Throughout head coach Butch Jones’ first three seasons on Rocky Top, the Tennessee Volunteers’ football schedule was riddled with potholes and stumbling blocks that made it more difficult to make any monumental breakthroughs in the win column.
Despite playing hated rival and schedule staple Alabama every year along with nonconference powers such as Oregon and Oklahoma, the Vols have improved their win total each season from five to seven to nine last year.
This season, the out-of-conference schedule gets much easier, at least on paper. UT’s marquee nonconference battle comes in Week 2 in the “Battle at Bristol” against Virginia Tech.
Though the Vols play a duo of perennial mid-major powers—Appalachian State and Ohio, who are coming off bowl wins—they don’t rank on the college football Richter scale.
ESPN.com’s Football Power Index has UT’s strength of schedule ranked 35th nationally and 12th in the conference. Only Kentucky and Florida rate lower. Perhaps that’s why the Vols rank fifth nationally in ESPN’s FPI and are predicted to win 10 regular-season games and meet LSU in the SEC Championship Game.
The Vols may not have a tough schedule, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be a parade down Interstate 75 to Atlanta. They may just have the toughest four-game stretch of anybody in the league—that would be the gauntlet from Sept. 24 to Oct. 15 which includes road trips to Georgia and Texas A&M sandwiched between home games against Florida and Alabama without a bye week.
WNML radio host and longtime Tennessee media member Jimmy Hyams highlighted the importance of that stretch to the Daily News‘ Dave Link:
If Tennessee goes 2-2, they could still win the SEC, but that stretch is going to define the season. If they go 3-1 in that stretch, I think they’re going 11-1 because I don’t think anybody else will beat ’em. I think that’s a huge stretch for ’em. It is, in my opinion, the hardest stretch that any team in the SEC faces this year without an open date. That’s four in a row. Nobody, in my opinion, plays four teams that tough in a row without an open date.
Those aren’t the only places where Tennessee could stumble in 2016. The Vols have a wealth of talent, experience and even more depth than they’ve been used to in the past decade, but everybody else didn’t just get worse.
This is still the SEC, and there are still pitfalls. Let’s take a look at five games that could wreck UT’s lofty expectations, and, yes, that four-game stretch previously mentioned is well-represented.
If there’s one thing that Tennessee fans are used to by now—and Vols fans everywhere wish they could change—it’s the schedule being front-loaded.
The first half of the season always includes Florida and Georgia as well as a tough out-of-conference opponent, and big, bad ‘Bama is always somewhere in the middle, too. After that, things get easier, and it’s no different for the Vols in ’16.
While the season’s story will be written in that grueling four-game stretch, nobody should overlook Virginia Tech at a neutral site equidistant between Knoxville, Tennessee, and Blacksburg, Virginia, in a game played on the infield of Bristol Motor Speedway. Hanson Sports provided a look at the peculiar setup:
Expected to be the largest crowd ever to watch a college football game, this is going to be a major spectacle on Sept. 10. The Vols will likely be heavily favored, but Jones will ensure his team doesn’t take the Hokies lightly.
After all, veteran defensive coordinator Bud Foster is still around, and UT doesn’t know what to expect from first-year VT head coach Justin Fuente, who looked like one of the best young offensive minds in college football during his tenure in Memphis.
Plus, with the game being such a spectacle at a neutral site, it’s going to be an odd but electric environment. Vols linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin told CSN Mid-Atlantic’s Kevin Connell the Vols are trying to block out all the extraneous stuff associated with such a big-stage game.
“The Battle at Bristol game we try not to get caught up on the experience, the hype, the stadium, stage, and number of people that are going to be there,” Reeves-Maybin said. “We focus on each other, focus on grinding and don’t focus on all the outside things.”
Last year, it took the Vols a half to focus on a good Bowling Green team in Nashville before they ran away with the win. They can’t do that against a Hokies team that may be down but usually gets up for big games. Just ask Ohio State.
The Vols are expected to win, but they need to go out and show out. Losing this one would be a major blow before the season barely even starts.
This is the section of this article that needs few words. Basically, all you need to know is the next sentence, the one that haunts Vols fans and causes every Gator fan and player to have supreme confidence heading into this contest.
Florida owns Tennessee.
The Gators have won 11 consecutive meetings, and no matter how much better the Vols are (or seem to be), the hated reptiles always find a way to pull it out. Last year, it was a 4th-and-14 conversion to cap a 13-point comeback win in the fourth quarter in Gainesville.
This season, UF comes to Knoxville for a game that should be tough for the Gators to win. Almost everybody is picking the Vols, and if Tennessee loses on Sept. 24 in Neyland Stadium, there will be much gnashing of teeth on Rocky Top.
Lose that one, and winning the SEC East becomes an uphill battle. That would mean the most attainable of UT’s goals would be tough to get after just one conference game. Or, as the headline of Bill Bender‘s article for Sporting News states: “Just say it Butch: Tennessee needs to beat Florida to take the next step.”
In that article, Bender shares a quote from SEC Network analyst Paul Finebaum during SEC media days about the rivalry game that hasn’t been much of a rivalry for more than a decade: “(Jones) has a lot of big games, but none bigger in my mind—everybody wants to talk about Alabama—beat Florida first. If you can’t beat Florida at Neyland Stadium, you really have no hope.”
You can break this game down any way you like. Mention how good Tennessee’s offensive playmakers are and how strong Florida’s defense should be. Discuss the Vols’ veteran leadership against a new cast of Gators. Trumpet Tennessee’s talent and home-field advantage.
