KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - The enthusiasm surrounding the start of Butch Jones' coaching tenure at Tennessee might not pack Neyland Stadium just yet.
Tennessee associate athletic director Chris Fuller said season ticket sales were at about 58,000 as of Wednesday morning. That represents a 2.8 percent decrease from last year, when about 59,700 had been sold at this point. Fuller says he still expects overall attendance to increase after it fell to its lowest level since 1979 last year.
Fuller said slightly over 90,000 tickets have been purchased for Saturday's season opener with Austin Peay. Last year's home opener with Georgia State drew an announced crowd of 87,821.
"Clearly, (the season ticket sales) aren't a referendum on our coach and the energy around our program," Fuller said. "I think it probably is a little bit of a statement about our home schedule. Obviously we don't have Alabama and Florida on our home schedule this year, and our non-conference schedule is not wildly attractive, so I'd say it's probably pretty much in keeping with what we expected."
Tennessee opens its schedule Saturday against Austin Peay, a Football Championship Subdivision program. The Volunteers' other non-conference home games are against Sun Belt schools South Alabama and Western Kentucky. Tennessee's only two home sellouts last year came against Alabama and Florida, which aren't included in this year's home schedule.
The Volunteers' lack of recent success on the field has led to fewer fans in the stands. Tennessee has posted three straight losing seasons for the first time since 1909-11. After averaging over 100,000 fans per game every year from 1996-2008, Tennessee has been below that mark each of the last four seasons. Tennessee had an average attendance of 89,965 last year.
"It's just because they haven't been winning," said season ticket holder Jim Conner of Brentwood, Tenn. "Winning produces everything."
Fuller remains optimistic that Tennessee's average attendance this season could reach 95,000, which would represent its highest total since 2010. Neyland Stadium's seating capacity is 102,455.
"I think that's a pretty ambitious target, but I think it's also attainable," Fuller said.
Fuller cited the increased sales Tennessee is getting in its three-game packages. Tennessee also is expecting more support from the student body. Last year, Tennessee's average general student attendance was about 5,000, less than half its allocation of 11,700. Fuller said about 9,000 students have purchased tickets for the Austin Peay game.
The Vols drew a crowd of 61,076 for the Orange & White game - the second-highest total for a spring game in school history - and an open practice this month had an announced attendance of 39,000, though admission was free for both events.
Tennessee took one unusual step to improve its attendance by selling discounted tickets for 6,700 upper-deck seats in the south end zone. Those tickets are being sold for $20 for the Austin Peay, Western Kentucky and South Alabama games. Those seats currently are selling for $80 each for the Georgia and South Carolina games, $70 for the Auburn game and $55 for the Vanderbilt game, though those prices may be adjusted as the season goes on.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)