Tennessee opens with an 11-win Appalachian State team; there will be no walks and no parks. But if the Vols are, in fact, too much for the Mountaineers, our perception of Tennessee's ceiling can change drastically by Sunday morning.
We know what the Florida game means; we'll get to that. But on paper, Tennessee's three biggest challenges this fall will come in the three weeks that follow: at Georgia, at Texas A&M, and home versus Alabama. They are the three most dangerous circles on our calendar, but each of them comes with less red ink than we're used to from our biggest threats. This isn't just because Tennessee is better, but because each opponent faces significant questions.
All three have new coordinators, with Georgia bringing in a new head coach in Kirby Smart. At least two will have a new starting quarterback, and if Jacob Eason wins the job in Athens they'll make it three-for-three. Our opinions of Florida are largely based on what the Gators did without Will Grier last year, and on the other end of the spectrum our opinions of Alabama are largely based on them being Alabama. The Tide must come to Knoxville and will be replacing half of their starters.
When people pick the Vols to go 10-2 or worse, they're obviously projecting Tennessee to lose to someone other than the Crimson Tide. But picking which game(s) that will be is more challenging at this point, with Georgia and A&M being the most mysterious options from four months away.
With so much uncertainty opinions can swing wildly, quickly, both now and in September. And it just so happens Tennessee's three biggest on-paper threats have huge match-ups on college football's opening Saturday.
Alabama will face Southern Cal in Arlington. Georgia will face North Carolina in Atlanta. Texas A&M will host UCLA.
If the league goes 3-0 in those games, Tennessee's task will feel much taller and the "certainty" of 10+ wins will shrink. It would send the narrative of Tennessee's season toward the old familiar "look how tough our schedule is" and make that four week stretch in October far more daunting. By contrast, if the league goes 0-3 in those games? If the Vols take care of their own business, they could wake up Sunday morning as the clear front-runner in the SEC East and, depending on what happens in two other huge games with LSU and Wisconsin at Lambeau and Ole Miss and Florida State in Orlando, be considered a front-runner for the league title.
The most likely scenario, of course, is somewhere between Alabama, Georgia, and A&M going 3-0 and 0-3 in those games. But much of what can only present itself as mystery right now on Tennessee's schedule will feel far clearer in just one week in September.