The Tennessee Volunteers will look to build off a better-than-expected seven-win season in Josh Heupel’s first season at the helm on Rocky Top. And there are plenty of reasons for optimism heading into year two of the Heupel era.
Chief among those reasons are eight starters returning from Heupel’s high-octane offense that broke multiple single-season school records last season. Star quarterback Hendon Hooker and standout wide receiver Cedric Tillman were big reasons for the Vols’ success on offense in 2021 and both players are back.
Tennessee also returns eight starters on defense. However, there is still some work to do on that side of the football. And the loss of defensive standouts Alontae Taylor, Theo Jackson and Matthew Butler doesn’t help matters. But Tennessee should be able to bolster the roster by way of the transfer portal between now and the start of the season. And unlike past years, there has been nothing but positive vibes coming out of Knoxville so far this offseason.
Another reason for optimism is a schedule that is shaping up to be relatively tame by the previous season’s standards. Of course, there is no such thing as an easy schedule in the SEC, particularly when your annual cross-conference matchup is against Alabama. The silver lining is that the Vols will only have to leave the state of Tennessee on four occasions. And Pittsburgh aside, Tennessee’s non-conference slate should be a cakewalk. The bad news is that the four road games being played outside of the Volunteer State come against the aforementioned Panthers, LSU, Georgia and South Carolina, all of which will be challenging. The Vols are fortunate to play rivals Florida, Alabama and Kentucky in Knoxville, but again, not so easy.
Here is a more detailed look at how Tennessee’s 2022 schedule is shaping up, as the Vols hope to take another step forward under Heupel.
Bye: Week 5
Week 1 - Sept. 1 vs. Ball State (Knoxville, Tenn.)
Tennessee will kick off its season in Knoxville against a MAC opponent on Thursday night in prime time for the second consecutive year. The Vols made easy work of Bowling Green in last year’s Thursday night season opener with a 38-6 blowout victory. Tennessee will look for more of the same against Ball State in the first-ever meeting between the two schools. This should make for a nice tune-up before heading into a much tougher matchup on the road against Pittsburgh in week 2. The Cardinals were 6-7 overall and 4-4 in conference play last season.
Week 2 - Sept. 10 at Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh)
The Vols hit the road for the first time in 2022 for the second installment of the Johnny Majors Classic, honoring the legendary head coach and player that reached iconic status at both schools. 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. Star quarterback Kenny Pickett and offensive coordinator Mark Whipple have moved on, but the Panthers should once again be formidable on offense with the addition of USC transfer Kedon Slovis at quarterback, as well as the return of Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison at wide receiver. Despite losing some key players on defense, Pitt is always solid on that side of the football under defensive-minded head coach Pat Narduzzi. This will be a difficult matchup. However, the Panthers might be a little worse for the wear after opening the season against hated rival West Virginia in the return of the "Backyard Brawl."
Week 3 - Sept. 17 vs. Akron (Knoxville, Tenn.)
Tennessee returns to Neyland Stadium to face its second MAC opponent of the season in Akron. Former Mississippi State head coach Joe Moorhead takes the helm for the Zips in a bid to breathe new life into a program that went 2-10 last season and has just three wins total over the last three seasons combined. The Vols should have no problem cruising to an easy win at home against the Zips in what amounts to another tune-up game before the Gators come to town.
Week 4 - Sept. 24 vs. Florida (Knoxville, Tenn.)
The Volunteers open SEC play at home against Florida. Tennessee’s struggles against the Gators are well documented, with the Vols securing just one win against their archrival over the last 17 meetings. The good news is that this looks to be Tennessee’s best shot in a long time at taking down the rebuilding Gators. That said, first-year Florida head coach Billy Napier is a rising star in the coaching ranks after leading Louisiana to a 40-12 record overall and back-to-back Sun Belt championships. Napier also inherits a talented roster that includes dynamic quarterback Anthony Richardson. Can Tennessee finally get over the hump against the Gators?
Week 6 - Oct. 8 at LSU (Baton Rouge, La.)
