The Volunteers' season will be defined by a brutal five-game stretch that starts in late September
The Tennessee Volunteers are set to embark on a new era of football under first-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt. And with that, a renewed sense of optimism returns to Rocky Top. But it will take more than optimism and a vote of confidence from the Vol faithful for Pruitt to turn Tennessee's fortunes around in short order. This is the SEC after all, and there are plenty of obstacles standing in Pruitt's path to success. Chief among those obstacles is a very difficult slate of matchups for 2018. A schedule that kicks off in Charlotte against a stout West Virginia team and quickly transitions into a brutal stretch of games against five of the best teams the SEC has to offer.
Here's a closer look at every game on Tennessee's 2018 football schedule, as we rank each matchup in order from easiest to toughest.
12. Sept. 8 vs. East Tennessee State
The Buccaneers from the FCS ranks will provide the Vols with an easy win, a boost of confidence, and an opportunity to get some much-needed playing time for the younger players on the roster.
11. Sept. 15 vs. UTEP
UTEP was the only team in the FBS that didn't win a single game last season. New Miners' head coach Dana Dimel inherits a squad that might be equally bad in 2018. This is little more than a tune-up game for the Vols before entering conference play the following week against rival Florida.
10. Nov. 3 vs. Charlotte
Charlotte wasn't much better than UTEP last season, winning just one game in 2017. And like their Conference USA counterpart, the 49ers aren't expected to take any big leaps forward in 2018. This matchup provides Tennessee with a welcome break from SEC action following the vicious five-game stretch.
9. Nov. 10 vs. Kentucky
Mark Stoops' Wildcats will probably be better than a couple of the teams ahead of them on this list. Regardless, Kentucky wins over Tennessee are a rarity. And you might be more likely to spot a unicorn in your back yard than to witness a Wildcat victory inside Neyland Stadium. The Cats have not beaten the Vols in Knoxville since 1984.
8. Nov. 24 at Vanderbilt
This game probably deserves to be ranked higher on the list, based solely on the embarrassing fashion in which Tennessee has lost each of the last two contests to Vanderbilt. But as long as the Volunteers aren't limping into their "home away from home" in Nashville at season's end with an abundance of injuries (again), there should be enough talent in place to avoid losing three in a row to the Commodores. Thus, restoring balance to the universe.
7. Nov. 17 vs. Missouri
Missouri returns most of the key pieces from a high-octane offense that racked up 659 total yards and 50 points against Tennessee last season in Columbia. That includes All-SEC quarterback Drew Lock. But it's hard to imagine a Jeremy Pruitt-coached defense allowing a similar outcome in Knoxville this time around. Mizzou also replaced star offensive coordinator Josh Heupel with former Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley. That alone should give Vol fans reason for optimism.
6. Sept. 22 vs. Florida
The annual SEC opener against the rival Gators typically ranks much higher on this list. However, there's a lot of mystery surrounding each of these football programs entering the 2018 season under the direction of new coaching staffs. That makes this a difficult matchup to gauge. If Florida head coach Dan Mullen can finally sort out the Gator offense, and it's clicking by late September, this could transcend into one of the toughest games on Tennessee's schedule in 2018.
5. Oct. 27 at South Carolina
There is room for optimism here, as the Volunteers were just one play away from knocking off the Gamecocks in Knoxville last season. But after having just faced the brutal gauntlet of Florida, Georgia, Auburn and Alabama in consecutive fashion, the Vols will probably be a little worse for the wear heading into the 2018 contest against the Gamecocks. It might be a tall order for Tennessee to leave Williams-Brice Stadium with a victory over a South Carolina team that continues to get better each season under Will Muschamp.
4. Sept. 1 vs. West Virginia (Charlotte, N.C.)
A new coaching regime, along with new schemes on both sides of the football, should give the Vols an "element of surprise" advantage over the Mountaineers. The question is, will first-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt have enough time to get his Volunteers dialed in before the season opener? Tennessee will need to be hitting on all cylinders and avoid costly miscues to keep pace with a high-powered West Virginia offense. Pruitt and company will have their work cut out for them trying to slow down Heisman hopeful Will Grier and his elite corps of wide receivers.
3. Oct. 13 at Auburn
It's always great to see an old SEC rivalry renewed. However, someone in the SEC scheduling department must have it in for the Vols. It's hard enough having to face Alabama from the SEC West every season. Now Tennessee also is tasked with playing Auburn on the road, with the game against the Crimson Tide scheduled for the following week. That's just cruel, if not borderline criminal. To make matters worse, this isn't a matchup that has been gone well for Tennessee in recent history. The Volunteers have lost the last six meetings against the Tigers, and Tennessee has not claimed victory in Jordan-Hare Stadium since 1998.
2. Sept. 29 at Georgia
The last time the Vols were in Sanford Stadium, they were celebrating a miraculous victory over the Bulldogs in "Hail Mary" fashion. But following last season's humiliating 41-0 loss to Georgia in Knoxville, Tennessee clearly has plenty of catching up to do before this is once again a competitive rivalry. Despite losing several starters from last year's SEC championship team, Kirby Smart's roster is well-stocked with capable replacements to make another run at the title.
1. Oct. 20 vs. Alabama
Tennessee will have home-field advantage for the "Third Saturday in October." And Jeremy Pruitt should have plenty of insight for his Volunteers on how to go about beating the Crimson Tide. Unfortunately, Pruitt's insight isn't going to be enough to swing the pendulum in favor of the Vols against the defending national champs. It certainly wasn't enough to help the last six former Alabama assistant coaches who went on to face Nick Saban as head coaches. That group has a collective record of 0-12 against Saban.
-- Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.