We start by noting importance is relative to both summer's preseason expectations and autumn's unforeseen events. For example, a win over Alabama would mean more to Butch Jones than anything else...but it's highly unlikely that's going to happen, so it's not the most important game on our list. This time last year we underestimated how quickly people would abandon Derek Dooley, ranking South Carolina the third most important game of the 2012 season without knowing by that point it may have already been too late for the orange pants in the eyes of the fanbase.
It's a very different list this time around. Last year you knew without question Dooley had to get NC State and then had to get Florida, and once he failed to do so everything else unraveled. Now the expectations have been reset and a game like Florida moves further down the list because there is no significant expectation of victory and no pressure to exceed that expectation. It's again worth pointing out how much the ONE BIG WIN would mean for Butch Jones and this program, but at this point it's hard to say which one of the five candidates would be most likely (hint: not Alabama). So you'll find several of those bunched in together; the ONE BIG WIN, if it materializes, is automatically the most important game of the year. But if it doesn't, and Vegas will suggest it won't, what is a fair analysis of each game's importance for the fullness of Tennessee's season?
12. South Alabama - September 28, Knoxville
It's not quite the FCS cakewalk we expect in the opener, but because it's not the opener in a coach's first season, this one feels slightly less important for Butch Jones. The Jaguars are the lone island in a sea of turmoil from September 14-October 26, when the Vols will play five other teams who finished in the Top 10 last year. South Alabama was competitive in several games last season but finished 2-11, their only FBS win coming in double overtime against Florida Atlantic. Like Alabama, we're pretty confident of the outcome here, but an upset would cause massive shockwaves.
11. Austin Peay - August 31, Knoxville
Shockwaves would be massive here as well, but the Vols have had no problem with FCS foes in the last few years and don't anticipate any here. It's a great chance for Butch Jones to stretch his legs, just as Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley did in their first games.
10. Alabama - October 26, Tuscaloosa
Weird stat alert: Alabama has beaten Tennessee by 31 points in each of the last three seasons. That's the width of the talent gap, and I don't think any of us expect it to close much this season. Unlike years past, Tennessee also plays Alabama after South Carolina this fall, meaning it's the Tide and not the Gamecocks who end UT's gauntlet of mid-September to late-October. So no matter how bad it gets here, at least Vol fans can look forward to a much more manageable run in November, as was the case in Dooley's first season.
9. Oregon - September 14, Eugene
More important than Alabama, a conference foe and our biggest rival, only because it's the first of the five huge underdog games for Butch Jones. It will be the first nationally televised affair for Tennessee and the first chance for the Vols to show signs of life in a game everyone will expect them to lose, badly. As we know, playing Oregon is a different challenge than any other foe presents, and the Ducks love to run away from you. So a close game in the fourth quarter would make a statement, but the blowout loss everyone expects wouldn't really be cause for serious alarm.
8. Kentucky - November 30, Lexington
Here's that talent gap again, along with the perception gap: in the minds of Tennessee fans, are we still vastly superior to our neighbors in the north? Kentucky's streak-busting win in 2011 is noteworthy, but how much of that have we passed off on Dooley, and how much have our other losses softened the blow a little bit? This one is hard to project because it's the last game of the season; if Tennessee comes to Lexington at 5-6 it certainly rises in importance. We also don't know what Mark Stoops will do in his first season, although not much is expected. We leave it here at #8 because I think the assumption is still, "Tennessee will beat Kentucky." Even this Tennessee team.
7. Missouri - November 2, Columbia
We're also not quite sure how good Missouri is going to be; at SEC Media Days this week the media picked the Vols ahead of the Tigers in the East. What we do know is, barring a surge from the Tigers, this game could be the first one the Vols have a realistic chance to win since South Alabama. That certainly gives it additional importance, but I'm unsure how much Tennessee fans would rally around Jones and this team with a road win over a bottom-tier league newcomer. If the season plays out as the majority expect, beating Missouri would be a relief, but not necessarily a celebration. But if we haven't won a meaningful game since Week 2, I fully expect to change my tune by then.
6. South Carolina - October 19, Knoxville
Each of Derek Dooley's teams had a chance to beat South Carolina, and each one came up short. Right now this one has a little extra flair with the Clowney vs. Tiny showdown brewing, but we'll see if that's still around come mid-October. The big benefit for Tennessee here is the bye week before this game. I'm not at all sure the Vols have a better chance to beat South Carolina than either of the next two teams on this list...I just know we'd enjoy the other two more.
