The Tennessee Volunteers' 2019 campaign couldn't have gotten off to a worse start with an embarrassing loss at home to Georgia State in the season opener. That was followed by just one win over the next four games (against FCS Chattanooga), leaving the ill-fated Vols sitting at 1-4. But a resilient Tennessee squad refused to throw in the towel, sparking an impressive turnaround that resulted in six wins in the final seven contests of the regular season, earning the Vols their first bowl bid in three years. Tennessee also made good on that trip into the postseason with a come-from-behind victory over Indiana in the Gator Bowl.
The Vols will now look to ride the momentum of a six-game winning streak into the 2020 campaign, bested only by defending national champs LSU among Power 5 programs. And despite having some big shoes to fill on both sides of the football, Tennessee appears poised to take another step in the right direction in year three of the Jeremy Pruitt era.
The schedule will be less forgiving than last season with four teams on the slate that are likely to be featured in the preseason top 10. Road matchups against Oklahoma and Georgia will be brutal. And while Tennessee is fortunate to get rivals Florida and Alabama at home this season, those games are equally unforgiving. The silver lining is that the Volunteers stand a good chance to be favored in the remaining eight games on the schedule. And they only have to travel outside the state of Tennessee just four times in 2020.
Bye: Week 7
Week 1 — Sept. 5 vs. Charlotte (Knoxville, Tenn.)
Tennessee managed to eke out an ugly 14-3 win over Charlotte in their 2018 matchup despite trailing the 49ers in total yards, first downs and time of possession. The Vols have made significant strides since then. So too have the 49ers, who experienced an impressive turnaround of their own last season, making their first bowl appearance in program history under up-and-coming head coach Will Healy.
Tennessee looks to have every conceivable advantage in what should make for a nice tune-up game before heading to Norman to face the Sooners. That said, the Vols learned a valuable lesson in last year's season opener against Georgia State. And they can ill-afford to let history repeat itself by looking past a Charlotte team on the rise.
Week 2 — Sept. 12 at Oklahoma (Norman, Okla.)
Tennessee's first road test of the season is a big one against perennial College Football Playoff contender Oklahoma. The good news is that the Vols should benefit from catching Lincoln Riley's Sooners early in the season. Apart from the Oklahoma offensive line, which returns all five starters from last season, the Sooners will feature plenty of new faces at key positions on both sides of the football this fall. Chief among them will be the quarterback position, where either Spencer Rattler or Tanner Mordecai will be making their first career start against an FBS opponent when the Vols come to town.
The bad news is that the Sooners can more than compensate for their lack of experience with talent. Not to mention an extremely well-coached offense that is always difficult to defend. Tennessee will likely need to be flawless to have any chance of pulling off the upset on the road.
Week 3 — Sept. 19 vs. Furman (Knoxville, Tenn.)
The Vols get a slight reprieve between difficult matchups against Oklahoma and Florida when they return to Knoxville to host Furman from the FCS ranks. This should be the easiest game on Tennessee's schedule in 2020. However, the Paladins should not be confused with your typical cupcake FCS opponent. They return six All-SoCon players from a team that spent much of last season ranked in the top 20 in the FCS national polls. Furman also gave Virginia Tech and Georgia State all they could handle on the road in 2019, falling just short of scoring an upset in both matchups.
Week 4 — Sept. 26 vs. Florida (Knoxville, Tenn.)
Dan Mullen has led Florida to 21 wins during his first two seasons as head coach in Gainesville. Two of those wins came against Jeremy Pruitt's Vols by an average margin of victory of 28 points. And to make matters worse, this looks to be Mullen's best Florida team yet with quarterback Kyle Trask returning to lead the offense.
Does that mean that the Vols have no chance to come away the upset against their hated rival in Knoxville this season? Of course not, Florida does have its potential flaws. But a Tennessee win will likely require a near-perfect performance, along with some good fortune. And considering the Vols' lengthy track record of poor performances and bad luck against the Gators (1-14 over the last 15 seasons), and don't appear to be in Tennessee's favor.
Week 5 — Oct. 3 vs. Missouri (Knoxville, Tenn.)
The Vols took advantage of a late-season meltdown by Missouri's offense to secure a 24-20 victory in Columbia last season. That collapse ultimately cost head coach Barry Odom his job. Mizzou now looks to start fresh with former Appalachian State head coach Eliah Drinkwitz at the helm. As it stands, the Tigers appear to be somewhat of a mystery heading into the 2020 season, with reasons for both optimism and skepticism.
Missouri swaps places with Georgia on Tennessee's 2020 schedule, which should prove beneficial for the Vols against both of those opponents. Superior talent and home-field advantage should provide Tennessee with a decisive edge over Mizzou.
Week 6 — Oct. 10 at South Carolina (Columbia, S.C.)
After suffering three straight heartbreaking losses to South Carolina (all by six points or less), the Volunteers finally managed to get over the hump against Will Muschamp and his Gamecocks last season. And they did so in spectacular fashion with a 41-21 victory that is widely regarded as the Vols' most complete performance of the 2019 campaign.
