This is the fourth year we've done this exercise in the preseason, the fourth year (and beyond) the Vols have faced a difficult schedule, and the fourth year there's still one obvious choice for the season's most important game.
In 2012 we knew the date with Florida would have the loudest and set the tone for the possibly final word on Derek Dooley, and it did just that. In 2013 we believed Vanderbilt was the most important game in Butch Jones' first season; the date with James Franklin's final team ended up costing Tennessee bowl eligibility. Last year Florida again presented itself as both the best chance for another breakthrough win for Butch and the best chance to beat the Gators during this decade of despair. The move to Josh Dobbs really changed the tone of the entire season; I think you can argue the Iowa game ended up being the most important in the short term and the South Carolina game has a chance to end up being most important in the long term. But the 2014 Florida game still represents the biggest missed opportunity, the win that could have meant the most that ended up hurting the most.
As always, these rankings are about the importance of the game more than how much a hypothetical UT victory would be worth (the number one answer is, as always, Alabama). However, it's nice to sit down and do this and not have to put a game like Oklahoma in the back half of the list because we assume we're going to get beat and/or killed.
Here's how we count them down in a year the Vols look to ascend:
12. Western Carolina, September 19
This bunch got feisty with South Florida in the opener last year before falling 36-31. But they also lost 48-14 to Alabama and 51-0 to Chattanooga. Well positioned for the Vols between monster early season tests against Oklahoma and Florida.
11. North Texas, November 14
A year after going 9-4, North Texas was 4-8 last year and 2-6 in Conference USA. Bill Connelly argues North Texas might have been the worst road team in college football last year, which is more good news for us. While there are parts of UT's schedule so loaded with strong SEC foes it might have been nice to have this game earlier to break some of them up, it does present a nice break from that grind late in the season, which will be especially helpful if Tennessee is still in the race for the SEC East.
10. Vanderbilt, November 28
It took one year for Vandy to return to its place as the clear doormat in the SEC. Commodore fans might take exception to this coming from Knoxville, as the Dores have still won two of the last three and gave Tennessee a bit of a scare in Nashville last fall. But if Tennessee is indeed going back to the top in this division, Vanderbilt has to be the least of its concerns. Derrick Mason's challenge isn't to get back on James Franklin's level right now, but just get Vandy's new normal stronger than it was before his predecessor's arrival.
9. Bowling Green (Nashville), September 5
A welcome break from the last few years, when early season tests against non-powerhouse non-conference foes have ranked far higher on our list. In 2012 we ranked NC State the second most important game, in 2013 Western Kentucky was second, and last year Utah State was fifth with several arguments in the comments to move it higher. Bowling Green comes in with just as much to respect as those teams; ranking them lower is purely a sign of Tennessee's hopeful rise. A first impression is worth a lot, but with Oklahoma coming seven days later that impression will be overwhelmed one way or another. One thing's for sure: this game will go fast.
8. at Kentucky, October 31
I could be convinced to slide Bowling Green into this spot, but a slippery placement post-Bama on the schedule makes me give a slight nod to the Wildcats as the more important contest. Kentucky started 5-1 last year before finishing 0-6 and being non-competitive in a number of those games. Mark Stoops is still yet to find the success the Wildcats earned in the latter half of the last decade, but his recruiting efforts suggest the bar should be raised soon.
7. South Carolina, November 7
The previous five games are all ones the Vols will be expected to win. South Carolina has probably moved into the group in fans' minds because the Vols have won two straight over the Gamecocks. If I'm a South Carolina fan, I'm looking at that much differently and throwing words like "luck" around. Either way, the Gamecocks are picked to finish behind Georgia, Tennessee, and Missouri in the SEC East. A familiar face returns as co-defensive coordinator, but finding a quarterback will be the first priority for South Carolina. Joel argues for the return of the word "should" in this match-up.
6. Arkansas, October 3
I think this is Tennessee's second most difficult game, the one it is most likely to lose after the trip to Tuscaloosa. The game is brought to you by Admiral Ackbar, with the Vols facing Florida before and Georgia after and the Hogs facing Texas A&M before and Alabama after. But I think Tennessee's deficiencies, fewer though they may be, could be most exposed by Alabama and Arkansas. The good news there is, if those are the Vols' two most difficult games, neither plays in our division. As such many of the next five games may be both better match-ups and more important to get.
5. at Alabama, October 24
Our biggest rivals move to the top five for the first time. We placed the Alabama game seventh in 2012, with so many more winnable games important for Derek Dooley's job security. It was 10th in Butch Jones' first season, as the challenge did in fact prove to be far too steep. Last year we moved it to sixth, but much of that had to do with Lane Kiffin's presence. That story has diminished and will continue to do so with the game outside Knoxville, but Tennessee's chances of pulling the upset are better than they've been at any point this decade. The Vols have a bye week before going to Tuscaloosa, could have the right quarterback to beat the Tide, and if Tennessee goes to Alabama at 5-1 or 6-0, the Third Saturday in October is going to feel like the old days. But unless the Vols are ready to compete for a National Championship, games against Eastern Division foes are always going to be more important than this one.
4. Oklahoma, September 12
And this year, so is this one. The game is at home, Oklahoma isn't projected to be as strong as Alabama, and it is a chance for instant validation for what Butch Jones and company have been building. It's not like NC State three years ago, carrying an air of desperation. This is all opportunity, and it's a big one.
3. at Florida, September 26
Other than Kentucky and perhaps Vanderbilt, I don't know if another SEC team would rank the Gators this high on their own most important list in 2015. This is the year to get the Gators, though their defense will not make it easy. We've played the "this is the year!" game in 2012 and 2014 and been incredibly disappointed twice. As mentioned multiple times on this site, perhaps the pressure will be eased with the game in Gainesville and away from the group hyperventilation exercise of last year in Knoxville. Whatever happens against Oklahoma, what the Vols do at Florida will both leave a stronger aftertaste and make the first statement about Tennessee's readiness to win the SEC East.
2. at Missouri, November 21
And if Tennessee wants to do that, it will need to beat the division's best teams. The two-time East champions again find themselves picked somewhere other than the top in preseason, and certainly have their own questions. But they also have three straight wins over Tennessee. The Tigers are too new at this SEC thing to carry the rivalry punch, but they could easily be the biggest measuring stick for Tennessee this fall. The placement of this game and Mizzou's relatively easy schedule could mean both teams come to November 21 playing for a spot in the Georgia Dome.
1. Georgia, October 10
If Tennessee's primary goal is to get to Atlanta, its most important game is the one against the East favorite, plain and simple. That game is in Knoxville, and that favorite has slipped through Tennessee's hands the last three years in the final minutes. Both will come to Neyland Stadium beat up from facing Arkansas and Alabama the previous week. And both face difficult roads through the SEC West, with Georgia getting the whole state of Alabama this fall. Because of that - and this informs the entire ranking here - I absolutely believe Tennessee can win the SEC East at 6-2, but they have to beat Georgia. Get a win against the Dawgs, and I think the Vols can survive losses to Alabama and a player to be named later (especially if it's Arkansas) by holding the head-to-head tiebreaker. And if you want to go negative, should the Vols stumble early against Oklahoma, Florida, and/or Arkansas, this game would remain incredibly important as a way to turn the ship around. It is the midpoint of the season, and it will determine where everything is going from there: a clear path to Atlanta, or scoreboard watching the rest of the way home.