There’s no historical context for a 10-game SEC season in the modern era, so sure, you can make the argument that this kind of gauntlet, absent any FCS cupcakes or mid-major challengers, is harder than anything else the Vols have faced before. But as the major talking point is how the Vols are playing five teams in the preseason Top 15 (in the coaches’ poll), it’s a good way to compare what the 2020 Vols might/will face to what Tennessee teams of the past have seen.
(For this piece I used the preseason AP poll data from College Poll Archive, which goes back much farther than their coaches’ poll data.)
Tennessee’s schedule, as you know, is always hard: Florida, Georgia, and Alabama are ever present, ever elite. Alabama has been ranked no lower than third in the preseason AP poll for 11 years in a row, no big deal. Georgia has been ranked third or fourth in the preseason poll the last three years. And though not quite that high in the present, Florida was preseason top five three times under Urban Meyer and eight under Steve Spurrier, including six years in a row from 1994-99. Those teams are always going to be there. The Vols have two top five and three top ten teams on their 2020 schedule, but nothing about that is unusual for Tennessee.
The Vols have also played a historically difficult non-conference opponent each year. Since the league expanded to divisional play in 1992 nearly 30 years ago, Tennessee has faced a preseason Top 15 non-conference foe eight times; Oklahoma would’ve made nine this year.
So, how does playing five preseason Top 15 teams (#3 Alabama, #4 Georgia, #8 Florida, #11 Auburn, #13 Texas A&M) compare to Tennessee’s recent history? Since divisional play began in 1992, only one season can match it: Butch Jones’ first year in 2013, when the Vols played five preseason Top 10 teams: #1 Alabama, #3 Oregon, #5 Georgia, #6 South Carolina, and #10 Florida. (Preseason poll only, so that fun doesn’t include eventual national runner-up Auburn or SEC East champion Missouri, which finished fifth.) Remember that?
In four other seasons since 1992, the Vols have faced four preseason Top 15 teams:
- 2014: #2 Alabama, #4 Oklahoma, #9 South Carolina, #12 Georgia
- 2011: #2 Alabama, #4 LSU, #12 South Carolina, #15 Arkansas
- 2009: #1 Florida, #5 Alabama, #8 Ole Miss, #13 Georgia
- 2006: #7 Florida, #8 LSU, #9 California, #15 Georgia
Again, the preseason poll is prone to error: the Vols beat South Carolina in 2014 and dominated Cal in the 2006 opener. It’s all perception at this point, and an accurate one to say 2020 would be one of the most difficult schedules the Vols have ever faced going in…just not quite at the top of that list. And those Butch Jones Vols in year one were both less talented and had their chances. So if we do play this thing, there’s still reason, even in the midst of nearly unprecedented difficulty, to see opportunity.