Tennessee’s “decade” of dominance from 1989-2001 created and sustained elite expectations in the Vols’ non-conference schedule. It started with UCLA, Notre Dame, a championship squad from Colorado, and Donovan McNabb’s Syracuse. In the early 2000’s the Vols added Miami off their national championship and Cal teams who entered the season with similar expectations, while renewing acquaintances with UCLA and Notre Dame. And in the last decade the Vols faced Oregon and Oklahoma home-and-home, plus a string of neutral site games including the Battle at Bristol.
Tennessee’s non-conference slate to open the 2020’s is a little lighter, some combination of the program’s fall and rotating leadership in the athletic department. The Vols still have Oklahoma (2020 and 2024) and Nebraska (2026-27) on the docket, but the other marquee match-ups are the return trip to BYU (2023) and the Johnny Majors Bowl with Pittsburgh (2021-22).
In the College Football Playoff era, power five teams are required to schedule another power five team as a non-conference opponent each year. The SEC allows Notre Dame, Army, and BYU to fulfill that requirement as well, so the Vols are set with the Cougars in 2023. What is now mandatory for the Vanderbilts of the world has been the expectation at Tennessee for 30+ years.
So it’s interesting and a little unsettling to see the holes in Tennessee’s non-conference scheduling just a few years down the road.
John Pennington at The Sports Source and Vince Ferrara at The Sports Animal did great work on Tennessee’s future non-conference scheduling compared to the rest of the SEC. Tennessee’s power five slate includes no dates beyond 2027, while other traditional powers in the league have not only announced games into the late 2030’s, but have begun scheduling two power five opponents much sooner than that. Alabama will open with Notre Dame and Ohio State in 2028.
So Tennessee’s scheduling needs some work, and the athletic department has to be in conversation about whether to add another power five foe towards the end of the decade if the Vols want to keep pace. But the Vols have a more immediate problem: there’s a power five hole in their 2025 slate.
With games being scheduled 15+ years in advance, an opening five years down the road is problematic; especially so when you consider most of the power five options have already filled their required slot for 2025. Of the 65 power five schools, only the Vols and six others don’t have another qualifying power five opponent on the non-conference docket in 2025. And one of those six others is Nebraska, who the Vols will face the following two seasons home-and-home. So in theory you could work out a triple-header and play a neutral site game in 2025, but there’s not really a good existing option between Knoxville and Lincoln. And if you wanted to just make it a four-game series, the Huskers don’t have another opening until 2032, so it seems unlikely we’d play three in a row from 2025-27 then wait another five years to finish the contract.
That leaves these five schools who the Vols could theoretically pick up the phone and call today to get something on the books for 2025. Scheduling info from the good folks at fbsschedules.com.
Open in 2025
- Maryland: no meetings since the disastrous 2002 Peach Bowl, nothing in Knoxville since 1975. They feel our pain on rapid coaching change, and are a grotesque 21-40 the last five years, with the move to the Big Ten offering little kindness. If Maryland is the option I found most interesting, you can see how this list is going to go. One problem here: Tennessee never schedules Big Ten teams. Like never. The Vols famously played Penn State in 1971-72, but they didn’t join the Big Ten until 1990. It’s in part, I’m sure, to the number of SEC/Big Ten bowl match-ups. But Tennessee’s first home-and-home with a team in the Big Ten when the game kicks off will be Nebraska in 2026.
- California: An all-time day at Neyland in 2006, and a high-scoring defeat at Berkeley in 2007. Our old friend Justin Wilcox enters year four at Cal having improved the Golden Bears from 5-7 to 7-6 to 8-5 his first three seasons.
- Northwestern: Tennessee and Northwestern have only met twice, both on January 1 against two of the most successful teams in Northwestern history. The Vols won those two games by a combined score of 93-34. Northwestern was steady under Pat Fitzgerald until last year’s 3-9 finish. A nice trip for any Chicagoland Vol fans, but again, the Vols don’t schedule Big Ten teams.
- Washington State: Peyton Manning’s first start back in 1994. The Vols and Cougars have met five times, but never in Pullman.
