While Tennessee ended last football season with a 31-14 Orange Bowl victory over Clemson that provided the Volunteers with an 11th victory and an abundance of offseason optimism and glee, Virginia suffered an unimaginable conclusion.
On Nov. 13, 2022, three Cavaliers players — Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D'Sean Perry — were fatally shot on the Charlottesville campus. The following day, Christopher Darnell Jones Jr. was arrested and charged with three counts of second-degree murder.
The Cavaliers will play their first game since that night this Saturday when they face the Vols inside Nashville's Nissan Stadium (noon Eastern on ABC), having canceled last season's final two games against Coastal Carolina and state rival Virginia Tech.
"Obviously it was a horrific tragedy that took place there on their campus," Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said Monday in a news conference. "They've had a long time to try to grow through that and to recognize what happened. There will be a moment of silence before kickoff, and we will wear a decal of the three individuals who lost their lives on the back of our helmets."
Jones, a former member of Virginia's football team, was accused of opening fire on a charter bus as he and other students returned to campus after having dinner and attending a play together in Washington, D.C. He is scheduled to appear before a grand jury in October.
The Virginia tragedy and aftermath was experienced by three Chattanooga-area players — tight end Karson Gay, linebacker Trey McDonald and defensive back Jaylon Baker. Gay and McDonald were freshmen last season, with Gay having starred at Boyd-Buchanan and McDonald at Baylor School.
Baker is also a Baylor School graduate who was a fifth-year senior last season and appeared in 17 career contests for the Cavaliers. He did not use the NCAA's extra year due to the outbreak of the coronavirus in 2020 and is back at Baylor coaching.
Vague on Mays
Tennessee senior center Cooper Mays only went through a few preseason practices before being shelved by an injury that required a minor procedure.
His status for Saturday's opener was not cleared up Monday by Heupel.
"With Cooper, we'll find out here as the week goes on as far as his availability in this one," he said. "We've had two-and-a-half or three weeks of different guys having the opportunity to play on the interior. If he's not able to go, I feel really confident in those guys."
Taking snaps since Mays was sidelined have been sixth-year senior Ollie Lane, fifth-year senior Parker Ball, redshirt freshman Addison Nichols and true freshman Vysen Lang.
A different week
When the Vols and Cavaliers collide, it will be Tennessee's first game in more than eight months.
Just what does go into playing a season opener?
"It's a lot, because you haven't really seen what they've got yet," Vols senior cornerback Doneiko Slaughter said Monday. "You've got their spring game to go off of. It's really just more of being ready to play now.
"You're just ready to get on the field and perform."
There could be times this season when more than half of Tennessee's 11 offensive players on the field were obtained through the transfer portal — quarterback Joe Milton III, receivers Bru McCoy and Dont'e Thornton, tight end McCallan Castles, guard Andrej Karic, and tackles John Campbell Jr. and Gerald Mincey.
Campbell played at Miami last season and has been working much of this month as the first-team left tackle.
"His maturity and the amount of football that he's played certainly help us," Heupel said. "He's had a great camp, and we have great trust in him. He's playing at a really high level."
Contact David Paschall at [email protected].