Next week, somebody is going to be picked second in the SEC East. Maybe it’ll be the Vols, maybe not. But I would anticipate Tennessee being close enough to warrant conversation.
That’s not really a goal, of course. You don’t get a silver medal. If the Vols have a successful 2022 season, that won’t be how we describe it. But the journey to such a finish can provide a clear opportunity for the kind of season we’re looking for.
Some ten years ago, we started ranking Tennessee’s most important games going into each season. Even then, in Derek Dooley’s final season, you can see the argument: it’s not which wins would be worth most, in which case Alabama and Georgia vault to the top of the list. It’s more about that team’s particular path to success: back then, we had NC State at number two, with Dooley feeling heat heading into year three and the Vols in desperate need of a good start.
The game at number one on that list has been the game at number one almost every year going back somewhere between 10-30 years:
It would be easier to think of when the Gators haven’t been viewed as Tennessee’s most important game going into the season. Once the Vols broke a 10-year Alabama streak in 1995, the Tennessee/Florida game vaulted to the top of our lists and our hearts. Since then, when has it not been the Gators? Maybe when Miami was the defending national champion and Ron Zook moved to Florida in 2002. Maybe when Mark Richt firmly established Georgia as a power after beating the Vols four years in a row for 2004-05. And there have been a few times when the Gators were perceived as simply too good for the Vols to realistically catch in the midst of coaching change; maybe only Jeremy Pruitt’s 2018 squad, with Dan Mullen also in year one, could really look at Florida as their biggest game in year one.
Last summer, we would’ve viewed a win like South Carolina or Kentucky as “more important” on the front end. But Josh Heupel’s team did more than a good enough job to get the Gators back at the top of our list in year two, even before Mullen’s season spiraled and Florida turned their own staff over.
Tennessee, as you know, has one win over Florida since 2004, and even that one has six years and two coaching staffs of mileage on it. Beating the Gators at any point would be a success for Tennessee right now. It would create one of the strongest memories any Vol coach has secured in the post-Fulmer era, and Heupel would have a chance to do it early in year two. It doesn’t always go that way, even when you feel like it’s gonna. But it certainly can this year, in a game the Vols might even be favored in for the first time since ducks pulled trucks.
It always starts here. It’s where it can go next that helps define importance to me:
LSU & Kentucky
You can go in any order here. LSU is the national power, a meaningful win for the Vols in any year. Stumble against Florida and Pittsburgh, it’s your chance to right the ship. Beat one or both of those teams, and it’s a chance to stay in the national conversation. The LSU game will function to some degree like the Texas A&M game in 2016: it can’t do it for you by itself, but it can set the course for what comes next.
Kentucky fans are surely telling themselves they should have three consecutive wins over us. The program has elevated itself to a place where they might earn those second place votes. And the seeds of rivalry have always been there via basketball season. The Vols catch LSU coming off a bye; Kentucky catches us in the same fashion.
For Tennessee fans, it will seem easier to overlook the Cats because of what comes next. But it’s this sequence of games that gives the next one a chance to matter most.
If you think we’re ready for this kind of fun, then sure, Georgia’s the most important game on the schedule because it’s the one that gives you the best chance to win the East.
I think that’s an unfair conversation headed into year two against the defending national champions. But I wouldn’t shy away from the opportunity. And that’s why I’d look at an absolute success like this: beat Florida, LSU, and Kentucky, and you’ll go to Athens on November 5 with a chance to move into first place in the SEC East. No matter what you did against Alabama. (Or Pittsburgh.)
It’s all hypothetical about whether Tennessee can beat Georgia at this point. But if you want that opportunity to really count, you get there by way of Florida, LSU, and Kentucky.