- Rutgers: Seems unlikely!
So you can see how it becomes problematic to wait this long to schedule a game.
Other options get thin from here. The Vols could take an easier out and pursue Army, though the Vols already have the Black Knights on the docket in 2022. Army has just two openings on their 2025 schedule. If you want to run it back with BYU, the Cougars do have four openings at the moment. The real prize going the independent route is Notre Dame, but the Irish only have two openings, and one will go to Stanford assuming that series is renewed. Notre Dame already has Arkansas and Texas A&M on the 2025 schedule as well, so it’s unlikely they’d go for a third SEC team.
But there are a couple of options if we think of this the other way around:
ACC Teams Facing Notre Dame in 2025
- NC State: two games in Raleigh before World War II, plus the night we met Cordarrelle Patterson in Atlanta, but the Wolfpack have never been to Knoxville. Would they add a second non-conference foe?
- Syracuse: The Orange do have Purdue and Notre Dame on their 2022 schedule, so they’re clearly open to the idea, but they lack any cupcake in 2025 with Notre Dame, UConn, and Army on the list already.
Teams Facing BYU in 2025
- Virginia: The Cavaliers are open to two qualifying opponents in the same season. In fact, they’ll play three (Illinois, BYU, Notre Dame) next fall. BYU is Virginia’s only non-conference opponent currently scheduled for 2025. Virginia makes the most football sense of the teams listed so far: three straight bowls and they won the ACC Coastal last season. Charlottesville is a decent drive. Scott Stadium is small at 64,000, but not impossibly so. This could also be a Chick-fil-A Kickoff match-up; those games are currently scheduled through 2024.
- Stanford: Intriguing, as the Cardinal are one of the best programs the Vols have never faced. They’re open to multiple qualifying opponents, and will face Kansas State, Vanderbilt, and Notre Dame next season. If they renew the series with the Irish, would they say yes to BYU, Notre Dame, and Tennessee in 2025?
- Utah: This wouldn’t have sounded like an intriguing game in the 90’s, but the Utes have the football pedigree to make it so now. Three meetings in Knoxville, the last in 1984; the Vols have never been to Salt Lake City, though we are going to Provo in 2023.
- Minnesota: again, the Vols don’t schedule Big Ten teams.
Everything on this list is a better option than the teams that are totally free.
Are there any other ideas? As more teams start scheduling multiple power fives, more options become available. But most of the teams we typically think of as most desirable for a home-and-home – Texas, Ohio State, Michigan, Virginia Tech – aren’t playing two marquee games until later in the decade or into the 2030’s. Tennessee was atop the list of Virginia Tech’s most desirable non-conference opponents at The Athletic. But the earliest that could happen on Virginia Tech’s schedule is 2031.
I did find one interesting exception:
If you can’t play Virginia Tech for control of Appalachia…
- West Virginia: To their absolute credit, the Mountaineers are already willing and able to play two qualifying power five opponents, especially when one of them is a rivalry game. They’ve got Florida State in Atlanta and Maryland this season, then they start renewing Big East rivalries with Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh while also playing Penn State, giving them two qualifying opponents every year through 2024. But in 2025, they’ve only got Pittsburgh on the schedule so far. You’ll recall the 2018 meeting in Charlotte was the first ever between the Vols and Mountaineers, and poorly timed from a competitiveness perspective. It’s a 6.5 hour drive, but the Vols are already headed up that way for Pittsburgh.
To be sure, the Vols could have something completely different up their sleeve, or a bigger name could decide to take the plunge and make Tennessee their second qualifying opponent in 2025. But if those things don’t happen, and the Vols are looking at a list like this and a ticking clock, I’d make these phone calls in this order:
- West Virginia home-and-home in 2025 and 2028 (or play them in Atlanta in 2025, but this series warrants the home-and-home)
- Virginia in the 2025 Chick-fil-A Classic or home-and-home in 2025 and 2028
- Utah home-and-home in 2025 and 2029
- Stanford home-and-home in 2025 and 2030
- California home-and-home in 2025 and 2030