The Ultimate College Football Road Trip takes on Tennessee
By Charlotte Wilder
FOX Sports Columnist
Along with Alabama, the Gators are the Volunteers’ biggest rivals, to the point where Tennesseans make a point to cook and eat alligators when Florida is in town. I respect the commitment to the bit. And since I am heading to Knoxville this week ahead of this matchup, I may have to try it (there’s a first for everything).
But this year, the rivalry takes on new meaning. Because in 2022, Tennessee is actually good. In fact, Tennessee is so good that it is undefeated and currently ranked No. 11 in the country. This is the Vols’ best start since going 5-0 in 2016 (which, I am told, was six years ago, but feels like it was at least 15).
This year is decidedly different, and I’ll try not to jinx it as I explain why. Last year, the Vols went 7–6 overall and 4–4 in-conference under first-year head coach Josh Heupel. The year before that, they went 3-7. The year before that, they went 8-5. You get the picture. The last national championship win for Tennessee came in 1998, which was — wanna feel old? — several years before most of the players on this year's team were born.
So this is the first time in a while that most college football fans will be paying close attention to this classic SEC fight as the game kicks off on Saturday. And I am lucky enough to take in the full experience starting on Wednesday.
I’ll tell you what I’m looking forward to while I’m in town, but I’d really love your input. Where does our crew have to eat while we’re in Knoxville? What landmark can’t I miss? Who is the biggest super fan you know?
The actual football
Since 2004, the Volunteers have only defeated Florida once.
Once! In 18 years! That’s the same age as some of the players on the team! My goodness!
That singular win came in 2016. So it’s safe to say that everyone in Knoxville could use a W against the Gators. And as I made clear above, this is the first year where it feels like there’s a chance. The Vols’ QB, Hendon Hooker, not only has the best name for a Tennessee quarterback, but he also has the best arm. It’s his sixth year in a college program …
… and he’s been leading the Vols to statement wins. Several of Tennessee's offensive team stats rank in the top 10 in the country across the season’s first three weeks: total points, points-per-game, rushing touchdowns and touchdowns.
Florida is 2-1, so hopefully, the game will be exciting. But these Gators are still figuring out who they are under new head coach Billy Napier. If ever Tennessee had a window, this is it.
The only thing that could make a college football tailgate better is if that pregame celebration took place on the water across 450 rafted-up boats — which is exactly what happens on the Tennessee River before football games.
I’m hoping I’ll have the chance to tour a few of the boats, maybe even go for a ride and see just how this navy of Vols fans shows out. This also might be the only time that the embarrassingly vast encyclopedia of boating knowledge I accrued growing up in New England might intersect with my actual job.
Being in Dolly Parton’s home state
That’s it. That’s the whole thing.
I’m a little confused as to how I haven’t been to Knoxville before, because not only do they tailgate on the water, their mascot is an adorable dog. The only thing I like more than boats and dogs is food, and I hear the city has some great options in that department, too. Not sure what more a girl could ask for.
But back to Smokey. This adorable Bluetick Coonhound — originally named Blue Smokey, after the mountains — has represented the Vols since 1953. Dogs obviously do not live that long, as much as we wish they did, so we are currently on Smokey X. Smokey X is passing the torch to Smokey XI this year, and if I’m lucky, I might be able to spend time with both.
There are statues of each Smokey dotted about Knoxville. I’m not big on statues of humans because I think they always look a little strange and are, more often than not, dedicated to the wrong people. But when it comes to statues of dogs, I couldn’t be more in favor of a monument. In fact, every city should be filled with statues of dogs. Dogs are so good. Tennessee knows what’s up when it comes to properly remembering canines.
Sinan the Squirrel
Going really heavy on the animals this week, but have you seen this guy?
I have more questions than answers at this point, so I will just say that if all goes well, I’ll be able to report back.
I have always wanted to see the checkerboard end zones. Did you know it takes 120 gallons of orange and white paint to make them happen? This will also be one of the games where "Checker Neyland" is in full force, where the stadium provides t-shirts for each section so that the crowd looks like a checkerboard, too. Very into a strong visual at a football game.
I can’t wait for Tennessee. But in the meantime, check out what I did at my last stop on the tour, in Austin for Texas vs. Alabama:
Hung out with Big Bertha, a 100-year-old drum:
Ate tacos with Reyna Vazquez, the founder of Veracruz (best breakfast tacos I’ve ever had):
And asked people why Arch Manning chose Texas over Bama:
Thanks, as always, for following my adventures in the world of college football. It’s such a privilege to bring you along with me.
Charlotte Wilder is a general columnist and cohost of "The People's Sports Podcast" for FOX Sports. She's honored to represent the constantly neglected Boston area in sports media, loves talking to sports fans about their feelings and is happiest eating a hotdog in a ballpark or nachos in a stadium. Follow her on Twitter @TheWilderThings.