5. Georgia - October 5, Knoxville
Each of Derek Dooley's last two teams had a chance to beat Georgia, and each one came up short. The Dawgs were one play away from the National Championship last season and are the favorites in the SEC East, making this the biggest home game of the year. By the way, all this talk about unfair scheduling? Georgia has Clemson, South Carolina, and LSU before the calendar hits October. The game with the Tigers is the week before they face us, so maybe they'll be a little worn down? Again, this isn't to suggest we've got a better chance to beat Georgia than South Carolina or Florida for that matter, but since I think our chances against all three are about the same, we'll put the one fans would enjoy most at the top of this tier:
4. Florida - September 21, Gainesville
Coming off a presumed beating at the hands of Oregon, Florida presents an instant opportunity for improvement. Here again, even if the Vols are competitive (see: 2009 Kiffin, 2010 Dooley) it would go a long way toward forward momentum. Is Florida more beatable than Georgia and South Carolina? Maybe, but how much does Gainesville make a difference in Butch's first trip? It's my annual mid-summer stance to fall back on, "Eh, Florida's not that good..." to convince myself that the suffering will end at eight years and not extend to nine. If beating Alabama is outside the realm of entertained possibilities, he'll get maximum bang for his buck by making the Gators his ONE BIG WIN, especially because he would have made his statement early and not leave fans desperate the rest of the way home. This game is also more important because unlike Oregon, Georgia, or South Carolina, this game presents the opportunity to get blown out two consecutive weeks, and nothing kills fan momentum like a double dose of sad reality. Of all the big games on Tennessee's schedule, I still think this one has a chance to matter most.
3. Auburn - November 9, Knoxville
Back in reality, the November 9 date with the Auburn Tigers looms in preseason the way the Mississippi State game did last season: a mid-card opponent that has the potential to tip the balance of the entire season. If things have gone very bad for Tennessee, or perhaps even the way Vegas expects them to go if the Vols are underdogs the week before in Missouri, Auburn could represent the first game the Vols can't afford to lose if they want to go bowling. Much about the 2013 schedule feels like the 2010 schedule Derek Dooley first saw (with at Oregon playing the role of at LSU with hopefully less heartbreak), which means the Vols could come to the last three games of the season needing to run the table to go bowling. Auburn is worth more than Missouri because it's at home, and because Auburn is Auburn and Missouri is Missouri, and until the latter Tigers prove otherwise a win over the traditional powerhouse and our old rivals will always mean more. If everything has gone south, this could be Butch's last chance to turn it back north.
2. Western Kentucky - September 7, Knoxville
Before all of that though, Butch Jones needs to beat Western Kentucky. It's certainly not the end of the world if he doesn't, and it's not even the end of the world for this season. This one has all the make and feel of Lane Kiffin vs UCLA four years and at least two lifetimes ago, the game you should win against a respectable but should-be-beatable opponent. Western won seven games last year and lost four others by five points or less. They are by no means more talented than we are, but they are by no means an automatic victory, especially with Bobby Petrino now in tow. Kiffin lost to UCLA, instantly sobering the fanbase. He won us back a month later by beating down Georgia. Maybe Butch could go a similar route. But the Vols are far less talented now than we were in 2009, and losing to Western would be a huge blow to the singular goal of bowl eligibility. Lose to Western Kentucky, even a good Western Kentucky, and Butch takes a huge hit, because we're still Tennessee and we're not supposed to lose to any Western Kentucky. But win, and you build trust and momentum even if you have to go to Oregon and Florida the next two weeks. The Vols should do plenty of losing in 2013. It's very important they don't start that before Week 3.
1. Vanderbilt - November 23, Knoxville
Am I crazy to think this? If the Vols get past Auburn successfully, they may still come to this game needing to beat Vanderbilt to stay bowl eligible. But there's more to it than that, and for the first time in my 31 years of being a Tennessee fan, the Vanderbilt game approaches with at least some sense of rivalry. That's due in large part to James Franklin, a man I was among the last to credit but now would be foolish not to for what he's accomplished thus far in Nashville. And while so many losses have piled up for UT in the last few years they all run together, what happened in Nashville last fall still leaves a sour taste in our mouths that didn't leave when Dooley did. Vanderbilt was picked to finish above Tennessee in the SEC again at media days this week. If you remove all the ONE BIG WIN candidates from the equation, what's the game Tennessee has a realistic shot to win that you'd most like to get? Am I the only one who unbelievably finds himself answering that question with, "...yeah, it's Vanderbilt."? Make no mistake: if Vanderbilt remains our most important game of every season, things have continued to go horribly wrong. But another loss to Vandy might not only knock UT out of a bowl game, but could be a huge blow to Butch Jones' momentum and approval rating with the fanbase. You just can't lose to Vanderbilt and Kentucky at this institution. And hopefully Butch doesn't have to find out what that's like. However, even if things have gone poorly for the Vols leading up to this game, getting one back on Franklin and staying alive for a bowl game could end up being the most important win of the season. Vanderbilt isn't quite Vanderbilt anymore. If Tennessee wants to get back to being Tennessee again, I believe it is most important to make sure we beat Vanderbilt to help close out Year One the right way.
Agree? Disagree? We'd love to hear from you in the comments: