By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
Tennessee may have drawn the short end of the stick earlier this month when it was revealed by the SEC the Vols would also play Texas A&M and Auburn, giving Tennessee a slate featuring five of the top 13 teams in the Preseason Coaches Top 25 Poll.
The full schedule release on Monday night felt like a bit of relief.
After a decade filled with mid-season gauntlets that come with playing in the SEC, the Volunteers appeared to benefit from the layout of its toughest games—for the most part—being spread out with only two of its five toughest opponents coming in back-to-back weeks.
Tennessee opens the season at South Carolina on Sep. 26 before hosting Missouri on Oct. 3. Neither of those games are gimmes, but the Vols will likely be favored in both contests, meaning Tennessee has a real opportunity to start 2-0 in the SEC for just the fourth time since 2001.
The schedule also provides Tennessee with a couple of good tests to get under its belt before it heads to Georgia on Oct. 10. Tennessee follows that up with consecutive home games against Kentucky and Alabama before the bye week on Halloween, which splits the regular season evenly on the Vols’ schedule.
Tennessee comes out of the break with a trip to Arkansas before it’s toughest two-week stretch of the season. The Vols host Texas A&M on Nov. 14 and travel to Auburn a week later. The Vols head to Nashville for a meeting with Vanderbilt and host Florida on Dec. 5 to cap the regular season.
The layout of Tennessee’s ten games doesn’t change the quality of opponents, but considering a ten-game SEC schedule, it’s about as favorable as Tennessee could’ve hoped for. Still, when some of these games are played can be just as important as who they’re played against. Imagine if Tennessee faced Georgia State or BYU in November last season, or if Texas A&M didn’t immediately follow back-to-back games against Florida and Georgia in 2016.
That 2016 slate featured the Vols taking on four ranked opponents in four straight weeks. Tennessee faced five consecutive ranked opponents in 2013 with a bye week mixed into that stretch. The Vols faced four top-20 opponents in a five-week span in 2012, which saw Tennessee go 0-4 with three one-score losses. Tennessee ended up facing three top ten teams in three weeks in 2011 and had back-to-back matchups against ranked opponents twice in 2010.
In addition, none of Tennessee’s opponents are coming off a bye the week they face the Vols. Georgia is coming off its big rivalry game against Auburn. Alabama is travels to Knoxville after visiting Georgia. Texas A&M is at South Carolina the week before it comes to Knoxville. Auburn is at Mississippi State before it hosts Tennessee, and Florida hosts Kentucky on Nov. 28.
Last season, Tennessee fans expressed a lot of optimism about the what-if factor had the Vols faced the Gators later in the year rather than in September. With (hopefully) nine SEC games under its belt and getting the benefit of facing Vanderbilt the week before, there’s no clear schedule advantage or disadvantage for Tennessee’s annual showdown with the Gators.
While no team has it easy in the SEC, Tennessee’s schedule layout should paint a more accurate picture of what this team will look like in 2020. If the Vols can secure repeat wins against the four teams in the SEC East it defeated a year ago and avoid an upset loss at Arkansas, the remaining five games will determine just how high of a ceiling Jeremy Pruitt’s third team can have.