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Tennessee Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on the Volunteers' Schedule

Tennessee Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on the Volunteers' Schedule

Tennessee Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on the Volunteers' Schedule

No team in college football saw a more dramatic in-season turnaround than the Tennessee Volunteers in 2019. Following a disappointing 1-4 start that included losses to Georgia State and BYU to open the campaign, the Vols rallied to win seven of their final eight contests, culminating in a Gator Bowl victory over Indiana.

The Volunteers now look to take another step forward, riding the momentum of a six-game win streak into year three of the Jeremy Pruitt era on Rocky Top. While there is plenty of reason for optimism, a less forgiving slate of matchups awaits in 2020, and there's also plenty of uncertainty regarding how the season will look like for the sport in general.

Tennessee's schedule, as currently constructed, features four opponents that won at least 11 games in 2019, and all four of those teams are likely to begin this season ranked in the top 10 (Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Florida). Matchups against South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri, and Arkansas could prove difficult as well.

Here's a closer look at every game on Tennessee's 2020 football schedule, as we rank each matchup in order from easiest to most difficult.

12. Sept. 19 vs. Furman

Tennessee will have every conceivable advantage at home in a game that should provide a nice break between difficult matchups against Oklahoma and Florida. However, Furman isn't your typical FCS cupcake and shouldn't be taken lightly. The Paladins come in at No. 18 in Athlon Sports' Preseason FCS Top 25 and return some serious firepower from last year's FCS playoff team that gave both Virginia Tech and Georgia State a run for their money on the road.

11. Nov. 21 vs. Troy

After three consecutive 10-win seasons under former head coach Neal Brown, the Trojans took a big step back last season, with just five wins under new head coach Chip Lindsey. Troy could make it back into bowl contention in 2020, but the Trojans are a far cry from the scary giant-slayer that they were in years past.

10. Sept. 5 vs. Charlotte

Tennessee has made major strides since scoring an ugly 14-3 win over Charlotte when the 49ers last visited Knoxville in 2018. Charlotte also appears to be on an upward trajectory under the direction of up-and-coming head coach Will Healy, who led the 49ers to their first bowl appearance in program history last season. Regardless, a far superior Tennessee squad should cruise to victory in what will serve as a nice tune-up before the Vols head to Norman to face the Sooners. That being said, the Volunteers would be remiss to overlook Charlotte in the same manner they did Georgia State in last year&r's season opener.

9. Nov. 28 vs. Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt went just 3-9 last season and struggled mightily on both sides of the football in the process. Head coach Derek Mason brought in veteran coordinators Todd Fitch (offense) and Ted Roof (defense) to help right the sinking ship. But it may be too little, too late, as the Commodores seem to be falling further behind their SEC counterparts in the talent department. Tennessee will have no problem taking full advantage of its in-state foe's demise.

8. Oct. 31 at Arkansas

New head coach Sam Pittman has assembled a top-flight coaching staff, star running back Rakeem Boyd returns, and Florida transfer Feleipe Franks has proven to be a real thorn in the side of Tennessee's defense in the past at quarterback. These are just a few reasons why the Vols' Halloween visit to Fayetteville could prove challenging. The Hogs also have an open date prior to this matchup, while Tennessee might be a little worse for the wear coming off a date against Alabama. But we also must keep in mind that the Razorbacks have lost 19 consecutive SEC games, and it's highly unlikely that a first-time head coach will turn things around in short order. That certainly bodes well for the Vols.

7. Oct. 3 vs. Missouri

Missouri's defense should be solid again in 2020 with seven starters returning, including star linebacker Nick Bolton. The big question lies with new head coach Eli Drinkwitz's ability to reform a Mizzou offense that struggled mightily down the stretch last season. That will be a tall order, especially with so many new faces for the Tigers on that side of the football. And even if Drinkwitz is successful in getting the Mizzou offense going, it's unlikely that it will be hitting on all cylinders in time for the early October matchup against the Vols in Knoxville. Edge, Tennessee.

6. Nov. 7 vs. Kentucky

Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops has a real knack for getting the most out of his roster and finding creative ways to win. 2020 should be no different for a Wildcats' squad that has more than enough talent to be a threat once again. That being said, the loss of do-it-all star Lynn Bowden Jr. is significant, and questions linger for a suspect passing game as Kentucky prepares to transition back to a more traditional offense in 2020. The Wildcats should benefit from a bye week before traveling to Knoxville. However, home-field advantage looms large for the Vols, who have not lost to Kentucky inside Neyland Stadium since 1984 (17 straight wins).

5. Oct. 10 at South Carolina

Tennessee finally managed to get over the hump against Will Muschamp and the Gamecocks with a resounding 41-21 victory in Knoxville last season. And while Tennessee once again looks to be the better team in 2020, South Carolina has enough talent in place to make life difficult for the Vols in their first SEC road test of the season. There's also a revenge factor to take into consideration, along with the fact that Tennessee hasn't won in Columbia since 2014.

4. Sept. 26 vs. Florida

Tennessee has a long history of poor performances and bad luck against its arch-rival in the SEC East. A trend that has unfortunately continued under Pruitt, who has lost each of his first two games against the Gators by an average margin of 28 points. However, Tennessee football's culture has improved by leaps and bounds since these teams last met, lending some hope for an upset this time around. Getting the Gators at home this season adds to that sense of optimism. But the Vols will have to be at their best and play mistake-free football to make it happen. That's going to be a tall order against what looks to be Dan Mullen's best Florida squad to date.

3. Sept. 12 at Oklahoma

Tennessee's first road test of the season to face perennial powerhouse Oklahoma in Norman will be daunting, to say the least. The silver lining is that a young OU squad could be vulnerable early in the season. The Sooners will feature plenty of new faces at key positions on both sides of the football. And that lack of experience, particularly at quarterback, should help pay dividends in Tennessee's bid to pull off the upset. The bad news is that Oklahoma is loaded with more than enough talent to overcome that lack of experience. And it probably won't take long for Lincoln Riley to get an explosive Sooner offense up to speed.

2. Oct. 24 vs. Alabama

If last year's efforts in Tuscaloosa are any indication, Tennessee may be starting to narrow the gap against the Crimson Tide. It also bodes well for the Vols that this year's Third Saturday in October matchup will be played in Knoxville, with Tennessee having the added benefit of a bye before facing its arch-nemesis from the SEC West. Unfortunately, Pruitt and the Vols still have some serious ground to make up to match Alabama's elite talent. And Nick Saban's track record against both Tennessee and his former assistants speaks for itself.

1. Nov. 14 at Georgia

This annual SEC East rivalry has shifted to a later date on the schedule. That should prove beneficial to the Vols overall, breaking up the tough stretch of early-season matchups that have plagued Tennessee in the past. But it doesn't ease the burden of a road trip to face the Bulldogs. Georgia is once again expected to field one of the stingiest defenses in the nation. And if the Bulldogs can somehow find their way back on offense this season with the addition of Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman at quarterback and new offensive coordinator Todd Monken, they will be a force to be reckoned with. Even if that doesn't happen, Tennessee still faces the unenviable task of trying to put points on the scoreboard against an elite Georgia defense on the road.

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