But until the Vols win that game, there will be an alligator-shaped albatross around their neck and a psychological disadvantage. The Gators’ arrogance has reached a late-1990s level of swagger this offseason with defensive back Jalen Tabor’s barbs, per SEC Network:
For the most part, the Vols haven’t chirped back. That could be quiet confidence, but in the old days of Phillip Fulmer, Steve Spurrier‘s Gators would talk the most then go out and win.
This year’s Vols must stop that on the field. The last time they beat Florida, Fulmer was the coach, and that’s unacceptable. If that streak doesn’t end this year, it may not end for a while.
Immediately following the emotional roller-coaster game against Florida, the Vols must regroup and travel to Athens for their first true road test of the season.
Much like the game against Virginia Tech, UT will have a tough time knowing what to expect.
First-year head coach Kirby Smart has made waves on the recruiting trail, and he proved he was a defensive mastermind while learning at the foot of one of the greatest coaches in college football history as Nick Saban‘s defensive coordinator at Alabama. However, that doesn’t always translate when you have your own program.
Smart is a favorite son of the Bulldogs, and UGA is going to have plenty of talent. But questions abound.
Will running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel be healthy? Is Greyson Lambert still the quarterback, or will stud freshman Jacob Eason take over by the UT game? How will UGA’s defense look under new coordinator Mel Tucker?
Athlon Sports’ Rob McVey thinks the game could determine the division:
Tennessee will have the advantage in terms of experience, but it is a pretty safe bet that a talented Georgia team will be hungry for revenge after falling to the Vols in Knoxville last season. This will be a critical test for the Volunteers, and one that could very well decide who represents the East in the 2016 SEC Championship Game.
Last season, Georgia held a 24-3 lead in Knoxville before Tennessee stormed back for a wild victory that kicked off a strong second half and fueled the hype machine.
Think the Bulldogs wouldn’t like to return the upset favor at home? This is a game that will be circled on the calendar, especially considering all the headlines the Vols are getting. Much like the Florida game the week before, this is one intradivision game UT can’t afford to lose.
The Vols have to get off to a quick start, take the crowd out of the game and control the contest with their defense. If they can neutralize an enigmatic Georgia offense, they have a great chance to win this game.
Lose it, and getting to Atlanta gets much tougher.
Considering Alabama is the defending national champion and will be a difficult team for anybody to beat, Tennessee’s futile history against Florida and the tossup feel of the series against Georgia, the biggest stumbling block for the Vols may come on Oct. 8.
When you talk about difficult spots, this is it.
Regardless of whether anybody will admit it, the Vols will be coming off back-to-back emotional weeks—win or lose against the Gators and Bulldogs—when they travel to College Station. Not only that, but the following week is the potentially epic tilt in Neyland Stadium against the Crimson Tide.
If there’s a game UT could stand to lose out of that four-game stretch, it’s against the Aggies. Still, that would make it no less heartbreaking if the Vols are undefeated heading into that game and falter.
Also, if the Vols already have a loss prior to that trip and get beat, it will most likely be the second conference loss and, therefore, a gut-punch loss in regard to playing for the conference championship.
There may be plenty of dysfunction surrounding the A&M program and head coach Kevin Sumlin, but the Aggies have some defensive studs and as much talent as anybody in the country at receiver.
If transfer quarterback Trevor Knight can duplicate what he did against UT as Oklahoma’s quarterback in ’14, the Vols are in for a tough game. Plus, Jones owes Sumlin for the bus switcheroo at SEC media days, detailed here by Campus Insiders’ Matt Stanford:
Still, UT can find solace in facing a defense that was ranked 107th nationally against the run last year. Considering that’s the Vols’ biggest strength, the onus falls on the Aggies to stop Jalen Hurd, Alvin Kamara and Joshua Dobbs.
“The question for A&M is ‘Can they stop the run?’.” TexAgs.com analyst Olin Buchanan said on the News Sentinel Sports Page radio show. “Is Jalen Hurd going to run all day on them or are they going to be able to stop you and make you pass?”
The answer to that question will dictate who wins the game.
Finally, the biggest game of the year has the chance to have massive conference ramifications, and perhaps even national consequences. But all of that pales in comparison to the yearly hatefest that is the Third Saturday in October possibly getting back to the yearly battle it used to be.
Last year, the Vols led with four minutes remaining before Alabama came back for a 19-14 win. This season, UT has high hopes in its return to Neyland Stadium to renew the rivalry against a Tide team that must replace its starting quarterback and Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry.
No team in the nation recruits like Alabama, however, so the cupboard is overflowing with crimson-clad talent. Even though the quarterback position remains unsettled, the past four first-year starters at QB for ‘Bama won three national championship and lost in the College Football Playoff semifinals.
So, that position doesn’t matter as much in Saban’s offense as it does in everybody else’s.
Alabama is going to have a lethal defense once again, and it has receiver Calvin Ridley, tight end O.J. Howard and running back Bo Scarbrough. There’s more than enough talent to win again over the Vols.
If that happens, Tennessee needs to be unscathed heading into that game. The best news for Georgia and Florida is they don’t have to play the Tide, so this will be a daunting foe the Vols must overcome to gain one on the field.
If the Vols can overcome archnemesis Saban (who hasn’t lost to Tennessee since becoming UA’s head coach) and vanquish their rival, a trip to Atlanta would be likely.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.
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Source: Bleacher Report -SEC Football