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 season. The Commodores still have plenty to of work to do on the other side of the ball, but they should be in better shape than they were a season ago with several key players returning from injury. Head coach Derek Mason finally appears to have this team trending in a positive direction, but in terms of overall talent and depth, Vanderbilt does not match up very well against a loaded Tennessee team that will likely be firing on all cylinders at the end of the season.
6. Oct. 29 at South Carolina
There is no question that new Gamecocks head coach Will Muschamp will have his work cut out for him in 2016. He inherits arguably the worst defense in the SEC, in addition to an offense that appears to be short on playmakers and loaded with question marks. On paper, Tennessee should dominate every aspect of this game. But if recent history between these two schools is any indication, this may not be the cakewalk that it appears to be for the Vols. Each of the last four contests in the series have been decided by no more than a field goal with the underdog winning more often than not.
5. Sept. 10 vs. Virginia Tech (Bristol, Tenn.)
While Virginia Tech may not be as loaded as it has been in year’s past, the Hokies still possess solid talent on both sides of the football. More importantly, they are light years ahead of the talent that new head coach Justin Fuente inherited when he took over at Memphis, a dumpster fire that he was able to convert into a winning program in very short order. That said, it will take a small miracle for Fuente to have the Hokies clicking by game two against a stacked Tennessee team, especially playing in front of the biggest crowd to ever witness a college football game.
4. Oct. 8 at Texas A&M
The Aggies fell short of expectations in 2015, and a turbulent offseason has further clouded the outlook for this fall. There is one certainty being that the Aggies have more than enough talent to compete in the SEC if they can get past the drama. They feature one of the most dangerous receiving corps in the nation, a capable signal-caller in Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight, and a one-man wrecking crew on defense in the form of Myles Garrett. The Vols will likely be favored beat A&M, but it will be no easy task to escape College Station with a win, especially coming off of games against Florida and Georgia with Alabama looming the following week.
3. Oct. 1 at Georgia
The Volunteers will enter this matchup either coming of an enormous high or a very deflating low, depending on the outcome of their matchup against Florida the week prior. Emotions also should be high for a Georgia team in search of revenge after falling short against the Vols last season in Knoxville. Tennessee will have an advantage over the Bulldogs in terms of talent and experience, but playing on the road in a highly emotional state could negate the Vols' edge in this matchup. If first-year head coach Kirby Smart has his Bulldogs up for the challenge, it will not be easy for Tennessee to escape Athens with the victory.
2. Oct. 15 vs. Alabama
It’s never easy competing against a perennial powerhouse that reloads with elite talent year in and year out, but Tennessee is finally starting to close the gap against their historic rival. The Volunteers gave Alabama all they could handle last season in Tuscaloosa, and Tennessee finally has the necessary tools to get over the hump against the Crimson Tide in Knoxville this season. While it won’t come easy against a very talented and well-coached Alabama team, a win for the Vols would officially signify their return to college football’s upper echelon, and once again bring significance to “The Third Saturday in October” as one of the best rivalries in college football.
1. Sept. 24 vs. Florida
The Gators may not even be the second-best team that Tennessee will face in 2016, but there is no question that their SEC East rival provide the Volunteers with their biggest obstacle for the upcoming season. Tennessee has now lost 11 consecutive games to Florida, basically gifting wins in the last two meetings after blowing fourth quarter leads. The Volunteers clearly hold the distinction of being the more talented and experienced team this season. But from a mental aspect, Tennessee must get over a big hurdle if Butch Jones' boys are going to get past their pesky rival and have a shot to win the division in 2016.
— 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.