Following a bye, the Vols head to Baton Rouge for the first time since 2010 to face LSU in their first big SEC road test. The Tigers are a bit of a mystery heading into the 2022 campaign under new head coach Brian Kelly. And it’s probably as good a time as any for the Vols to face the rebuilding Tigers. However, based on Brian Kelly’s track record of success and the roster that he is inheriting, it won’t come as a surprise if Kelly has LSU playing at a high level in short order. It’s also never easy to escape “Death Valley” with a win.
Week 7 - Oct. 15 vs. Alabama (Knoxville, Tenn.)
Tennessee returns to Knoxville to kick off a three-game home stretch against arch-nemesis Alabama. The Vols gave the Crimson Tide a run for their money last season before ultimately running out of gas in the fourth quarter. But it will be a very tall order for Tennessee to snap its 15-game losing streak against a supremely talented Alabama squad that is poised to make yet another run at a national championship. It doesn’t help that Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Bryce Young and SEC Defensive Player of the Year Will Anderson Jr. are back to lead Nick Saban’s juggernaut.
Week 8 - Oct. 22 vs. UT Martin (Knoxville, Tenn.)
The Vols catch a much-needed break between tough matchups against Alabama and Kentucky when UT Martin makes its way to Rocky Top in late October. The Skyhawks are no slouch in the FCS ranks after winning 10 games last season. But they are no match for a superior Tennessee squad on the road.
Week 9 - Oct. 29 vs. Kentucky (Knoxville, Tenn.)
The Wildcats embarrassed the Vols in their last trip to Knoxville, snapping a 17-game losing streak inside Neyland Stadium that dated all the way back to 1984. Tennessee returned the favor last season in Lexington, coming away with a hard-fought 45-42 win. Mark Stoops’ Wildcats have some big shoes to fill from last year’s 10-win team, most notably along the offensive line. However, Stoops has brought in several key transfers to go along with the return of quarterback Will Levis and All-SEC running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. The Vols will certainly have their work cut out for them in what will be a critical matchup for both teams.
Week 10 - Nov. 5 at Georgia (Athens, Ga.)
Tennessee gets back on the road for the first time in almost a month to face the defending national champions in what will most likely be the Vols’ toughest matchup of the season. The Bulldogs aren’t shaping up to be quite as dominant in 2022 after losing eight starters from its historically great defense. But there is no shortage of elite talent on tap for Kirby Smart to fill those voids. Georgia also returns seven starters on offense, including quarterback Stetson Bennett. The Dawgs are once again the overwhelming favorite to win the SEC East for a reason, and they have clearly had the Vols' number over the last five seasons.
Week 11 - Nov. 12 vs. Missouri (Knoxville, Tenn.)
Tennessee makes its way back to Knoxville for its final home game of the season against Missouri and third-year head coach Eli Drinkwitz. The Vols have won each of the last three matchups against Mizzou. And this year’s game appears highly favorable for Tennessee to make it four wins in a row. The Tigers will be hard-pressed to replace do-it-all running back Tyler Badie. They do return eight starters from a defense that showed improvement down the stretch, but that group still has a long way to go after ranking among the worst units in the country last season.
Week 12 - Nov. 19 at South Carolina (Columbia, S.C.)
Much like Tennessee, South Carolina heads into the 2022 season with plenty of momentum following a surprising seven-win season that included a bowl victory over North Carolina under first-year head coach Shane Beamer. The Gamecocks return 15 starters, and Beamer has added additional firepower by way of the transfer portal, including Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler. The Gamecocks will be out for revenge in this critical SEC East showdown after losing in lopsided fashion (45-20) to the Vols last season in Knoxville. This game is sandwiched between tough road matchups for South Carolina against Florida and in-state rival Clemson, which should play into the Volunteers’ favor.
Week 13 - Nov. 26 at Vanderbilt (Nashville, Tenn.)
Tennessee concludes the regular season in its home away from home in Nashville against in-state rival Vanderbilt. While second-year head coach Clark Lea is doing his best to get things headed in the right direction for the Commodores, he basically inherited a rudderless ship. Vanderbilt has just one conference win over the last three seasons, including an 0-8 mark last season under Lea. Unfortunately, 2022 isn’t shaping up to be much better. The Vols should end the regular season on a high note with their fourth consecutive win over the reeling Commodores.
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— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.