We've asked this question in each of the last two summers, before full-on fall camp optimism and before we have a concrete idea about a bunch of these teams. Case in point: last July we rated Auburn as the third most important game on Tennessee's schedule, figuring the battle of first-year head coaches in Knoxville would represent the Vols' best chance to get the quality win they would need to earn bowl eligibility. We all took an oops on that one.
But in each of the last two years the most important games were pretty clear. Last year, to the chagrin of many before and after, it was Vanderbilt. Tennessee's quest for bowl eligibility met a bitter end against the Commodores on the night that ended up mattering the most, especially when James Franklin still roamed that sideline. Two years ago it was clearly Florida coming in, and it was Florida going out that became the moment when the majority of the fanbase believed Derek Dooley would not make it.
While we may all agree on the game at the top and the bottom of the list in 2014, it's much harder to pick from there. Just above the bottom is a tougher-than-usual non-conference schedule even that's way more than Oklahoma. Just below the top are a series of games against an Eastern Division without a front-runner. This time last year we felt far more confidence going in against Missouri and Auburn than anyone should feel about Ole Miss this fall. It's a curious year and the schedule offers little grace.
So this is a less-educated guess at the games which will matter most for Butch Jones and Team 118. The true answers won't be revealed until the fall, and will depend greatly on not just which teams rise and fall on UT's schedule, but just how good these young Vols can be.
From the bottom...
12. Chattanooga - October 11
The Mocs went as high as 17th in the FCS poll last year and Athlon ranks them 12th in their preseason poll this year. Despite that and despite the local flavor, being the only FCS foe on the schedule automatically puts you at the bottom of this list.
11. Kentucky - November 15
I could be convinced this game should go higher, but until Mark Stoops proves it on the field and not just in February, Kentucky remains Tennessee's least-serious threat in SEC play. To be fair, many people are making the same argument about Butch Jones.
10. Arkansas State - September 6
A game Tennessee should win, but a dangerous assumption. This game isn't important unless the Vols lose it, in which case it would become incredibly important to the narrative of Butch Jones' second season. The Red Wolves are no pushover, eight wins last year and a popular pick to compete for the Sun Belt title this season. But because Utah State gets its chance six days earlier, all the emphasis is on the opener for the Vols, and if UT wins that one, this assumption will continue.
9. at Ole Miss - October 18
As stated, these Rebels look more dangerous from a distance than 2013 Auburn or 2012 Mississippi State, UT's last two non-Alabama Western Division foes. Tennessee fans were chalking up a win both times, and both times went home angry. I don't think anyone is chalking up a win here; there's probably more of the other way around. There is, however, a clear trap game scenario here with the Vols playing the unusual role of lying in wait: Ole Miss has a ridiculously front-loaded schedule, including this stretch from October 4-November 1: Alabama, at Texas A&M, Tennessee, at LSU, Auburn. The Rebels are clearly talented, but either outcome wouldn't resonate as much in some ways as it would against...
8. at Vanderbilt - November 29
It's a steep fall from number one on this list last year, and James Franklin is holding the anvil. Without his presence on the sideline Vanderbilt simply feels more like Vanderbilt, and it's not just Tennessee feeling that way. On the other hand, the Commodores are looking for three straight and as the season finale, this could once again be the line between 5-7 and 6-6. You can easily argue this one should be higher on the list, but if Tennessee does indeed have a higher ceiling, we have to start believing there are more important things to do than beat Vanderbilt.
7. at Oklahoma - September 13
Last year Tennessee's trip to Oregon came in at #9 on our countdown. It's not so much that I think 2013 Oregon is significantly better than 2014 Oklahoma, it's that I think 2014 Tennessee has a chance to be significantly better than 2013 Tennessee. Better in this case doesn't have to be the upset: last year a majority of Tennessee fans went into the Oregon game thinking, "We're gonna get killed," this year with Oklahoma it's, "We're gonna get beat." But if the Vols' young talent does get in the mood to try an early upset, a nationally televised primetime audience would do just fine for Butch Jones and Team 118.
