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

Josh Heupel, Tennessee Volunteers Football

Josh Heupel and the Volunteers look to take advantage of their home schedule in their effort to climb up the pecking order in the SEC. 

The Tennessee Volunteers are just a few weeks away from kicking off their second season under head coach Josh Heupel. The Vols will look to build off of a better-than-expected 7-6 season in Heupel's debut. Heupel was not only successful in shifting the culture on Rocky Top under the worst of circumstances, but he also transformed a struggling Tennessee offense into one of the most potent units in the country last season.

Related: Tennessee Volunteers 2022 Season Preview and Prediction

The Vols are expected to take another step forward on offense in 2022, thanks in large part to the return of eight starters, including star quarterback Hendon Hooker and standout wide receiver Cedric Tillman. While question marks remain for the Vols on defense, much-needed improvement is expected on that side of the football as well.

There are plenty of reasons for optimism heading into the 2022 campaign. However, the Volunteers will still have to navigate a fairly difficult gauntlet of opponents, including road trips to face Pitt, LSU, Georgia, and South Carolina. Tennessee also faces tough matchups against Florida, Alabama and Kentucky, but the Vols are fortunate to play those rivalry games in Knoxville. The remainder of the 2022 slate is fairly forgiving, with SEC games against Missouri and Vanderbilt to go along with out-of-conference contests against Ball State and Akron from the MAC, as well as UT Martin from the FCS ranks.

Here's a closer look at every game on Tennessee's 2022 football schedule, as we rank each matchup in order from easiest to most difficult.

12. Oct. 22 vs. UT Martin

The defending Ohio Valley Conference champs won 10 games last season and have been tabbed as the preseason favorite to take the OVC crown once again in 2022. UT Martin is no slouch when it comes to the FCS ranks. But the Skyhawks are no match for the Volunteers in Knoxville. This should be Tennessee's easiest game of the season.

11. Sept. 17 vs. Akron

Akron will be the second MAC opponent that the Vols will face during the 2022 campaign. The Zips have been among the worst programs in the FBS over the last three seasons, compiling just a 3-27 record during that span. They should prove to be more competitive under new head coach Joe Moorhead, who formerly led Mississippi State. However, an early-season visit to Neyland Stadium to face a far superior Tennessee team does not bode well for the Zips.

10. Sept. 1 vs. Ball State

For the second consecutive year, Tennessee will open its season at home on Thursday night against a MAC opponent. The Vols made easy work of Bowling Green in last year's season opener in a 38-6 win over the Falcons. A similar outcome (or worse) is expected against a Ball State squad that has been picked to finish last in the MAC West following a lackluster 6-7 campaign in 2021. This will be the first-ever meeting between the Volunteers and Cardinals.

9. Nov. 26 at Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt won just two games and failed to win a single SEC matchup last season under first-year head coach Clark Lea. Unfortunately, things aren't shaping up to be much better for Lea and his Commodores in 2022. The Vols should cruise to victory against their in-state rival in their home-away-from-home (Nashville) to close out the regular season.

8. Nov. 12 vs. Missouri

Missouri appears to have its work cut out for it entering Year 3 of the Eliah Drinkwitz era. There are plenty of question marks, and with do-it-all star running back Tyler Badie now off to the NFL, it will be difficult for the Tigers to match last year's six-win total.

The Vols have won three straight against the Tigers, including a dominant 62-24 victory last season in Columbia. Tennessee might be a little worse for the wear entering this game after facing difficult matchups against Kentucky and Georgia in back-to-back weeks. Nevertheless, the Vols shouldn't have much difficulty making it four wins in a row against Mizzou this November in Knoxville.

7. Nov. 19 at South Carolina

South Carolina has some momentum coming off of a surprise 7-6 season in Shane Beamer's first year at the helm. The Gamecocks also made some key additions this offseason via the transfer portal to help bolster the offense, including former five-star quarterback Spencer Rattler from Oklahoma. That being said, concerns remain, particularly on the defensive side of the football.

The Gamecocks will most definitely be out for revenge after last year's 45-20 shellacking in Knoxville. And by no means can Tennessee afford to take this contest lightly on the road. However, the Vols' high-powered offense should provide the edge in this matchup.

