The Fourth of July always feels like the turning point in college football’s long summer away. Tennessee’s basketball conversation lasted longer than ever this year, and will continue in some ways with multiple Vols in the NBA Summer League over the next several days. But now, everyone’s focus starts to make a hard shift to football. Saturday will be eight weeks to kickoff. Media Days are just a week and a half from now. It’s close enough to count.
We’ll get a good look at two of Tennessee’s September foes right away: Florida opens the entire season a week early against Miami on August 24, and BYU plays the late night opening Thursday game against Utah on August 29. The Utes should be somewhere in the Top 20 when polls are released, and is about a touchdown favorite at BYU. Depending on what else happens in college football’s first full weekend, the Cougars could slide into the Top 25 with an upset, but that seems less likely than not.
Florida, however, is showing up in the Top 10 in just about every preseason magazine. The Canes are no slouch – Phil Steele has them at #15 – and the game is in Orlando. But the Gators will almost certainly still be in the Top 25 when Tennessee comes calling at the end of September; they’d have to lose to both Miami and at Kentucky to not still be ranked by then.
That game opens another difficult stretch for Tennessee, though it is thankfully followed by an open date. The Vols will face Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State, and Alabama all in a row. If you’re looking for the chalk version of how Tennessee gets to 7-5, I’m not sure it includes wins in any of those games. The Vols could hit their Vegas number by getting all of their non-conference games, including BYU, returning to form against Kentucky and Vanderbilt, and beating South Carolina in Knoxville. That particular path would mean a 3-0 start, 0-4 middle, and 4-1 finish.
We’re more used to the 0-4 middle than we’d like to admit, in part because of who’s usually in that middle on our schedule. This could be the last time we see it, as the Vols and Georgia will see their annual rivalry move to November starting next fall. That’s good news for Tennessee, as the Vols have more or less played Florida and Georgia within a couple weeks of each other over the entire 27-year history of the SEC East. You can be essentially eliminated from the division chase by the first week of October that way. In the future, should Georgia continue to be a front-runner, Tennessee can at least carry hope, real or imagined, into November.
But for now, the Vols might face four consecutive ranked foes for the fourth time in eight years. Florida will almost certainly be there. Georgia and Alabama feel like locks, as usual; the Dawgs host Notre Dame two weeks before traveling to Knoxville, while Alabama has to go to Texas A&M the week before hosting Tennessee. But those are their only major threats before facing the Vols.
And then there’s Mississippi State. Last time the Vols and Bulldogs met was 2012, Derek Dooley’s final season. There are similarities between that schedule and this one: NC State and BYU are lower-level non-conference foes than what Tennessee normally faces, and if you’re picking which non-Alabama SEC West team you’d least like to face, the answer usually isn’t going to be Mississippi State. In what became Dooley’s final season, there was still plenty of, “We don’t lose to Mississippi State,” in the atmosphere. Since then, Dan Mullen took the Bulldogs to the New Year’s Six and another Top 25 finish in his final year in Starkville; Joe Moorehead followed up with a #25 finish in the coaches’ poll last year. Mississippi State may not carry the tradition and rivalry of Auburn or even LSU, but the Bulldogs are still in a much healthier place than Tennessee.
And their opening schedule – Louisiana-Lafayette, Southern Miss, Kansas State, Kentucky, and Auburn – means they could come to Knoxville 4-1 or even 5-0, making it four straight ranked foes for Tennessee.
The Vols faced four straight ranked foes in Derek Dooley’s final season, going 0-4 and losing any hope of escaping a coaching change. The following season the Vols faced five straight ranked foes, getting a win over South Carolina in a 1-4 stretch. And in 2016, the Vols beat Florida and Georgia before falling to Texas A&M and Alabama.
Four straight ranked foes often leads to four game losing streaks. The Vols suffered that fate every year from 2010-13, and again in 2017. But they also present opportunities for valuable, momentum-changing upsets; Jeremy Pruitt was able to get a pair of those last season.
The Vols might also get a fifth shot at a ranked foe. If we were in serious consideration for the SEC East this year, right now we’d be complaining about Missouri’s schedule: the Tigers catch Ole Miss and Arkansas out of the SEC West, and also host a rebuilding West Virginia in the non-conference. Missouri’s first eight games: at Wyoming, West Virginia, Southeast Missouri State, South Carolina, Troy, Ole Miss, at Vanderbilt, at Kentucky, followed by an open date. Then comes the fun part: at Georgia, Florida, then the Vols (who are coming off a bye week). The Tigers could build up enough momentum to be fairly high up the polls before facing the Dawgs, Gators, and Vols.
It’s easy to sit back in July and say how much one win or another would be worth, but it never works out exactly the way you think. Last July, beating Kentucky seemed like a reasonable goal. By November, it was a Top 15 feather in Jeremy Pruitt’s cap. What seems most likely is, perhaps for the last time, a brutal late September to mid-October gauntlet, and maybe another four game stretch of ranked opponents. But in Pruitt’s second year, there’s enough optimism to view it as opportunity.