The season opener
Tennessee opens the 2017 season Monday against Georgia Tech in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. This will be the only college football game on of note across the country on the Labor Day holiday, so all eyes will be on the Vols in Atlanta. ESPN will broadcast the game.
This game might prove to be the biggest in coach Butch Jones’ tenure with the Vols. The venue and time will force the team and the game into a national spotlight.
It has the potential to be a perception-changing night for the Vols if all goes right — or wrong. On a stage like this, the stakes are quite high.
Jones has made headlines over the summer for his strong recruiting, and for good reason. Tennessee has the No. 6-ranked class in the country and the best class in the SEC, according to the 247Sports team rankings. The Vols hold 23 commits in the Class of 2018, including some top blue-chip talent in 5-star offensive lineman Cade Mays and 4-star defensive backs Jaycee Horn and Trey Dean.
A game like this season opener can go a long way in determining the narrative for a season, which can affect how recruits see the program.
The recruiting stakes
One reason teams play games like this is to get their programs in front of the eyes of recruits. This is why Tennessee and Virginia Tech played the Battle of Bristol in 2016 in front of 156,990 fans. Both programs stood out on a national stage.
This will be another chance for Jones and the Vols to prove on a big stage how far the program has come.
The prospects the Vols recruit to the program weren’t around for the glory years of the 1990s. They more associate the Derek Dooley era with Rocky Top, which isn’t too stunning when it is broken down. A current junior had probably just begun middle school when Jones was hired to take over the team. This means the formative years of learning and watching college football centered around Dooley’s 15-21 record.
This is one reason why the game against Georgia Tech brings so much added pressure. The current recruits get to see Tennessee be nationally relevant, on the same stage in Atlanta that Alabama played on two days prior.
A game like this — and the Battle of Bristol — can also make an imprint on a third- graders mind that Tennessee is a top program in the country, as well.
The stage is set for the Vols to use this as a launching pad for the season, and for recruiting going forward. Now they just have to take advantage.
Playing the game in Atlanta brings an added bonus, of course, because of the fertile recruiting grounds.
Horn plays in Alpharetta, Ga., around a 30-minute drive up the road from the stadium. He is just the latest player Jones has plucked out of the area.
Horn ranks as the No. 24 cornerback in class and the No. 218 prospect, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.
Playing a game in the area in the Atlanta Falcons’ shiny new stadium can only prove to be a positive for the Vols, even if the game doesn’t go the way Tennessee intends.
Even a prospect like outside linebacker Richard Jibunor who plays in Athens, Ga., could be swayed by the game. He is leaning toward Auburn right now, but Tennessee is close behind.
Jibunor rates as a 4-star linebacker and the No. 288 prospect in the class, according to the 247Sports Composite Rankings.
In any close recruitment, the smallest change can flip a commitment a certain way. Jibunor lives a little over an hour away from the stadium.
Monday’s game can do a lot to change the perception of the team, and the recruiting effects could be felt for years.