Despite a more forgiving schedule in 2021, success will not come easy for the Vols and first-year head coach Josh Heupel
The Tennessee Volunteers began the 2020 season as a team on the rise, riding the momentum of an eight-game winning streak following a 2-0 start with victories over South Carolina and Missouri. But Tennessee's potential breakout season under third-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt quickly turned into a nightmare, with the Vols losing six of their final seven contests to close out the 10-game SEC-only schedule with a disappointing 3-7 record. The Vols' fortunes took an even bigger turn for the worse in January after an internal investigation revealed that Pruitt and several members of his coaching staff had committed multiple recruiting violations, ultimately leading to Pruitt's dismissal.
Offensive guru Josh Heupel was brought in to replace Pruitt after a successful stint at UCF, where he led the Knights to a 28-8 record over the last three seasons. Unfortunately, Heupel inherits a roster that has been hit hard by attrition this offseason, and the dark cloud of forthcoming NCAA sanctions lingers for a program that seems to run into adversity at every turn.
Only time will tell if Heupel can reverse the Vols' fortunes, but there are a few reasons for optimism regarding the upcoming season. One such reason is the return to a normal schedule in 2021. While there is no such thing as an easy schedule in the SEC, the Volunteers' 2021 slate looks to be far more manageable than it has been in past seasons. Road matchups against rivals Florida and Alabama are brutal, as per usual. However, Tennessee will play eight games inside the friendly confines of Neyland Stadium. And the non-conference schedule is relatively easy with the exception of maybe Pitt. Nevertheless, the Vols and their new head coach are going to have their work cut out for them this fall.
Bye: Week 9
Week 1 – Sept. 4 vs. Bowling Green (Knoxville, Tenn.)
The Volunteers officially kick off the 2021 season and the Josh Heupel era with a home matchup against Bowling Green out of the MAC. Tennessee should have every conceivable advantage against a Falcons squad that averaged just 11.4 points per game on offense and allowed 45 points per game defensively en route to a 0-5 record last season. This should make for a nice tune-up game before Pittsburgh rolls into Knoxville the following week.
Week 2 – Sept. 11 vs. Pittsburgh (Knoxville, Tenn.)
Tennessee faces its most challenging non-conference matchup of the season, and the first real test of the Heupel era when Pitt makes its way to Rocky Top for the first time since 1983. While the Panthers are by no means elite, they should be solid on both sides of the football after going 6-5 last season under defensive-minded head coach Pat Narduzzi. The historical connection between the two schools to legendary head coach Johnny Majors adds to the intrigue.
Week 3 – Sept. 18 vs. Tennessee Tech (Knoxville, Tenn.)
The Vols should have no problem making easy work of Tennessee Tech from the FCS ranks in what qualifies as the easiest game on the 2021 schedule. The Golden Eagles went 2-5 playing an abbreviated schedule this spring, and they aren't shaping up to be much better in the fall. This matchup will provide Tennessee with an opportunity to get some valuable game experience for some of its younger players prior to opening SEC play on the road against Florida.
Week 4 – Sept. 25 at Florida (Gainesville, Fla.)
Tennessee hits the road for the first time in 2021 to open SEC play against archrival Florida in Gainesville. The defending SEC East champs return just nine starters from last year's 8-4 team. However, Dan Mullen's squad will not lack for talent, and considering the Vols' lengthy track record of poor performances and misfortune against the Gators (1-15 over the last 16 seasons), particularly in "The Swamp" (have not won there since 2003), the odds definitely aren't in Tennessee's favor.
Week 5 – Oct. 2 at Missouri (Columbia, Mo.)
Tennessee stays on the road to face Mizzou in its second SEC contest of the season. Missouri has some big shoes to fill after losing leading rusher Larry Rountree III and star linebacker Nick Bolton. However, quarterback Connor Bazelak returns after going 5-3 as a starter last season. The Vols were fortunate to catch Missouri early last season on their way to a 35-12 win over the Tigers in Knoxville. But this year's matchup in Columbia should prove to be more challenging against what is expected to be a more polished Missouri squad under second-year head coach Eliah Drinkwitz.
