With the release of the coaches' poll this week, we have our first real context for how difficult the Vols' 2010 schedule may turn out to be. Tennessee will play 3 of the Top 11 and 5 of the Top 21 teams in the country according to that poll, and if you believe in also receiving votes, the Vols will face 7 of the Top 34 this fall.
To give some historical perspective, Tennessee played three teams ranked in the Top 11 five times in the last decade alone; such is life in the SEC. Those schedules helped give us some of our worst memories (including playing five teams ranked in the Top 8 in 2005) and some of our most satisfying wins (two wins over teams in the Top 11 in both 2004 and 2006).
Playing two of the best teams in the country won't be anything new, since the Vols played both Florida and Alabama when they were ranked #1 last year. When's the last time UT's three most difficult opponents had a combined ranking of 15 or better (#1 Alabama, #3 Florida, #11 Oregon this year)? Again, 2005, when the Vols beat #4 LSU in The Rally at Death Valley but lost to #5 Georgia and #5 Alabama. Before that though, you have to go back to 1990 (#1 Notre Dame, #3 Auburn, #5 Colorado). It's tough...it's nothing we haven't seen before, but not thankfully not all that often.
What about playing five teams ranked in the Top 21? Other than the insane 2005 schedule, it happened only one other time in the previous decade: the very next year, Tennessee beat #9 Cal and #10 Georgia, and lost to #7 Florida, #13 LSU, and #11 Arkansas. But before that, you have to go all the way back to 1990 and 1991 to find five teams in the Top 21 on UT's schedule. Playing two of the nation's best isn't new at all, but three of them, plus the overall depth of the gauntlet? Yikes.
Of course, we're using a preseason poll to compare against what actually happened in previous years, and maybe LSU and Georgia won't be in the Top 21 when we play them. Still, Derek Dooley has his work cut out for him...and next year's schedule is worse.
...but we'll worry about that much, much later.
For now, here's a quick look at what I consider to be Tennessee's five most difficult schedules in the last thirty years:
1. 1990 (9-2-2, SEC Champions)
There's no debate and no comparison. Tennessee opened the year in the Pigskin Classic in Anaheim against #5 Colorado. The #8 Vols tied the Buffs 31-31; Colorado went on to win the National Championship. The Vols also tied #3 Auburn, then pounded #9 Florida 45-3 in Knoxville. After the devastating 9-6 loss to unranked Alabama, the Vols lost a heartbreaker to #1 Notre Dame - the Irish would lose to Colorado in the bowl game with the title on the line. Tennessee then had to turn around and beat #15 Ole Miss the very next week with the SEC title on the line. All of this doesn't include the Sugar Bowl, where the Vols played a Virginia team that was ranked #1 in late October until their QB got hurt. Three teams ranked #1 at one point in the season, four Top 10 and five Top 15 opponents...and the Vols won the SEC Championship, the Sugar Bowl and finished the year ranked #8.
2. 2005 (5-6)
Injuries, opponents, and a general stupidity in the red zone led to the Vols' first losing season since 1988. The Vols beat #4 LSU but lost to #6 Florida, #5 Georgia, #5 Alabama, and #8 Notre Dame. If it's any consolation five years later, all of the losses were close until the Notre Dame game.
3. 1985 (9-1-2, SEC Champions)
If we count bowl games, this one goes to #2 with the win over Miami. In the regular season, the unranked Vols tied #10 UCLA in the opener, then blasted #1 Auburn 38-20 in game two. The only loss came at #7 Florida, but the Vols rebounded to beat #15 Alabama in Birmingham. Tennessee went from unranked to 4th in the final AP poll.
4. 1998 (13-0, National Champions)
The numbers may not add up as well, but that's in part because Arkansas was incredibly underrated when we played as undefeated teams in mid-November, with the Vols #1 but Arkansas only #10. Before that, Tennessee won at #17 Syracuse (who went on to win the Big East), beat #2 Florida (BCS at-large) and won at #7 Georgia. And of course, the Vols beat #23 Mississippi State and #2 Florida State to win it all.
5. 1980 (5-6)
Year Four for Johnny Majors saw the Vols lose to #16 Georgia (the Herchel Walker/Bill Bates game) in the opener, then lose to #5 Southern Cal by a combined four points. The Vols rebounded to blow out #18 Auburn 42-0 down on the plains, but had the misfortune of facing #1 Alabama and #12 Pittsburgh in consecutive weeks in October, losing both by a combined score of 57-6. How's about this for a non-conference slate these days: Southern Cal, Washington State, Pittsburgh, Virginia. Well, on second thought...
Will the Vols' 2010 schedule end up on this list?