Georgia Tech football players arrive at Rose Bowl Field for the first day of Georgia Tech football practice on Friday, August 4, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Georgia Tech players have circled Tennessee game 

Georgia Tech players aren’t having to look far off for the game they’re most excited about.

One year after leaving the country to open against Boston College in Ireland, the Yellow Jackets will start the season right at home, though this time in a different venue than they’re used to — the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

With the Tennessee Volunteers coming to town for a Labor Day matchup, all eyes will be on Atlanta for the only game of the day in an 8 p.m., ACC-SEC matchup. In six matchups since 2014, Tech is 5-1 against SEC opponents.

While it’s an important game for anyone on the roster, it’s especially meaningful to the man controlling the middle of the Yellow Jackets’ defense …. Brant Mitchell.

Growing up in Knoxville, Tennessee, Mitchell grew up a Vols fan and received his first scholarship offer from them.

“Obviously that’s where I’m from,” Mitchell, said. “I grew up a Tennessee fan, and who doesn’t when you’re from Tennessee, especially in the area I grew up. But it’s crazy, it goes deep. It’s deep. I’m definitely looking forward to that game. I’ve just got to go out there and put on a good show. We’ll definitely be fired up.”

One of Mitchell’s good friends, Todd Kelly Jr., is a senior defensive back for Tennessee. He said the two still keep in touch and have talked over the summer to see how the preparation is going, but they don’t share much information.

“He doesn’t give anything, and I don’t give anything either,” he said laughing.

As one of the more intense guys on the team, according to coach Paul Johnson, Mitchell may face the challenge of not getting caught up in the moment. He said he struggled early in the 2016 season to channel that intensity and emotion in the right places, but he got better as the season progressed.

“It’s going to be a really emotional game for me and everybody,” he said. “It’s going to be an incredible atmosphere at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. But when it comes down to game time, you’ve got to go back to what you know and what you learned in the offseason. That’s what’s going to matter and if you can execute the game plan the way you’re supposed to, I think we’ll come out successful.”

While most players pointed straight to Tennessee as the game they’re looking forward to, senior defensive end KeShun Freeman had his eyes on a different game — senior day against Georgia.

“We beat them on their turf since I’ve been here,” Freeman said. “But we haven’t beaten them at home, so that’s one I really want to win. That’s one I’m really looking forward to. We’re fighting for the people that have played Georgia at home, and we want to get a win for them and for ourselves.”

Still, Freeman knows what his focus has to be on now and how big of a game the team will be opening up with.

“The public has helped us out a lot,” he said about getting ready for Tennessee. “Everyone is so excited about this game. The closer it gets, the more I found out about it … that’s the only game that day, it’s ACC vs. SEC. It’s really easy to get caught up in the hype. But right now I’m just focusing myself on this is a win we want to get, and just go with the flow of what we’re doing.”

Senior safety Corey Griffin is taking a focused attitude into the opener. After the Tech defense struggled early in 2016, Griffin was one of the keys in a turnaround that helped the Jackets finish the season on a four-game win streak.

“No matter how many people are watching, it’s football at the end of the day,” Griffin said. “It comes back to executing. After the first 30 seconds of the game, the hype goes out the window. You have to play football, you have to do your assignment. We can be as hyped as we want to, but we still have to come to play.”

Tech versus Tennessee will be the second big game to take place at the new stadium. Alabama and Florida State will open play there Sept. 2. Even with his focus being on the game and what’s at stake, Griffin hasn’t been able to help taking a peak at the gigantic stadium.

“I’ve drove past it,” Griffin said. “It’s beautiful, I can’t wait. It’s going to be crazy. Playing on a stage that not many people are able to play on is a blessing. But at the end of the day, we still have to play football. All that jumbotron and stuff is great and everything, but we still have business to take care of.”

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