When the first-year East Tennessee State coach was asked what he would do if his team pulls off the improbable and beats Tennessee on Saturday, Sanders was quick to respond.
“I’d have that goalpost strung over my shoulder coming back up the interstate,” Sanders said Monday at Greene Stadium. “I can tell you, I wouldn’t be riding no bus. I’d be walking, probably naked, with the thing on my shoulder.”
The Bucs and Vols meet at Neyland Stadium on Saturday at 4 p.m. The game is being televised by the SEC Network.
No matter what anybody tries to say, this isn’t just another game. You can be sure Sanders wouldn’t have the same reaction if the Bucs beat Furman or Wofford. For now, though, Sanders and his players say they are treating it like any other week, treating the Vols like any other opponent.
“I certainly hope that’s what they’re doing,” Sanders said. “That’s what I’m trying to get instilled in us. You approach each game the same. I remember Johnny Majors saying, ‘Team X. You play Team X.’ It’s not a matter of what color jerseys they’re wearing or what the emblem on their helmet is.”
It will be the first time these schools, located 108 miles apart, have met on the football field. Tennessee is coming off a 40-14 loss to West Virginia while the Bucs defeated Mars Hill, an NCAA Division II team, 28-7 Saturday in their opener.
“One of the things I told them before the game was ‘You know what to do, just do what you know. Nobody has to be super-human,’ ” Sanders said. “That’s what I want our guys to know this week. We just have to go play, just do what we do.
“We have a huge task. As long as we do the best we can do, we’ll accept the outcome.”
Sanders says he’s trying to prepare his players for the atmosphere of a crowd expected to be more than 100,000 and a home team’s fan base desperate for good things to happen.
“Until you’re out there in the middle of it, it’s hard to understand when it’s so loud you’re standing on the sideline and your game-plan sheet is almost vibrating from the noise,” he said. “You can truly feel the noise. You can feel it against your body. I don’t know if any of our guys have ever experienced that other than at a fireworks show or a rock concert. When you deal with it for a three-hour period, it’s much different.
“We may surpass the total attendance we had here in Greene Stadium last year in one week, so that’s going to be different for the players.”
There’s a pretty good chance the attendance on Saturday will be twice of ETSU’s total from last year. The Bucs drew 48,050 in six home dates last year. Tennessee averaged 95,779, seventh in the country.
Many of those fans this week will be making the trek from the Tri-Cities. Many of them consider themselves fans of the Vols as well as the Bucs, making for an interesting dynamic in the crowd.
“For the fans, no question it’s special,” Sanders said. “There’s a whole lot of fans around here that are like me. They love ETSU, but at some point they spent time in Knoxville. That’s my alma mater. That’s where I went to school. It’ll always be a special place that way, but I’m excited about being at ETSU and I’m worried about what ETSU does a whole lot more than what Tennessee does this week.”
The Bucs don’t have many players who have competed in the kind of atmosphere in store for them Saturday.
Quarterback Logan Marchi and linebacker Jared Folks both transferred from Temple and both played in some tough environments, including at Notre Dame.
Linebacker Ed Davis (Appalachian State) and wide receiver Ari Werts (Georgia State) both transferred in from Bowl Championship schools as well.
It’s ETSU-UT week across the board; the schools are also meeting in volleyball and women’s soccer. Both games are in Johnson City.
The Vols pay a visit to Brooks Gym for the volleyball match Tuesday at 7 p.m. On Thursday at 7 p.m., Tennessee takes on ETSU in soccer at Summers-Taylor Stadium.