6. Alabama - October 25
Likewise the Tide were #10 on last year's list, and their climb is mostly due to Lane Kiffin's presence. Kiffin will ensure this game has plenty of punch regardless of Tennessee's record or whether or not Alabama is ranked number one. Here too progress can be measured in other ways, namely getting beat by less than 30 which hasn't been done since Kiffin was on our sideline. But with so much passion on the line it what is already Tennessee's biggest rivalry, the Third Saturday in October will be uniquely memorable this year no matter how both teams go in and come out.
5. Utah State - August 31
Here too, I could be easily convinced to move this game higher. Hyping Utah State isn't blowing smoke; this is a team with quarterback who could make Heisman dark horse noise and a defense that finished fifth in yards per play allowed last year. Combine all that with Tennessee's youth, and you've got lots of anxiety. Utah State is good enough to win this one even if Tennessee "shows up", and while it certainly wouldn't cripple Tennessee's entire season, it would be a harsh blow to all the positive momentum the program has built and whatever confidence these young players brought to campus. Very dangerous, but again, if we're willing to believe in a higher ceiling, then we have to believe games against Eastern Division foes not named Kentucky or Vanderbilt will be more important than a game against a mid-major, even a good one.
4. at South Carolina - November 1
Rated below Georgia only for recency and rivalry. It's a tough date for Tennessee one week after Alabama with the Gamecocks looking for revenge, but despite Carolina's ascension this has remained a close series even after Fulmer's departure. South Carolina holds a 3-2 advantage in these last five years, but only the 2009 game with Kiffin was decided before the fourth quarter.
3. at Georgia - September 27
Likewise, this one has been to the wire the last three years: 20-12, 51-44, and of course the 34-31 overtime heartbreak last year. Tennessee gets an off week between Oklahoma and a trip to Athens; Georgia hosts Troy after playing South Carolina and before hosting the Vols. There is no clear-cut favorite in the SEC East and both South Carolina and Georgia have to go through Auburn as well. If you're ranking the value of all upsets, to me Georgia would be just behind Alabama: a conference win early in the year to light the fire for Team 118 and maximize momentum for Butch Jones.
2. Missouri - November 22
Rated higher than South Carolina and Georgia because it's at home and thus more winnable, and because its placement as the next-to-last game could represent both Tennessee's last chance to get a big win and a must-win game for bowl eligibility. We've had our fun with Missouri fans on our site, but in truth I've been slightly surprised in the way some Tennessee fans have been slow to respect a team that's now 2-0 against us and last year's game wasn't really close. No one is really sure what either team will be by late November, but unless the Tigers completely fall apart (I doubt it) and the Vols are already sitting on seven losses (I doubt it) this will be a very big game for Tennessee.
1. Florida - October 4
By a mile. You've got rivalry and nine years worth of losing, which means this one would be worth a ton to Butch Jones and the Vols even if it ends up being another bad year for Will Muschamp and the Gators. And an opening slate of Idaho, Eastern Michigan, and Kentucky should make Florida 3-0 without much problem, then 3-1 after playing Alabama coming to Knoxville. So here too, even if it's flameout for Florida, you won't know for sure on October 4 and devalue a potential Tennessee win. The Gators do get an off week before Knoxville while the Vols get Georgia in Athens, so that's advantage Florida. And unlike the Oklahoma and Georgia games, Florida would be a loss that carried real weight, both because of the decade of futility and because of Florida's 4-8 mark last year. It is that mark and Neyland Stadium that make so many Tennessee faithful believe this is the year things change. And all this really adds up to Florida being the upset Vol fans believe we're most likely to get. But more than that, of all the realistic upsets for Tennessee to pull, this one would be worth the most, and that makes it the most important game of Tennessee's season.