10. Troy - November 3
The campaign promises at least one historical Troy reference from Coach Dooley at the podium during gameweek. The Trojans won just three games last season, but did put more of a scare into Arkansas (38-28) than we were able to pull off. At the same time, not sure what to make of a team that loses to fledgling Western Kentucky 41-18 at the end of the season. Would be a massive upset, obviously, in one of these nothing to gain/everything to lose games.
9. Kentucky - November 24
There's a revenge factor, no doubt, but as UK should still be one of the two worst teams in the SEC this season, there's little extra incentive here. And more than anything else, Derek Dooley's fate will almost certainly have been decided by the time we get here. Let's just say that if the Vols need this one to get bowl eligible again, we'll be caring more about the next coach than the next opponent.
8. at Vanderbilt - November 17
Your opinion of James Franklin means your mileage may vary. My opinion of James Franklin is that his greatest trick so far has been brainwashing Vanderbilt fans into forgetting about Bobby Johnson, who beat two ranked teams and won a bowl game just four years ago. "Vanderbilt fans" is an interesting phrase in the first place, and it's certainly possible that Franklin has created his own niche in Nashville with a significant percentage of what I would call bandwagon fans, but again, it's Vanderbilt. Point being, Franklin's charming personality may have attracted a fanbase that didn't know or care about Vanderbilt Football just four years ago. If the football team actually beats a team with a winning record and thus is finally able to cash the checks Franklin's ego has been writing, the importance of this game could rise. It's so late in the year that Dooley probably won't have to have it to save his job; like Kentucky, that decision will probably have already played itself out. But for now, they're still Vanderbilt, we're still Tennessee, and beating them will earn us no extra benefit that actually matters. The satisfaction of beating Franklin again is both worthless and priceless.
7. Alabama - October 20
WHY IS ALABAMA 7TH RABBLERABBLERABBLE! Look: this is the one game no one really expects us to have much of a chance in. Even if Tennessee puts itself in a position to have to have this game to keep Dooley's job, that means the team itself isn't good enough to beat South Carolina and Missouri later on, let alone the Crimson Tide. And sure, beating Alabama would do wonders for Dooley no matter how many games he's won or lost up to that point, but I think UT fans are just rational enough to count this one as gravy. We expect to lose, thus it drops in importance, even though it's the Third Saturday. It's Tennessee's job to get back to the point where, as long as Bama is holding up their end of the bargain, this game is number one on the list every season. In June of 2012, we're simply not there yet..
6. at Georgia - September 29
Second verse, same as the first. I rank Georgia slightly more important than Alabama simply because I think Bama is a better football team (thus UT has a slightly better chance to win here), and because UGA is a divisional opponent. Make no mistake: if UT comes to Athens 4-0, this game will become incredibly important. But I don't think this will be the game that makes or breaks Dooley - those potential landmines are all around this date, but if Georgia is as good as we think they are, this one shouldn't be the one that has the final say on UT's season or Dooley's job, unless UT pulls the upset...and if that happens, we can throw this whole thing out and start asking a much different and much happier set of questions about Dooley's Vols.
5. Missouri - November 10
Most prognosticators will put the Vols with three or four losses coming into this game. That means if form holds, this could be the job saver or the job killer for Derek Dooley. If things have started turning south, a loss to Missouri could seal the deal. The Tigers certainly have some talent, but them being the new kids on the block means Tennessee will inherently overlook and undervalue them in year one. There's a terrible historical precedent here from twenty years ago, when we did the same with Arkansas and South Carolina and got beat by both of them, which cost Johnny Majors his job. By the time November 10 arrives Mizzou will have been through the gauntlet and shouldn't be ranked highly to give a win any extra boost, but this could very much be a game Dooley has to have to avoid the final nail in the coffin. If you find yourself projecting 8-4 for this team, it probably includes a 4-0 run in November, and this will be the hardest one to get.
4. at Mississippi State - October 13
More important simply because of its placement on the calendar: after an off week, between the two games Tennessee should have the least chance to win (at Georgia, vs Alabama). I don't see any scenario where Dooley loses this game and keeps his job that doesn't involve beating Georgia or Alabama. Even if the Vols beat both NC State and Florida, a three game losing streak over four weeks would steal all momentum unless Mississippi State turns out to be a really good, highly ranked football team. This is a game, like Missouri, that all Tennessee fans are penciling in as a W right now because we're Tennessee and they're Mississippi State and Starkville ain't got no McDonald's. Be very careful with this one.
3. at South Carolina - October 27
If things go poorly against Alabama, Tennessee has a huge chance to rebound with a meaningful win the next week. I have this one ranked so highly in part because I believe the Vols should've beaten this team in each of the last two years, which probably makes me irrationally confident about this one in particular. I do not at all look at this one and think we can't or shouldn't win. Obviously that doesn't mean we will win, but it does mean it could do Dooley and the Vols a world of good if it comes up orange. Depending on what's happened to this point, this could be the job saver or job killer before we even get to Missouri. It could also be the one that puts the Vols back on track for nine or ten wins after a loss to Alabama. And if things get really crazy, it could have some SEC East title implications. This is the best team, on paper, that I think Tennessee has a real shot to beat.
2. NC State - August 31
This isn't Cal 2006. It is the Georgia Dome, which keeps me up at night. But it's not that I can picture how great it would be to beat these guys by 1 or 100. It's that you and me and all of us can picture very well how ugly it's going to get all over Big Orange Country if Tennessee loses this game. Simply put, it's always easiest to keep the snowball from rolling downhill at the top of the mountain. You want to silence the legions of the miserable, it has to start here, or else this loss will follow Dooley around the rest of the season, waiting to pile onto the next loss and weigh it down with the excessive burden of "...AND he lost to NC State!" Because like Mississippi State and Missouri, we're Tennessee, and they're not. And despite significant returning talent in Raleigh and the Georgia Dome and their interception factory in the secondary going against Tyler Bray, we're all sitting here right now thinking Tennessee wins this game. The Georgia Dome has never been more dangerous.
1. Florida - September 15
And rightfully so. It's easier to think about NC State in terms of how bad it would be if we lost. Not here. I don't have to imagine what it feels like to lose to these guys, I know. It's been eight years. But I can imagine an awful lot about how great it would be to beat the Gators. I don't care what their record was last year. I don't even really care if they lose to Texas A&M the week before. If Derek Dooley beats Florida in Neyland Stadium on September 15, his job security will go up astronomically. We would celebrate this win in ways that would stay with us if we lost to Georgia, Alabama, or South Carolina. And man, you put this one together with NC State? If Dooley starts 3-0 (which becomes 4-0 over Akron), I think he's home free in 2012. For everything that matters for Tennessee and for Dooley, this is the one that will mean the most. And in the SEC East, I wouldn't have it any other way.
Agree or disagree with our rankings? Let us know in the comments.