The following post is sponsored by the United States Marines
If most of us agree that 8-4 is the benchmark for success this season, the question becomes how do the Vols get there. Tennessee should be the favorite in six of its contests, including all four non-conference games and our annual November finish against Vanderbilt and Kentucky. The Vols are 51-1 against the Dores and Cats since 1985, and though we shouldn't take Cincinnati for granted, the non-conference schedule is much more kind than what we're used to around here. So for the purposes of this exercise, we'll just assume out loud what everyone is already thinking anyway: Tennessee should go 6-0 in those games.
That leaves games against what could be the six best teams in the SEC (depending on your opinion of Mississippi State and Auburn). Barring something unusual happening, the Vols should be underdogs in each of these games. Not only is it important for UT's record for the Vols to win one of these games, it's huge for Derek Dooley. Big wins are the lifeblood of a program, and just one can keep the fans happy for a longer period of time. Dooley was robbed of his moment last fall when the clock got the best of him in Baton Rouge. Now in year two, will the Vols earn the win that makes the people believe in their head coach?
Before we worry about trying to get to eight wins, let's just focus on the easiest way to get to seven: here's a look at each of UT's six marquee SEC opponents, and why the Vols may or may not be able to score an upset - you can listen to us discuss each of these games in greater detail with Will West on our podcast from July 27.
September 17 - at Florida
Why: New coach, new system - Will Muschamp and Charlie Weis will still be getting their feet wet against their first real competition when the Vols come calling in the season's third week. They'll be doing it with John Brantley under center (or wherever Weis wants him), who last year threw more interceptions than touchdowns. In a more conventional offense, the Gators may again be searching for more conventional receiving targets than Deonte Thompson or even guys like Chris Raney and Jeff Demps. The offensive line must replace four starters, and the secondary will be full of inexperienced players for Tyler Bray to exploit. This won't be Derek Dooley's first rodeo.
Why Not: Because the last two times Florida changed head coaches, they handed Tennessee two of their most frustrating losses (Casey Clausen in the rain in 2002, the special teams disaster in The Swamp in 2005). Because the Gators didn't get any slower just because they traded Meyer for Muschamp. Because Muschamp may be new to the big job but isn't to the SEC, where his defenses have had tremendous success before. Because Florida is more talented. And, oh yeah, because Florida has won six straight in the series.
October 8 - vs Georgia
Why: Was this team really that much better than Tennessee last year, or did the turnover-friendly Vols simply catch them the wrong week, still struggling with the LSU affair? Say goodbye to Washaun Ealey and Caleb King and hello to a true freshman in the backfield. Say goodbye to A.J. Green and hello to a receiving corps that features Tavarres King and a world of inexperience. And though Georgia's schedule is the easiest among SEC East contenders by far, it doesn't start out that way: the first two weeks find Georgia facing Boise State and South Carolina, and though those two plus the Mississippi State game the week before are all in Athens or Atlanta, just one slip-up could bring the heat on Mark Richt.
Why Not: Aaron Murray. There's a lot back on defense too, but Murray could be the sort of player who simply makes his entire offense better and wills his team to victory against a weaker Tennessee defense. Also, this series has a recent history of the completely unexpected happening, so you can't count the Dawgs out no matter how many games they've lost when they get to Knoville.
October 15 - vs LSU
Why: Didn't we beat this team last year? Isn't Jordan Jefferson still playing quarterback? Isn't Les Miles still the head coach? All this plus the fact that the Vols and Tigers have played a string of seven consecutive thrillers over the past eleven seasons, so you might be inclined to throw the records out the window.
Why Not: Again, Les Miles. Also, by mid-October John Chavis may have his defense ready to show Neyland Stadium exactly what they've been missing. The Tigers are also one of the teams in this league that are simply way more talented than Tennessee is from top to bottom.
October 22 - at Alabama
Why Not: Trent Richardson. A defense that should be the best the Vols face all season. Talent that starts with the head coach and flows down to the freshmen on the scout squad. And the nature of the rivalry means we can't even lean on the "maybe they'll overlook us" card.
October 29 - vs South Carolina
Why: Played with them last year. Tyler Bray has already lit their defensive backs up once. Steve Spurrier may have changed starting quarterbacks a dozen times by late October. On the one hand, it's South Carolina and you may still have a hard time believing that they can be this good. On the other hand, they're the October opponent most likely to be undefeated when they face the Vols...meaning this could be a win that UT uses to spark the rest of its season after a rough month.
Why Not: The Vol defense had no answers for Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery last year. They won't be caught off guard by Tyler Bray this time around. And they get an off week before coming into Knoxville, which should prevent any lookahead to Arkansas or Florida.
November 12 - at Arkansas
Why: It's November, and anything could've happened. Tyler Wilson's hype is based off of one game against Auburn in which he also threw two interceptions. Maybe Bobby Petrino will have left by November 12.
Why Not: Everything around Tyler Wilson is plenty proven, and the defense is really good too. Closer to being undefeated last year than you think. While the national perception seems to be that Alabama and LSU are the teams to beat in this league, both Will West and Josh Ward have raved about them on our podcast the last two weeks. The Vols have lost two of their last three in Fayetteville.