Tennessee’s non-conference schedule isn’t the monster it has recently been. In our 2019 Gameday on Rocky Top magazine, we have the Vols’ non-conference schedule ranked the 12th-most-difficult. Only Kentucky and Arkansas have it easier.
This is all relative, of course, as part of the reason Tennessee is so far down the list is that some of its SEC brethren have leveled up their non-con scheduling. South Carolina, for instance, not only has defending national champion Clemson, but also giant-killer Appalachian State and North Carolina.
Tennessee’s non-conference slate this year features the Georgia State Panthers, the BYU Cougars, the Chattanooga Mocs, and the UAB Blazers. That’s a much more manageable slate than it has been in the past as none of those teams rank above No. 63 in our power rankings.
So, which of these teams presents the biggest challenge for Tennessee this fall? No offense to Chattanooga or Georgia State, but we can quickly dispense with those teams, as the Mocs are literally in a separate category and the Panthers were a woeful 2-10 last season and finished last in the Sun Belt East with a 1-7 conference record.
Of the other two non-conference opponents, most will immediately default to BYU, a traditional brand name with a rich history of on-field success. There’s also good support for this instinctive conclusion, as the Cougars had consecutive 9-4 seasons as recently as 2015-16, and its defense last year ranked 18th in the nation. That defense could present a real challenge to a Vols’ offense still getting used to new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney in the second game of the season.
On the other hand, BYU has struggled the past couple of seasons, going only 4-9 in 2017 and 7-6 last year, and last season’s offense ranked only 100th in the nation. Unless they’ve improved dramatically on that side of the ball, the Vols should have a decided advantage even if they do struggle against the Cougars’ defense.
But do not overlook the UAB Blazers. It’s certainly tempting to dismiss a school that didn’t even have a football program two out of the last four years. If you over-focus on that, though, you’ll miss the fact that these guys are actually pretty good despite taking a two-year sabbatical in 2015 and 2016.
The Blazers didn’t miss a beat when they rebooted the football program in 2017, promptly going 8-5 (6-2) in Conference USA. Last year, they posted an impressive 11-3 (7-1) record and finished first in the C-USA West. Like BYU, UAB has a surprisingly stout defense, their strength of schedule notwithstanding. They were ninth in the nation in total defense last season, seventh in scoring defense, 14th in passing yards allowed, and 17th in rushing defense. And unlike BYU, UAB’s offense isn’t pulling the rest of the team under. This fall, the Blazers return both quarterback Tyler Johnston and running back Spencer Brown.
And just in case you’ve forgotten, the last time Tennessee and UAB met, the Vols needed double-overtime at home to put the Blazers away. UAB actually dominated the Vols statistically, but Tennessee finally won 32-29 when Matt Simms connected with Denarius Moore on a 25-yard touchdown on the first play of the second overtime. And we celebrated like we’d won a championship.
The timing of the games against these two non-conference opponents also comes into play. BYU will come to Neyland for the Vols’ second game of the season when both teams are fresh. In contrast, UAB comes to town after the Vols have played Georgia, Mississippi State, Alabama, and South Carolina in consecutive weeks. The Vols’ bodies are more likely to be strong and their minds more likely to be right against BYU than they are against UAB.
I’m not necessarily more concerned about UAB than I am about BYU, but I would say that I am equally concerned about both. Tennessee should be favored against both teams, but either or both of them could spell trouble if the Vols aren’t ready to play.