Tennessee hasn't won at South Carolina since 2014, and the Gamecocks will be out for blood after last season's thumping in Knoxville. Perhaps more importantly, this pivotal matchup could go a long way in determining Muschamp's future in Columbia, prompting South Carolina to bring its A-game. For those reasons, the Vols' first SEC road test of the season is widely considered a toss-up. But this is a matchup that Tennessee can and should win.
Week 8 — Oct. 24 vs. Alabama (Knoxville, Tenn.)
Last year's Third Saturday in October rivalry matchup saw Tennessee fall victim to a superior Crimson Tide team for the 13th year in a row. But it wasn't as lopsided as the 35-13 score would indicate. And for the first time in a long time, there is some glimmer of hope that Tennessee is starting to close the gap on its arch-nemesis from the SEC West.
This year's game will be played in Knoxville, and Tennessee has the added benefit of a bye prior to facing Alabama. The abundance of talent lost by the Crimson Tide to the NFL - including star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa also bodes well for the Vols. But Alabama doesn't rebuild — it reloads. And Nick Saban's cupboard will once again be well-stocked with elite talent in 2020. The Vols may be inching closer to making this a competitive rivalry once again, but they aren't there just yet.
Week 9 — Oct. 31 at Arkansas (Fayetteville, Ark.)
Jeremy Pruitt is undefeated as a head coach against teams from the SEC West not named Alabama. And the Vols probably couldn't have asked for a better draw in the cross-conference rotation than Arkansas. The Razorbacks are riding a 19-game SEC losing streak that dates back to 2017, with just four wins total over the last two seasons.
That leaves new Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman with a steep hill to climb. But he seems to be off to a good start. In addition to assembling a top-notch coaching staff, Pittman added several high-profile transfers in the offseason (including former Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks). He also managed to salvage a top-30 recruiting class for the Hogs, which paints a promising picture in regard to the future of Arkansas football. Fortunately for Tennessee, the Razorbacks still have a long way to go.
Week 10 — Nov. 7 vs. Kentucky (Knoxville, Tenn.)
Tennessee narrowly escaped the jaws of defeat last season in Lexington with an epic goal-line stand that prevented do-it-all athlete Lynn Bowden Jr. from scoring the go-ahead touchdown with just over a minute remaining in the game, thus, preserving a 17-13 victory for the Vols.
Bowden is now off to greener pastures in the NFL, as Kentucky prepares to transition back to a more traditional offense in 2020. That could prove challenging, but it's not nearly as daunting as a trip to Rocky Top, where the Wildcats have lost 17 straight dating all the way back to 1984. Mark Stoops might have enough talent in place to give Tennessee a run for its money, but the odds of Kentucky coming away with a victory inside Neyland Stadium are slim to none.
Week 11 — Nov. 14 at Georgia (Athens, Ga.)
Tennessee's annual SEC East rivalry matchup against Georgia has been shifted to a later date on the schedule. That should prove beneficial to the Vols, breaking up the long stretch of difficult matchups that Tennessee has faced in season's past. But that doesn't really diminish the difficulty factor that comes with facing Kirby Smart's Bulldogs on the road.
Georgia is once again expected to field one of the stingiest defenses in the nation in 2020. And if the Bulldogs can somehow find their way on offense this season with the addition of Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman at quarterback and new offensive coordinator Todd Monken, they will be nearly impossible to beat in Athens. Even if that doesn't happen, the Vols will still be hard-pressed to put up enough points to knock off the Dawgs between the hedges.
Week 12 — Nov. 21 vs. Troy (Knoxville, Tenn.)
This would have been a scary matchup for the Vols a couple of years ago. Now - not so much. Following three consecutive 10-win seasons under former head coach Neal Brown, the Trojans took a big turn in the wrong direction, winning just five contests in 2019 under new head coach Chip Lindsey. Lindsey hopes to get Troy back to its winning ways in 2020. However, a trip to Knoxville to face the Vols doesn't bode well at all for the rebuilding Trojans.
Week 13 — Nov. 28 at Vanderbilt (Nashville, Tenn.)
Vanderbilt struggled mightily on both sides of the football en route to a disappointing 3-9 record last season. Derek Mason brought in veteran coordinators Todd Fitch (offense) and Ted Roof (defense) in a bid to right the ship in 2020. But the challenge will be tremendous. Vanderbilt returns most of its starters on defense, but big strides still need to be made to improve a group that ranked among the worst in the nation in 2019. And a dramatic turnaround for a Commodore offense that ranked dead last in the SEC last season seems even less likely, particularly now that Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Kalija Lipscomb and Jared Pinkney have all exhausted their eligibility.
Vanderbilt had a nice little run against Tennessee, but this historically one-sided affair appears to be making a swift return in favor of the Vols. Tennessee should cruise to victory in its home away from home in Nashville.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.