The Vols have come a long way, but not far enough to say with any confidence Tennessee is going to beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa. It is the most difficult game on the schedule and would look the same from mid-June for any team without Ohio State on the docket. Things can change between mid-June and mid-October, and either way we'll idiot optimist our way into a streak-busting argument by then.
But this year you don't need such an argument for the other 11 games on Tennessee's schedule. The Vols may be out-talented on the two deep a couple of other times this fall, but not so much so that you can't make a reasonable argument for Tennessee against everyone else on their schedule. Georgia is the next most likely Vol opponent you'll find when scrolling down the initial AP poll, but the Dawgs come to Knoxville in what has been a one possession rivalry for the last four years. Oklahoma is likewise in Neyland Stadium and replacing both coordinators the second week of the season.
The most important game of the year could end up being at Missouri on November 21. Tennessee is yet to show it can beat the Tigers, who continue to be taken a little less seriously than past performance should require. A veteran Mizzou squad should be favored, in my mind, over a young Tennessee team on the road in a game which could decide the SEC East.
All of those are strong contenders for Tennessee's second most difficult game of the year. But, phrased as, "which game makes me most nervous after Alabama?" It's Arkansas.
Some of it is the placement, screaming "TRAP GAME!" from four months away. But for two teams on the rise in similar rebuilding projects, the trap cuts both ways/is likely to spring on itself/you get the idea. Tennessee faces Arkansas between at Florida and vs Georgia. Arkansas faces Tennessee between Texas A&M in JerryWorld and at Alabama. Whether both teams are ranked or not by the time they meet on October 3, their chances to overlook the other are the same.
But what also makes me nervous is a run-first team with eight starters back on offense, including quarterback Brandon Allen. At the very least, Arkansas' passing game should improve to become more of an asset (though it will be interesting to see what they do without Jim Chaney). Allen gives the Razorbacks an answer teams like Georgia are still looking for.
Tennessee's rush defense stats from last season are skewed in multiple ways. The Vols were one of the few teams to face the Todd Gurley version of Georgia; the Dawgs rushed for 5.45 yards per carry against UT. Tennessee was also gashed for a 70 yard touchdown run by South Carolina when miscommunication left the Vols with only ten men on the field, pushing the Gamecocks' numbers up over six yards per carry. Vol backups were also gashed late by Iowa in the Taxslayer Bowl, as the Hawkeyes finished at nearly seven yards per carry.
But in the first three quarters in Jacksonville the Vols did solid work against the run, even without A.J. Johnson in the middle. The same was generally true against Missouri, which ran for only four yards per carry and really beat Tennessee's defense with deep balls on single coverage. So there's hope Tennessee can be okay this season against the run even without a proven middle linebacker.
We know Jalen Reeves-Maybin will be out there at linebacker for the Vols, but right now we're not even sure who else will line up there when the Vols are in the nickel package. Curt Maggitt should spend most of his time at defensive end, but it will be interesting to see how the Vols line up when forced to play a more traditional 4-3 look. And Arkansas is exactly the type of team to make Tennessee do it.
Georgia, with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, should also give the Vols plenty of run looks (no Bobo to kick around this year). But depending on what the Dawgs are getting from their quarterback, Arkansas could actually present the greater offensive threat. And the Razorbacks are coming off an incredible close to the 2014 season on the defensive side, shutting out LSU and Ole Miss in November before holding Texas to just seven in the bowl game. Arkansas returns seven starters on defense.
When you consider all this, I can more easily talk myself until wins over Oklahoma, Georgia, and even at Missouri than I can with Arkansas. The good news there is, if the Hogs are indeed the true answer to this question, a loss to an SEC West foe is better news for the Vols overall. But I think Arkansas represents the biggest non-Alabama problem on Tennessee's schedule right now.
Who's your pick?