The bar was set fairly high for a young Tennessee Volunteers team in 2015. Despite suffering heart-breaking losses to four great teams by the narrowest of margins, the Volunteers still managed to close out the season in strong fashion, culminating in a nine-win season and a dominant 45-6 Outback Bowl victory over Northwestern. The bar has been raised even higher for Butch Jones and company in 2016 with a veteran team featuring 18 returning starters and a depth chart loaded with talent from top to bottom.
While the Volunteers have every reason to be optimistic about their chances in 2016 as the clear favorites in the SEC East, the path to Atlanta is not without some serious hurdles. The schedule showcases one particular four-game gauntlet that will be extremely difficult to navigate. It includes back-to-back road games against Georgia and Texas A&M, sandwiched between home games against the Vols’ two biggest rivals, Florida and Alabama. Tennessee’s 2016 slate also features a marquee matchup against Virginia Tech in the “Battle at Bristol” at Bristol Motor Speedway. It's a game that is expected to shatter college football’s single-game attendance record with more than 160, 000 fans expected in the stands.
Here now are Tennessee’s 12 regular season games ranked from easiest to most difficult:
12. Nov. 5 vs. Tennessee Tech
It seems to have become a popular trend for teams in the Southeastern Conference to schedule a late-season cupcake to help ease the rigors of an otherwise difficult schedule. Tennessee has followed suit in 2016 with in-state FCS opponent Tennessee Tech. This one is likely going to be over by the end of the first quarter, but it will provide the Volunteers with an opportunity to rest some of their top players down the stretch, enabling some of the younger ones to gain some valuable experience in the process.
11. Sept. 17 vs. Ohio
This game should serve as a nice tune-up before Tennessee embarks on the most difficult part of its 2016 schedule. The Bobcats are well-coached under Frank Solich, and they have some legitimate talent at the skill positions. They also are the preseason favorites to win the MAC East in 2016. That being said, Ohio will be clearly outmatched against the Volunteers in Knoxville.
10. Sept. 1 (Thursday) vs. Appalachian State
Appalachian State is an opponent that Tennessee cannot afford to take lightly. Just ask the Michigan Wolverines, which were ranked No. 5 in the nation before getting stunned at home by the Mountaineers to open the 2007 season.
The 2016 Mountaineers return nine starters on defense from a team that won 11 games in their inaugural season at the FBS level. They also return seven offensive starters, including SEC-caliber talent in quarterback Taylor Lamb and running back Marcus Cox. Regardless, practically every conceivable advantage in this matchup lies with the Vols, which will be significant favorites at home.
9. Nov. 12 vs. Kentucky
Mark Stoops should have one of the more potent offensive attacks in the SEC in 2016 with nine starters returning. The problem facing the Wildcats lies on the defensive side of the football where they return just four starters and ranked near the bottom of the league in 2015. Kentucky also has a recent history of struggling down the stretch, especially against a Tennessee team that has dropped at least 50 points on it in each of the last two meetings. A late-season matchup in Knoxville does not bode well for the boys in blue.
8. Nov. 19 vs. Missouri
The Tigers' defense ranked among the nation’s best in 2015 and will continue to be a significant strength this fall with eight starters back for new head coach Barry Odom. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for an abysmal Missouri offense that ranked among the nation’s worst last season and returns just five starters. Sophomore quarterback Drew Lock has the physical tools to help turn the offense around under the tutelage of new offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, but a lackluster supporting cast will make that extremely challenging. Mizzou will likely have a tough time finding the end zone in Neyland Stadium.
7. Nov. 26 at Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt should be extremely solid defensively in 2016 with seven starters, including All-SEC linebacker Zach Cunningham, returning from a group that ranked 28th nationally in yards allowed per game last se