Former SEC Stars return to Neyland Stadium

Spears, Tebow return as SEC Network Personalities

SEC Nation panelists recall playing days on Rocky Top

When the 2016 college football season began earlier this month, Tennessee had some lofty expectations.

The Volunteers were projected to be in the running for a Southeastern Conference Eastern Division Title and a trip to Atlanta.

They opened the new season on a hot Thursday in the friendly confines of Neyland Stadium and Tennessee’s 20-13 overtime win over Appalachian State was the first Thursday home game since 1938 when they thrashed rival Kentucky on Thanksgiving Day en route to winning a National Championship.

The season opener was moved to accommodate the SEC Network, which came to the stadium at noon to produce a pregame episode of SEC Nation. UT alum Paul Finebaum was in town along with for LSU defensive lineman Marcus Spears. The man, with whom Vols fans have a love-hate relationship, was also in K-Town. That man is Heisman Trophy winner and National Champion (a former Florida Gator) Tim Tebow, who will soon be a minor league baseball player hoping to beat the odds and one day play for the New York Mets.

Tebow and Spears both shared memories of their games as opponents on Rocky Top and they also explained what Big Orange Team 120 must do if it is to reach its lofty goals by the end of the calendar year.

“They have to learn to play four quarters and they have to learn to finish ballgames,” said Tebow, who went 4-0 against Tennessee with the Gators.

So far in 2016 (through three games including two at home), the Volunteers have finished strong. Trouble is: They’ve come out flat and let Virginia Tech open a 14-0 lead (at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sept. 10) before storming back to pound the Hokies into submission. Tennessee trailed 13-3 against the Mountaineers before finally waking up in time to tie the game in the second half.

The Vols would get a fortunate bounce and recover a fumble in the end zone to win the game.

Against Ohio, Tennessee won 28-19 despite another sorry performance.

Tebow and Spears both recalled the game-day atmosphere in Knoxville as being loud.

“They have one of the best fan bases here,” Tebow said. “It’s loud in here.”

It hasn’t been too loud on Rocky Top this year. It’s been an atmosphere of tension and apprehension because the resident football team has been lackluster at best and downright atrocious at worst. The Vols have a coach in fourth-year head man Butch Jones, who continues to chalk his team’s poor play up to just being part of the process.

It didn’t used to be that way here. Just as Spears, who played his first SEC game in Big Orange Country with the Bayou Bengals.

“I played my first SEC game here and I will always remember that,” said Spears, who was a National Champion and two-time SEC Champion in Baton Rouge. “That was back when they had big John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth.

“This stadium represents the quintessential SEC experience.”

For the record, Tennessee beat the Tigers that day 26-18. But LSU would get its revenge with a 31-20 comeback win in the SEC Championship Game.

That loss would cost the Volunteers a chance to play for a second BCS Championship after it won the first-ever title in that format following the 1998 season.

Many fans see that as the loss that would eventually lead to the demise of Phillip Fulmer.

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