The Battle of East Tennessee resembles David and Goliath in some ways, but that isn’t how either team is treating it
Tennessee will welcome East Tennessee State to Neyland Stadium on Saturday for the season-opener as a heavy-favorite. It is a match-up that many have anticipated since it was announced in 2015. It is the first time the teams have played on the football gridiron.
“It’s no question, it’s special for the fans,” ETSU Head Coach Randy Sanders said. “There are a whole lot of fans around here that are like me. They love ETSU, but at some point they have spent time in Knoxville. That’s my alma mater. It’s where I went to school. It will always have a special place that way. But I’m excited to be at ETSU, and I’m worried about what ETSU does a whole lot more than Tennessee does this week.”
It is a homecoming of sorts for the Morristown native Sanders – who played for the Volunteers as well as coached in the program.
“The first time I went back in 2006 with Kentucky, it was really, really strange,” Sanders said. “When I went back in 2008 it was still strange, but not as strange. I mean it’s always a unique experience going back, there’s no question about it, but it’s been a few years now. Most of the clothes I still have left from Tennessee are starting to look kind of ragged, it’s been that long.”
It will be the first time that Sanders has led a team out of the tunnel in Neyland Stadium as a head coach.
“Obviously, it’ll be a little different, because you’re the one standing up in front of the team talking to them,” Sanders said. “You’re the one determining what time you leave. You determine what time you go out for pregame and all those other things, but once the game starts, honestly, it’s not that different.”
On the field, the Volunteers look to get back on track after losing to West Virginia in the opening week, but Tennessee Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt expects to see improvement from Saturday’s defeat.
“Traditionally, from the first week of the season to the second is when you usually see the most improvement with every football team,” Pruitt said. “With our team, I think there are lots of ways our football team can improve. When you watch film from the past week, we made a lot of mistakes. There were a lot of unforced errors. We can’t beat ourselves. You have to make the other team beat you.”
The Bucs, on the other hand, are coming off a win over Mars Hill in the season-opener.
“I thought we did a good job of communicating up front on offense,” Sanders noted. We didn’t have many instances where we got confused on a blocking scheme and turned somebody loose. We didn’t always execute it perfectly and that’s where we can make improvements, but we didn’t turn people loose. We didn’t have glaring errors as far as assignments. We didn’t always throw it to the right guy. We didn’t always catch it as well as we needed to. We had a back fall down a couple of times when he had chances to make some plays and we missed some blocks up front. But those things you can correct. I was excited to see that the communication was there. I didn’t think we had guys panicking and forgetting to do what they know.”
It will also be a reunion of sorts for the two head coaches as Pruitt and Sanders coached together on the staff at Florida State in 2013.
“Randy Sanders is a very good football coach,” Pruitt said. “He’s a good teacher. He did a fantastic job with Jameis Winston when I was there. He was heavily involved in the game planning. He gets it. “He was a good team player on the staff, and he is an average golfer.”
On Saturday, ETSU has the full attention the Volunteers and their staff.
“When you watch the tape, they play hard,” Pruitt said. “You watch them on special teams, defense, offensively, they are going to be very well coached. They are going to be sound in all phases; they will present you with looks you probably haven’t seen before. Randy Sanders will know how to attack you. He will do a great job of breaking all three phases down. We will definitely have to be ready for anything, because he does a fantastic job.”
ETSU knows what the task is at hand when they take the field on Saturday, but they aren’t there to just collect the $500,000 game check.
“We have a huge task – We’re going to go out there and play,” Sanders said. “I don’t know what the total attendance here was last year, but we may surpass the total attendance we had here at Greene Stadium last year, in one week, so, that’s going be different for the players.”
“I’ve told some of the quarterbacks stories about the loud atmospheres and things like that, but for the most part, we don’t have many guys that have ever experienced anything like that. It’ll be a new experience that way, but hopefully we can keep our focus where it needs to be, control what we can control, and as long as we do our best at what we do, you can accept the outcome.”
Kickoff in Knoxville is set for 4 p.m., on the SEC Network.