Week 6 – Oct. 9 vs. South Carolina (Knoxville, Tenn.)
Tennessee returns to Knoxville for its first taste of SEC action inside Neyland Stadium in a battle of first-year head coaches. Shane Beamer inherits a South Carolina squad that went 2-8 last season under Will Muschamp. And much like Tennessee, the Gamecocks have no shortage of question marks. This is a crucial matchup for Heupel and the future direction of the Tennessee program. The Volunteers should have a slight edge at home in their bid to make it three wins in a row against the Gamecocks.
Week 7 – Oct. 16 vs. Ole Miss (Knoxville, Tenn.)
There will be plenty of intrigue for this one as Lane Kiffin makes his anticipated return to Rocky Top. Tennessee will certainly have its hands full trying to contain a high-powered Ole Miss offense, led by quarterback Matt Corral, that racked up 556 yards and 39 points per game last season. The hope is that the Rebels' struggles on defense (519 ypg, 38 ppg) continue. But even if that is the case, the Tennessee offense will need to be hitting on all cylinders to have any chance of coming out on top in a shootout.
Week 8 – Oct. 23 at Alabama (Tuscaloosa, Ala.)
Last year's Third Saturday in October rivalry matchup saw Tennessee fall victim to a superior Crimson Tide team for the 14th year in a row. And while Alabama has some big shoes to fill from last year's national championship squad – including star quarterback Mac Jones, Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith and leading rusher Najee Harris – Nick Saban's squad will once again be loaded with more than enough elite talent to make another run at the national title. That does not bode well for a rebuilding Tennessee team, particularly on the road.
Week 10 – Nov. 6 at Kentucky (Lexington, Ky.)
The Vols should benefit from a much-needed bye before heading to Lexington to face Kentucky in their final road game of the season. The Wildcats had their share of ups and downs on the way to a 5-6 record last season. But there was no bigger highlight than their 34-7 victory over the Vols, marking the first Kentucky win inside Neyland Stadium since 1984. Mark Stoops' squad has its share of question marks heading into the 2021 campaign after losing seven starters on defense and starting fresh on offense under new coordinator Liam Coen. Tennessee hasn't lost back-to-back games to Kentucky since 1976-77. And the Volunteers must find a way to come out on top in this critical matchup if they want to avoid falling behind the Wildcats in the SEC East hierarchy.
Week 11 – Nov. 13 vs. Georgia (Knoxville, Tenn.)
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, who should be much further along at this point in the season. But that doesn't diminish the difficulty factor that comes with facing Kirby Smart's Bulldogs. Georgia has won the last four meetings against Tennessee by an average margin of 29.7 points, and the Dawgs figure to once again be one of the top teams in the nation. Even at home, the Vols will be huge underdogs.
Week 12 – Nov. 20 vs. South Alabama (Knoxville, Tenn.)
At first glance, this looks like an easy win against a mid-level Sun Belt team that went 4-7 last season. However, the Vols would be ill-advised to take this matchup lightly (see Georgia State 2019). South Alabama returns 17 starters from a squad that won three of its final four contests in 2020 and should be much improved under new head coach Kane Wommack (former defensive coordinator at Indiana). Former Houston head coach and Alabama analyst Major Applewhite is a huge upgrade at offensive coordinator as well. The Jaguars also added grad transfer Jake Bentley, who was 3-0 against the Vols as the starting quarterback for South Carolina.
Week 13 – Nov. 27 vs. Vanderbilt (Knoxville, Tenn.)
Tennessee concludes its 2021 season in Knoxville with the annual in-state rivalry matchup against Vanderbilt. The Commodores were plagued by injury and COVID-related issues en route to a winless 2020 season that included a 42-17 loss to the Vols in Nashville. Vanderbilt will look for a new lease on life under rookie head coach and former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea. Quarterback Ken Seals returns following a promising freshman campaign, along with his top four receivers. But this team has a long way to go on both sides of the football to be competitive in the SEC. If there is one game that Heupel and the Vols cannot afford to lose, this is it.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
(Top photo courtesy of @Vol_Football)