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What is Tennessee’s Most Important Game?

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NCAA Football: Tennessee at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Less than seven weeks to the real thing and armed with SEC Media Days projections, we once again rank Tennessee’s 12 games from least to most important. For the next three weeks we’ll also be taking a look at each of Tennessee’s SEC foes and the Battle at Bristol from an orange and white perspective.

In the four years we’ve done this post, we’ve added a sentence about the importance of the game being relative to Tennessee’s own strength and outweighing how much a hypothetical win would be worth, a list Alabama always tops. But with the Vols the clear favorite in the SEC East and a probable Top 15 team when preseason polls are released, the hypothetical is becoming less so.

The first three years we did this we believed the most important game of the season was obvious in the middle of summer: the chance to cash in against Florida in 2012, constructing a better rebuild in the bowl eligibility battle we envisioned against Vanderbilt in 2013, and a home date against Will Muschamp’s hot seat and the Gators again in 2014. I feel like we were right about all three of those and unfortunately, all three were heartbreaking losses.

Last year we tabbed Georgia as the most important game of the year from a summer perspective, and this time the Vols came through. But the Georgia pick came because we all believed the Dawgs were the team the Vols would have to beat to win the SEC East, and it turns out the real answer was once again the Gators.

You’ll never guess who shows up at the top of our list again.

COOKEVILLE TIER

12. Tennessee Tech - November 5

I bet you’ve got a wedding to go to on November 5.

2010 NCAA TOURNAMENT ROUND OF 32 TIER

11. Ohio - September 17

We’re not worried about any trap game stuff here, are we? The Bobcats were 8-5 last season, losing to Appalachian State by two points in the Camellia Bowl. In Frank Solich’s 12th year, Ohio comes to Knoxville between the unique environment at Bristol and the suffocating arrival of the Gators. Bill Connelly ranks the Bobcats 27th among all mid-majors.

THE SEC EAST EXPANDS TO BOONE, NC TIER

10. Missouri - November 19

9. Appalachian State - September 1

8. at Vanderbilt - November 26

7. at South Carolina - October 29

6. Kentucky - November 12

I would listen to any argument ranking these five in any order; we did put Kentucky at the top of this tier because they were a clear number four choice not in the division at SEC Media Days (and number four on our own site’s poll), getting 933 votes while Missouri, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt all received between 800 and 810.

I also really don’t mean for this to be as disrespectful to Missouri as it looks; I do think Appy State could give any of these teams a real run for their money, and simply elevated them above Mizzou because they’re the season opener. At the other end of the year is Vanderbilt, which would grow in importance if the Vols are in a “win and you’re in Atlanta” situation. South Carolina comes after the bye, but Tennessee’s 0-for-Muschamp streak gives that one a little extra punch. Tennessee’s season is likely to be defined in the four game mid-season stretch preceding the trip to Columbia; if things didn’t go well in that stretch the South Carolina game becomes similar to last year’s Kentucky game as a chance to build momentum at the end of the year, which would be far more disappointing this time around. But if the Vols come out of the Alabama game as the leader for Atlanta, South Carolina would start the stretch run to the Georgia Dome.

HARD ON THE BANK ACCOUNT TIER

5. Virginia Tech (at Bristol Motor Speedway) - September 10

4. at Texas A&M - October 8

The Aggies get the nod simply because they count for or against the SEC East race. Tennessee has never been to Kyle Field and hasn’t played the Aggies since they joined the SEC, making this in any other year the most sought after ticket for all Vols looking to make a road trip.

But with Bristol and the highest-attended college football game of all-time on the calendar, general interest is much higher in the week two date with the Hokies. This is especially true for those in East Tennessee or Southwest Virginia with relationships that cut across the state line.

The Battle at Bristol will get the hype, but the date with A&M will matter more. It is the trap-happiest game on the schedule, which is really selling the Aggies short on their home field. The Vols must maneuver the next three games on our list around the trip to College Station. Tennessee would still control its own destiny in the East with a single loss to a West foe. But when Alabama is on the schedule the very next week, the Vols may not have that luxury here.

These are two unique opportunities that will draw a great deal of attention. But Tennessee’s fate, finally and rightfully so, will come down to what it does in games against its biggest rivals:

THE BIG THREE

3. Alabama - October 15

2. at Georgia - October 1

1. Florida - September 24

If there comes a time when the Vols are a preseason top five pick and Alabama is still among the other four, then we can talk about the Crimson Tide, our oldest and best rival, being the most important game of the season. But as long as the Tide are in the West and the Vols are in the East, Alabama cannot stand in Tennessee’s direct path to a championship unless it’s in the Georgia Dome.

I wanted to make a counter argument and put Georgia at the top of this list. I think the Dawgs are the second best team in this division on paper, our RTT poll agrees, and the game is in Athens a week after what could be a full emotional release.

But Florida actually got the nod at SEC Media Days as the second best team in this division, one more straw on an 11-year camel’s back, making it impossible to pick any other game the season’s most important from mid-July. Maybe the Gators will play all 12 games the way they played their last six in 2015, and we’ll look back and not think of them as one of the best teams the Vols played this year. But that will matter zero-point-zero percent in the felt importance of beating the Gators in September for Butch Jones and this Tennessee team. And as the first game of the season’s four week crucible, our opinion about the Vols is still likely to be near the ceiling when the Gators come calling. Expectations are unlikely to be low. And Florida opens with UMass, Kentucky, and North Texas all in Gainesville, which should maintain their own expectations.

Whatever your best hopes for Tennessee are this season, they include beating the Gators. And if Florida is truly considered to be the primary threat in the division, they are without question the most important win to get. For the streak and for the path to Atlanta, Tennessee’s most important win to get is the Gators.