Vols' non-conference schedule is more forgiving in 2019, the SEC slate is once again challenging
The Tennessee Volunteers are set to embark on Year 2 of the Jeremy Pruitt era. While progress was made in Pruitt's inaugural season on Rocky Top, it did not go as favorably as many Vol fans had hoped, culminating with a 5-7 record. A big reason for that was the imposing slate of games that Tennessee faced last season.
The good news is that the Vols' 2019 schedule is shaping up to be a bit more forgiving. The Vols should reap the benefits of eight games inside the friendly confines of Neyland Stadium. And the non-conference slate does not feature a single Power 5 opponent.
But make no mistake, this schedule is by no means easy. Tennessee will make daunting road trips to face rivals Alabama and Florida, along with another tough road matchup at Missouri. The fact that Georgia has to visit Knoxville doesn't lighten that burden much either. And additional homes games against Mississippi State, South Carolina and BYU provide formidable opposition as well.
Here's a closer look at every game on Tennessee’s 2019 football schedule, as we rank each matchup in order from easiest to toughest.
12. Sept. 14 vs. Chattanooga
Chattanooga returns 15 starters from a squad that went 6-5 last season. That should give first-year head coach Rusty Wright a solid foundation to build upon in his quest to get the Mocs back on track in the FCS ranks. But there is no doubt that Wright and company will be in way over their heads against a far superior Vols' squad in Knoxville.
This low-stress matchup will provide an opportunity for Tennessee to get some valuable experience for younger players before hitting the road for the first time in 2019 to open conference play against arch-nemesis Florida.
11. Aug. 31 vs. Georgia State
Georgia State should be a marginally improved football team in 2019 with the return of dual-threat quarterback Dan Ellington to go along with seven returning starters on defense. But that still leaves plenty to be desired for a team that won just two games and fielded one of the worst defenses in the nation last season.
The Vols should be able to make easy work of the Panthers at home to open the 2019 season on a high note. This also makes for a nice tune-up game before a dangerous BYU team makes its way to Knoxville the following week.
10. Nov. 2 vs. UAB
The defending Conference USA champion Blazers won a school-record 11 games last season, including a decisive 37-13 victory over Northern Illinois in the Boca Raton Bowl. A near-miraculous feat for a team built from scratch just two seasons earlier, after a two-year hiatus from football altogether.
While UAB is expected to take a slight step backward in 2019 after losing several key players, this is by no means a pushover opponent that Tennessee can take lightly. The Vols overlooked the upset-minded Blazers in their last meeting in Knoxville in 2010 and narrowly escaped with a 32-29 win in overtime.
9. Nov. 9 at Kentucky
Kentucky returns enough talent to make a serious run at a fourth consecutive bowl game this season. However, there's virtually no chance that Mark Stoops' Wildcats will match the success of last season's 10-win campaign. They simply lost too much firepower, most notably all-time leading rusher Benny Snell Jr., elite linebacker Josh Allen and the entire starting secondary.
Tennessee earned a very one-sided 24-7 victory in Knoxville last season against one of the best teams in the history of Kentucky football. So, even with this year's game taking place in Lexington, it's hard to envision a less talented Kentucky team getting the best of what should be an improved Tennessee team.
8. Sept. 7 vs. BYU
The Cougars return six starters from a potent defense that ranked 18th in the FBS last season. Meanwhile, talented sophomore quarterback Zach Wilson leads an offense that has the potential to be dangerous in 2019 with the emergence of a couple of playmakers.
Tennessee should be favored at home in its first-ever meeting with BYU. But the Cougars are not going to make it easy. BYU scored early-season upsets on the road against both Arizona and Wisconsin last year. The Vols will need to be at their best to avoid a similar fate in 2019. This matchup should also provide a good measuring stick for Tennessee moving forward.
7. Nov. 30 vs. Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt is charged with replacing quarterback Kyle Shurmur, who was a major thorn in the Vols' side in each of the last three seasons. The Commodores are also charged with replacing seven starters on defense. That bodes well for the Vols' chances in the regular season finale against their in-state foe inside Neyland Stadium.
