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Is This Tennessee's Most Difficult Schedule Ever?

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A historical look at the Vols' toughest tests.

Kevin C. Cox

Tomorrow's game with #7 Auburn will be UT's seventh game against a Top 25 opponent. Since the bottom of that list is #19 Florida, it's the seventh game against a Top 20 opponent. And it is the sixth game against a Top 11 opponent. When Butch Jones throws out that "most difficult schedule in the history of college football" line, it's not all hyperbole.

The Vols have been getting a dose of two elite teams on the schedule for the last six years, in part because we play Alabama:

  • 2008: #4 Florida, #2 Alabama
  • 2009: #1 Florida, #1 Alabama
  • 2010: #7 Oregon, #8 Alabama
  • 2011: #1 LSU, #2 Alabama
  • 2012: #1 Alabama, #5 Georgia
  • 2013: #1 Alabama, #2 Oregon
The Vols have also played at least one of the participants in the BCS National Championship Game every year since 2006. So the upper tier is nothing new.

It's the strength of this year's schedule after what's become the customary top two that really separates it out. Here are the other contenders for most difficult regular season schedule of all-time in Knoxville (all rankings are from the AP Poll the week the game was played):

  • 1980: #1 Alabama, #5 Southern Cal, #12 Pittsburgh, #16 Georgia, at #18 Auburn
  • 1985: #1 Auburn, at #7 Florida, #10 UCLA, at #15 Alabama
  • 1990: #1 Notre Dame, at #3 Auburn, vs #5 Colorado, #9 Florida, at #15 Ole Miss
  • 2005: at #4 LSU, #5 Georgia, at #5 Alabama, at #6 Florida, at #8 Notre Dame
  • 2011: #1 LSU, at #2 Alabama, at #8 Arkansas, #13 South Carolina, at #16 Florida
  • 2013: at #1 Alabama, at #2 Oregon, #6 Georgia, #7 Auburn, at #9 Missouri, #11 South Carolina, at #19 Florida
Even in the face of such stiff competition, I think this year is your winner.

The Vols have never played seven ranked foes in the regular season before, and only once, in 2005, have we played five Top 10 foes in the regular season. I didn't think the 1990 slate would ever be topped simply because it included as non-conference opponents the two teams that eventually met for the National Championship in Notre Dame and Colorado. But while the '90 Vols certainly deserve more praise than they often receive historically for winning the SEC Championship against such an insane schedule, even that lineup can't compare to playing #1 and #2 on the road, plus three additional Top 10 foes and seven Top 25s overall.

How much grace do we extend a coach, new or otherwise, against such a gauntlet?

Butch Jones is two wins away from making 2013 a successful season in the eyes of the majority. He already got the big one, taking down South Carolina last month. Tomorrow represents another chance to earn a big win, and to go a very long way in earning even more trust within the program and the fanbase for pushing this team's buttons correctly after two non-competitive losses on the road. But even if the Vols fail to beat Auburn, they'll still have the usual finish against Vanderbilt and Kentucky, with a clean sweep putting the Vols at 6-6 and sending them to a bowl game for the first time in three years.

It's been an extraordinary challenge faced by a team with serious concerns coming in. The Vols have taken a few beatings, one self-inflicted in Gainesville, but also been as competitive as you could possibly ask for at home against Georgia and South Carolina. I hope the Vols are able to give us a finish that allows us to remember 2013 as the year Butch Jones got off to the right start in the face of historic odds. To do that, Tennessee has to get up off a familiar deck and finish strong, starting tomorrow against an Auburn team that's feeling very good about themselves. Do these Vols have another big win in them?