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Ranking the Toughest Games on Tennessee's College Football Schedule in 2017

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While the Tennessee Volunteers’ 2017 football schedule should be less taxing than the one they faced last season, there are still plenty of significant challenges on the slate.

For starters, the Vols must go on the road to face both Florida and Alabama, the two SEC Championship Game participants a season ago. Matchups against Georgia, LSU and Georgia Tech also make for a tough row to hoe for Butch Jones and company. Not to mention, the remaining SEC East foes that provide potential pitfalls along the way. So, exactly how daunting will Tennessee’s schedule be in 2017? Let’s take a closer look.

Here now are Tennessee’s 12 regular season games ranked from easiest to most difficult.

12. Sept. 9 vs. Indiana State

Tennessee’s annual FCS cupcake opponent comes early in 2017. The only challenging aspect of this matchup is that the Volunteers will have just four days to rest and prepare following a tough season opener in Atlanta against Georgia Tech. The Vols should have no issues delivering a dominant performance at home in their first-ever matchup against the Sycamores.

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11. Sept. 23 vs. UMass

This game is sandwiched between matchups against archrivals Florida and Georgia. So, the Vols could have a difficult time turning all of their attention to the visiting Minutemen. Fortunately, Tennessee probably won’t need to be at its best to make easy work of a UMass team that has not won more than three games in a season since joining the FBS in 2012.

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10. Nov. 4 vs. Southern Miss

A late-season matchup against Southern Miss in Knoxville should provide Tennessee with a welcome break from the rigors of SEC competition. That being said, Tennessee can’t afford to take the Golden Eagles lightly. Sub-par performances against similar opponents (Appalachian State and Ohio) last season almost proved very costly.

College Football Rankings: Southern Miss

9. Nov. 11 at Missouri

Barry Odom’s Tigers return 10 starters from an offense that took a big leap forward last season and could easily be among the best in the SEC East in 2017. Regardless, Mizzou might find it very challenging to outscore Tennessee, even on its home turf. The Tigers return just three starters from an abysmal defense that ranked dead last in the SEC and gave up 63 points to the Vols in 2016.

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8. Nov. 25 vs. Vanderbilt

The Commodores return most of their starters from a team that managed to put a dagger in the Vols’ 2016 season with a stunning 45-34 upset in Nashville. But if the Volunteers can stay relatively healthy leading into this matchup, they should be well-equipped to avenge last season’s embarrassing loss. Home-field advantage can only help that cause.

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7. Oct. 28 at Kentucky

The Wildcats won’t be a pushover with 16 starters returning from a team that won seven games in 2016. The Vols could be heading into Lexington a little worse for the wear following a road trip Alabama as well. However, Tennessee has consistently had the Wildcats’ number and a Kentucky defense that ranked among the worst in the SEC last season still has plenty of question marks.

Kentucky football schedule

6. Oct. 14 vs. South Carolina

The Gamecocks’ 24-21 upset victory in Columbia put a serious damper on the Volunteers’ 2016 season. And South Carolina has enough talent returning to do it again. But unlike last season, the Vols should be well-rested and better prepared for this matchup following a bye. Neyland Stadium provides the additional advantage that Tennessee needs to exact its revenge.

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5. Sept. 4 vs. Georgia Tech (Atlanta)

The new-look Volunteers will be put to the test early, opening the season against a dangerous Georgia Tech team in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Tennessee has the edge in talent, but the Yellow Jackets’ aggressive option-based offense is a legitimate nightmare for any defense to defend. Additionally, Georgia Tech returns 17 starters from a team that went 3-0 against SEC East opponents (Vanderbilt, Georgia, Kentucky) in 2016.

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4. Nov. 18 vs. LSU

If there is such a thing as a good time for Tennessee to draw LSU as its other SEC West crossover opponent, this would be it. The Tigers return only a handful of starters, and the Volunteers are fortunate to be facing them in Knoxville in the midst of a brutal part of their schedule. But this is still a talent-rich LSU team and Tennessee has not defeated any team from the other division since 2010.

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3. Sept. 30 vs. Georgia

In what has been one of the more hotly contested rivalries in the SEC over the last few years, the 2017 SEC East favorite Bulldogs will be looking to avenge last year’s stunning Hail Mary loss to Tennessee in Athens. Not only will Georgia feature one of the best running back tandems in the country, the Bulldogs return 10 starters on a defense that projects to be one of the best in the nation. However, question marks remain for Georgia on the offensive line, at wide receiver and on special teams, leaving room for optimism that the home team can secure its third consecutive victory over the Bulldogs.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Georgia

2. Sept. 16 at Florida

Tennessee will open SEC play on the road against arch-nemesis Florida. The Vols finally put an end to an 11-year drought against the Gators last season in Knoxville. But Tennessee will be hard-pressed to make it two in a row with this game taking place in The Swamp. While Florida is tasked with replacing the bulk of its starters from a potent 2016 defense, there’s no shortage of talent on that side of the football. And the addition of Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire at quarterback should go a long way in helping the Gators solidify what was previously thought to be their biggest weakness on offense.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Florida

1. Oct. 21 at Alabama

The Vols gave the Crimson Tide all they could handle the last time they made the trip to Tuscaloosa, lending hope that the Third Saturday in October could once again become one of the great rivalries in college football. Unfortunately, Tennessee took a big step backward against the Tide last season in Knoxville. And it doesn’t look particularly promising for the Volunteers to close the gap in 2017. Alabama is once again loaded with elite talent and well-positioned to make another run at a national championship.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Alabama

— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.