That said, Vanderbilt returns top-flight talent at the skill positions in running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn, wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb, and tight end Jared Pinkney. If the Commodores can find an adequate replacement for Shurmur at quarterback in Riley Neal or Duece Wallace, they could very well make it four wins in a row against the Vols. Jeremy Pruitt cannot afford to let that happen.
6. Oct. 26 vs. South Carolina
The Gamecocks have a few question marks heading into the season and face the impossible task of replacing elite playmaker Deebo Samuel. But South Carolina returns more than enough firepower to make life difficult for the Vols in 2019. It doesn't help matters that Will Muschamp is a perfect 7-0 as a head coach against Tennessee dating back to his time at Florida.
Each of the last seven contests between Tennessee and South Carolina has been decided by no more than six points, making this one of the most closely contested matchups in the SEC in recent years. The Vols have now lost three in a row in the series, squandering legitimate opportunities to come out on top in each of those games. They must find a way to get over the hump against the Gamecocks this season in Knoxville.
5. Oct. 12 vs. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs went 8-5 last season under first-year head coach Joe Moorhead. Despite losing some big-time talent on the defensive side of the football, breakout stars such as Cameron Dantzler, Erroll Thompson and Willie Gay Jr. should go a long way in returning this defense to formidable status in 2019. Offensively, running back Kylin Hill returns to spearhead what should be a potent ground attack. The Bulldogs will miss quarterback Nick Fitzgerald despite his erratic senior campaign.
Mississippi State visits Knoxville for the first time since 2008 for a pivotal cross-conference matchup between second-year head coaches. The Bulldogs will likely enter this matchup as a slight favorite, but it truly could go either way. Home-field advantage looms large for the Vols, while the Bulldogs will benefit from having a bye the week prior.
4. Nov. 23 at Missouri
The big mystery resides in whether Clemson transfer Kelly Bryant can help fill a big void left behind by All-SEC quarterback Drew Lock. If Bryant is up to the challenge, Barry Odom's Tigers have the potential to be great in 2019, with no shortage of talent returning on both sides of the ball. But there's also the matter of a possible postseason ban hanging over the Tigers like an ominous cloud.
A late November road trip to Faurot Field to face the Tigers on Senior Night will be daunting. Mizzou has taken Tennessee behind the woodshed in each of the last two seasons, dealing the Vols back-to-back 50-17 losses. Vol Nation can only hope that the looming postseason ban, along with the absence of Drew Lock, will somehow take a negative toll on the Tigers. If there is a silver lining, Tennessee will have the luxury of a bye prior to making the trip to Columbia.
3. Sept. 21 at Florida
Tennessee faces its first big road test this season against the rival Gators to open SEC play. Following a 10-win season and a remarkable turnaround in Dan Mullen's first season in Gainesville, the Gators appear to be back in the conversation as a power in the SEC East. That is not a good thing for the Vols, who had a hard enough time trying to beat the Gators when they were vulnerable.
Tennessee turned the ball over six times in an ugly 47-21 loss to Florida last season in Knoxville. A similar beatdown will ensue if the Vols slop it up again this season in The Swamp, where they have not won since 2003. Pruitt's Vols need to be flawless. It's of the utmost importance that they at least give the Gators a run for their money.
2. Oct. 5 vs. Georgia
Tennessee showed marked improvement against the Bulldogs last season in Athens. Despite the 38-12 outcome, the game was more competitive than the final score would suggest. The goal in Knoxville this season will be to continue narrowing the gap. A lofty goal indeed.
Kirby Smart's Dawgs are once again loaded, and the SEC East favorites appear poised to make a run towards the national title. While the Volunteers still have a lot of catching up to do before they can once again pose a serious threat to the talent-rich Dawgs, they can ill afford to get blown out in this matchup.
1. Oct. 19 at Alabama
Jeremy Pruitt makes his first-ever trip to Tuscaloosa as an opposing head coach. The Volunteers have not beaten the Crimson Tide in T-town since 2003. Nick Saban has never lost to Tennessee during his tenure at Alabama. And Saban boasts a perfect 16-0 record against former assistant coaches.
Needless to say, the Third Saturday in October could make for a rude homecoming for Pruitt and his Vols. As per usual, Alabama is loaded with top-flight talent and primed to make its annual run at the national title.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.