Tennessee-Florida was the moment. All summer long, that Florida game was the one this program had to get. It won’t be the toughest game for Tennessee this year — far from it. But it was the one they had to win. Why? Because the Volunteers are flat out better, and Josh Heupel’s progress needed to be shown on that scoreboard.
Everyone knew it, too, and it created an electric atmosphere in Knoxville. A sold out Neyland, complete with checked stands and College Gameday in appearance. That might have just been peak Neyland.
And this coaching staff was sure to take advantage.
“The game-day atmosphere, this is Rocky Top,” Josh Heupel said after the game. “This is what it is. There have been some times where it hasn’t been that. The Vol Walk the way that it is, that stadium rocking the way it is, that is Rocky Top. For our recruits and for our players, it’s what we felt. This is one of the great stories in college football. That’s why that stadium looks the way that it does.”
The atmosphere created quite the recruiting weekend. If you wanted to see Tennessee at its best, you saw it on Saturday. A star-studded list of visitors was in town, including most of the current recruiting class.
Saturday was a chance to lay a foundation for the 2024 class, and boy did Neyland deliver.
“You look at our players over with the student body at the end of the game, I’ve never seen a scene like that at the end of the game, after it’s over,” Heupel said. “It’s a huge part of the impression and the energy that recruits see and feel. And it’s real and it’s genuine. They get an opportunity to see what the locker room is like, too, which is huge. It was a positive things inside of our building.”
Cameron Sparks, Daniel Calhoun, Sammy Brown, Ryan Wingo, KingJoseph Edwards, KJ Bolden, Boo Carter, Jerrick Gibson and Daevin Hobbs are just a few of the highly ranked prospects that took in the game on Saturday.
It was an important moment for those guys to see what Tennessee is quickly becoming. Remember, most of these prospects haven’t see this program even approach relevancy. Seeing them on the national stage, getting over the Florida hump is a big deal.
Josh Heupel wasn’t willing to call it a benchmark of any kind, but he did acknowledge what it meant to the fanbase.
“I don’t know the answer to that, other than this was the next one in our journey here this year,” Heupel said. “Our kids competed and prepared in a great way. Found a way to get a win. It’s huge for our fanbase. And obviously the past is the past for the coaches and players in our program. Our fanbase is aware of it. I’m really proud of our guys. They compete, man. And today was an example of that.”
Tennessee cracked the top ten after the win in both major polls. They’re currently piecing together a top ten recruiting class as well. This is what building a program looks like, but nobody saw it coming together quite this quick.
Saturday wasn’t just another step. It was a statement — and a much-needed exorcism. And the staff had a ridiculous group of future talent on hand to watch it happen. Saturday might have just been bigger than anyone realizes.