6. Sept. 24 vs. Florida

This looks to be Tennessee's best chance to knock off the Gators in a very long time. But we've seen this scenario before, only to watch the Vols crumble in epic fashion in the strangest of ways. And despite the fact that the Gators are in rebuild mode, under the direction of a first-time Power 5 head coach in Billy Napier — Tennessee would be ill-advised to underestimate this Florida team, even in Neyland Stadium.

The Vols struggled mightily against athletic quarterbacks last season, and the Gators have Anthony Richardson, one of the most dynamic dual-threat signal-callers in the nation. Tennessee appears to be the better team, and if they can contain Richardson, the Vols will come out on top. The bigger question is — Can Tennessee get over the mental hurdle that has plagued them for so many years against the rival Gators?

5. Oct. 29 vs. Kentucky

Kentucky has some big shoes to fill along the offensive line and at wide receiver. But the Wildcats should once again make for a formidable opponent with the return of quarterback Will Levis to go along with a potent ground game, and an always stout defense led by head coach Mark Stoops.

This game will go a long way in deciding both teams' fates in the SEC East hierarchy at season's end. Tennessee came away with a hard-fought 45-42 win against Kentucky last season in Lexington. And the Vols should get all they can handle from the Wildcats once again this fall in Knoxville. That being said, home-field advantage looms large here for Tennessee.

4. Sept. 10 at Pitt

The Vols hit the road for the first time in 2022 for the second installment of the Johnny Majors Classic. Tennessee will look to exact a little revenge on the Panthers after last year's heartbreaking 41-34 loss to the eventual ACC champs in Knoxville.

It will be difficult for Pitt to match last year's success on offense without Heisman finalist quarterback Kenny Pickett, Biletnikoff winner Jordan Addison (USC transfer), and offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, all of whom have moved on. But the drop-off shouldn't be too steep with eight starters returning to go along with the addition of USC transfer Kedon Slovis at quarterback. Pitt also returns seven starters on defense, including six All-ACC selections. The Panthers should be strong on that side of the football under defensive-minded head coach Pat Narduzzi.

This will undoubtedly be a difficult game on the road. However, the hope is that the Panthers will overlook the Vols a little with this matchup sandwiched between the return of the "Backyard Brawl" against hated rival West Virginia and a revenge game on the road against Western Michigan the following week.

3. Oct. 8 at LSU

The Vols will make their way to Baton Rouge for the first time since 2010 to face LSU in their first big SEC road test of the season. The Tigers are a bit of a mystery heading into the 2022 campaign, which leaves room for optimism regarding this matchup for Tennessee. However, there are three undeniable factors working against the Vols: 1) Kelly is an outstanding head coach with a track record of success and quick turnarounds, 2) there is plenty of talent on tap for the Tigers, and 3) Tiger Stadium is arguably the toughest environment that Tennessee will play in all season. The Volunteers are fortunate to have an open date the week prior to this matchup, but it will still be a tall order to escape "Death Valley" with a win.

2. Oct. 15 vs. Alabama

Tennessee gave Alabama a run for its money last season in Tuscaloosa before ultimately running out of gas in the fourth quarter. The Vols get the Crimson Tide at home this time around, which should help in their bid to snap a 15-game losing streak against their arch-nemesis. That being said, Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Bryce Young and SEC Defensive Player of the Year Will Anderson Jr. are back to lead Nick Saban's juggernaut. And it will be extremely difficult for Tennessee to overcome a supremely talented Alabama squad that is poised to make yet another run at a national championship.

1. Nov. 5 at Georgia

The defending national champions aren't shaping up to be quite as dominant in 2022 after losing eight starters from their historically great defense. However, this year's matchup on the road in Athens (Tennessee's first road game in almost a month) and will likely be the Vols' most challenging contest of the year. Despite the Bulldogs' losses on defense, there is no shortage of elite talent on tap for Kirby Smart to fill those voids on that side of the ball. Georgia also returns seven starters on offense, including quarterback Stetson Bennett and star tight end Brock Bowers.

The Dawgs have dominated this series over the last five years, including last season's 41-17 blowout in Knoxville. And while Tennessee is starting to make strides in closing the gap, Georgia's edge in talent and depth will be extremely difficult to overcome on the road. The Bulldogs are once again the overwhelming favorite to win the SEC East for a reason.

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