all four men predicted a Big Orange victory. Bender had it 27-24, Fowler 21-17 and Smith picked the Vols to cover the 3.5 points they've been favored by.

As for Schimph, the man who owns a letter sweater for his time cheering the UT basketball and football teams, he sees the night being a little less stressful for the Big Orange Nation.

"I say Vols by 14," he said.

That would be a Low Country boil every UT fan could enjoy, whether watched on TV, listened to over the radio or monitored by phone. Now all we have to do is hope the coronavirus doesn't stop them from playing.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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In this Oct. 12, 2019, file photo, Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt watches during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Mississippi State, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne, File)

 

 

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