A huge reason to believe Tennessee football can’t replicate what it did to the Alabama Crimson Tide against the Georgia Bulldogs this weekend is location. The Vols have this one on the road.
However, playing between the hedges at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga., may not have the impact you might think. Josh Heupel said the Vols will find out on game day.
“At the end of the day, there’s been times since we’ve gotten here that we’ve handled being on the road extremely well,” Heupel said in his Thursday press conference. “There’s other times where we haven’t handled it.”
The reason a road game may not be as difficult for the Vols as other teams is the tempo. A lot of their offense is based on the quarterback making a decision after the snap based on what he saw from the defense.
Because of that, Hendon Hooker doesn’t have to call out audibles as often. Routes and blocking schemes are often pre-determined due to the tempo, and Hooker’s reaction is what matters. That renders crowd noise irrelevant.
If the road had that much of an effect on them, they wouldn’t have beaten the LSU Tigers 40-13 in Death Valley. That’s not to say they have been great in every road game, and Heupel acknowledged that.
“A lot of that’s us,” he said. “The communication and playing smart football will be important on Saturday but anticipate us handling it well.”
Still, against the Pittsburgh Panthers for instance, there were mental errors that had nothing to do with the crowd noise. That’s the only reason the game was close.
The same is true of their loss to the Florida Gators last year. Losing at Alabama in 2021 was just about a talent disparity. None of those losses were due to communication issues from crowd noise.
Part of what helps here is the fact that Heupel and the coaches have so much chemistry. He is in his 17th year working with Joey Halzle, his seventh with Glen Elarbee and his third with Alex Golesh.
“The communication, being able to adjust quickly within a drive, or certainly after a drive and at halftime, it’s a huge part of putting our kids in hopefully the best position to be successful,” he said. “The amount of time that we’ve spent together allows us to draw back on past experiences, learning opportunities, as we continue to grow and develop what we’re doing.”
There’s also the fact that, well, many people don’t consider Sanford Stadium to be that loud. Former UT quarterback Erik Ainge tweeted just that earlier in the week.
Ainge beat Georgia twice in Athens, in 2004 and 2006, both times when the Dawgs were undefeated. In 2004, Ainge was a true freshman in his first road game, UGA was in the top five, and the Vols were double-digit underdogs.
What he said was brought up to Heupel in Thursday’s presser. Ever the artful dodger, the Condredge Holloway of answering questions, Heupel just said he’s expecting a great environment.
“Obviously they’ve been highly successful and their fanbase is excited for this one,” he said. “Ours is, too, but it will be a great environment. I anticipate crowd noise being a part of the football game, for sure.”
Now, one aspect of playing on the road that works against Tennessee football is that the Vols can’t use their own crowd noise to generate plays. They killed an Alabama drive because the crowd caused pre-snap penalties.
Alabama’s defense is comparable to Georgia’s if you go by the numbers, but Georgia is much more disciplined. For Heupel and Tennessee football, overcoming that will depend on preparation.
“Guys have been focused, urgent in the way that they’ve entered the building, their meetings, out on the practice field, too,” Heupel said. “Like what we’ve done up until now. The lead-up to kickoff will be important as we finish our preparation.”