It has been almost a decade since the Tennessee Volunteers have entered a season with so much fanfare. The media and Vol fans alike, have set the “expectations bar” fairly high and with good reason. Tennessee returns 18 starters from a 2014 team that won four of its last five games, culminating in a lopsided victory over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl. Head coach Butch Jones also has stockpiled a wealth of young talent by way of highly rated recruiting classes in 2014 and '15. For the first time in years, Tennessee has the talent and depth on both sides of the football to compete in big games.
Standing in the way of the Vols’ quest to return to relevance are 12 proud football programs that have no intention of making that journey easy. On paper, Tennessee’s 2015 football schedule is slightly more forgiving than it has been in years past with eight of the 12 matchups taking place in the Volunteer State. That being said, there is no such thing as an easy path to success when you play in the SEC, especially when teams such as Alabama, Florida and Georgia reside on your schedule annually. Add in a tough, non-conference matchup against Big 12 power Oklahoma, and you still have the makings for one of the tougher schedules in all of college football. It will not be a cakewalk by any stretch of the imagination, but Vol fans finally have cause for optimism heading into a season after years of being confined to mediocrity.
Here now is a look at Tennessee’s 12 regular season opponents, ranked from easiest to most difficult.
12. Sept. 19 vs. Western Carolina
The Vols do not have too many cupcakes on the schedule, but this is one of them. Like the Vols, the Catamounts return most of their starters from 2014. They are also expected to make some noise this season in the FCS, coming in at no. 23 in Athlon Sport's FCS preseason Top 25. That said, they are no match for the unfriendly confines of Neyland Stadium. Tennessee wins big.
11. Nov. 14 vs. North Texas
Sadly, North Texas lost the majority of its top players from 2014 to graduation. Even sadder, that same 2014 team only managed to go 4-8 with a schedule that ranked as the second easiest in the nation. The Mean Green could not have picked a worse time to pay a visit to Knoxville. The Vols will steamroll a rebuilding North Texas squad.
10. Sept. 5 vs. Bowling Green (in Nashville)
The good news for the Falcons is that they should field a very solid offense that returns 10 starters from 2014. The bad news is that they only return five starters from one of college football’s worst defenses in 2014. They also have to play the Vols in (not so neutral) Nashville, Tenn. Bowling Green will likely score more points than Vol fans are anticipating, but it will not be enough to keep it close.
9. Nov. 28 vs. Vanderbilt
In spite of a terrible 2014 season for Derek Mason’s Commodores, they still managed to give Tennessee a run for its money, losing to the Vols by just seven points in Nashville. Vanderbilt should be improved across the board in 2015, but not nearly as much as Tennessee. This should be the year that the balance of the universe gets restored, heavily favoring the Vols in this historically one-sided affair.
8. Oct. 31 at Kentucky
Mark Stoops has Kentucky headed in the right direction, but it is a tall order to compete in the SEC in football at a school known, first and foremost, for basketball. The Wildcats have a solid corps of skill players returning in 2015, and junior QB Patrick Towles may be the most underrated signal-caller in the SEC. Regardless, Tennessee has dominated this rivalry for the better part of 50-plus years now. The Vols take care of business once again in Lexington.
7. Nov. 7 vs. South Carolina
Butch Jones is now 2-0 against Steve Spurrier as the Vols' head coach. On paper, there is nothing to suggest that South Carolina will field a better football team in 2015 than it did in the previous two seasons. Thus, simple logic would tell you that the Vols should once again come out on top against the Gamecocks in Knoxville.
6. Sept. 12 vs. Oklahoma
There is little doubt that the Vols’ 2015 home opener against the Sooners will be pivotal in determining just how much Tennessee has turned the corner. Oklahoma handed a young Tennessee team, with plenty of question marks, a solid beating in Norman last season. This year, the Sooners are the road team with more questions than answers. This game could honestly go either way, but the Vols are slight favorites at home.
5. Oct. 3 vs. Arkansas
Like the Vols, Arkansas is a team on the rise with soaring expectations. They return almost their entire offense from 2014, including a punishing running attack that will be led by Alex Collins following the foot injury to fellow All-SEC ball carrier Jonathan Williams. However, the Razorbacks lose plenty of star power from a defense that ranked 10th nationally a season ago. This will be a physical battle for Tennessee, especially being sandwiched in between the Florida and Georgia games, but playing at home could be the edge the Vols need.
4. Nov. 21 at Missouri
Mizzou has somehow managed to fly under the radar every preseason since joining the SEC. And every regular season, opposing teams pay the price by underestimating the back-to-back SEC East champions. Tennessee gets Mizzou late in the year, so it typically already know what to expect, and yet the Vols still haven’t been able to get past Gary Pinkel’s Tigers. Tennessee has more talent than Mizzou in 2015, but that guarantees nothing on the road in Columbia.
3. Oct. 10 vs. Georgia
The undermanned Vols have given the Bulldogs all they could handle in each of their last two meetings. Unfortunately, it was not enough to get the win in either meeting. This year, Tennessee finally has the weapons to match up against a Georgia squad with plenty of question marks on offense. It does not hurt matters that Georgia has to play Alabama the week prior. This is a must-win game for the Vols in Knoxville if they want to have any shot at the SEC East title. It is also a game that Tennessee is more than capable of winning, but that is easier said than done.
2. Sept. 26 at Florida
The Gators have been the Vols’ kryptonite for the better part of two decades now. If Tennessee is going to once again compete in the SEC and on the national stage, it starts by getting this long festering thorn out of its side. Tennessee has the better team in 2015, but that has been the case in past meetings as well, and the result always seems to be the same. It does not help matters by having to play the Gators in “The Swamp” where the Vols have not won since 2003.
1. Oct. 24 at Alabama
The Vols played Alabama tough in the second half of last year’s 34-20 contest in Knoxville, thanks in large part to QB Joshua Dobbs entering the game. This could be the year that Tennessee makes this long-standing SEC rivalry competitive once again. The gap is definitely narrowing, but a visiting team coming out of Tuscaloosa with a victory may be the most difficult task in all of college football.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McVey is a diehard Tennessee Volunteers' fan who loves singing "Rocky Top" every opportunity he gets. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS