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The collateral joy of a ranked season

Let’s enjoy the season this year, fellow Vols fans. All of it.

NCAA Football: Outback Bowl-Northwestern vs Tennessee Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

One of the things that I've missed the most as a Vols football fan over the past too-many years is the horse race in the standings. When your team is not ranked, you just don't care as much how the top 10 teams in the country are doing. Sure, you might tune in for that week's Game of the Century, but without anything personal at stake, the emotions aren't fully engaged.

That's part of the reason why I am extra stoked this season. Being ranked in the Top 10 doesn't just mean that the prize at the end of the finish line is bigger and better, it means the season itself holds an additional measure of enjoyment. Not only do we root for the Vols, we root against the teams ahead of us in the polls (as well as any that may be nipping at our heels.)

So what additional big games might we be looking forward to in this 2016 season, beyond all of the Vols' games?

The SEC East Race

First up, if the goal is to get to Atlanta to play in the SEC Championship game, then the games involving the Florida Gators and the Georgia Bulldogs are the ones that can have the most direct impact on the Vols' hopes for the season. Maybe we always root against these guys, but this time, there's something actually at stake.

Regarding the Gators, there's probably not much to see before they play the Vols Week Four on September 24. Beat them, and the rest doesn't matter as much, but stumble, and we'll be looking for the Gators to lose SEC games. If it comes down to that, the games to watch are LSU, Georgia, and at Arkansas Weeks 6, 9, and 10. And even if we do win, a little cushion is nice.

The best opportunity to get ahead of Georgia (just assume from this point forward that all such statements include the qualifier "apart from beating them head-to-head") comes Week 4 when the Bulldogs play at Ole Miss. Other than that, the other most important Georgia games to Vols fans are the game against Florida Week 9 and the game against Auburn, Week 11.

So those are the big non-Vols games in the SEC East race from a Vols' fan's perspective.

The Polls

How about the rest of the standings? Currently, the teams ahead of the Vols in the polls are Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, Florida State, Ohio State, LSU, Stanford, Michigan, and Notre Dame. There's an argument to be made that you want Alabama and LSU to win all non-Vols games because it doesn't impact the SEC East race and them winning makes the Vols look good (regardless of the outcomes of the Vols' games against them), but I'll include their big games just for the entertainment value. The rest of those guys, we want to lose.

So here's a week-by-week schedule for appointment TV.

Week 1

The Vols pretty much have Thursday night to themselves the first week of the season. And that's just getting things started.

9/3/16 Oklahoma Houston Noon ABC
LSU Wisconsin 3:30 ABC
USC Alabama 8:00 ABC
Clemson Auburn 9:00 ESPN
9/4/16 Notre Dame Texas 7:30 ABC
9/5/16 Ole Miss Florida State 8:00 ESPN

That may be one of the best opening weeks ever, which may make the move to Thursday night for the Vols-Mountaineers game a little more appealing for some.  Watch the Auburn-Clemson and Ole Miss-Florida State games, especially, because Georgia has to play both of those teams later. Them doing well in Week 1 pours a little fuel onto the fire.

Week 2

There's really nothing to see here except COLLEGE FOOTBALL'S BIGGEST EVER. So go ahead and just plan to tailgate up here in my backyard all weekend. Stop by and see me, if you're in town and you get a chance.

Week 3

Vols fans will be glued to the Vols at noon, but Alabama plays Ole Miss at 3:30 on CBS, Notre Dame takes on Michigan State (just outside the top 10) at 7:30 on NBC, and Stanford plays USC at 8:00 on ABC.

Week 4

This is Tennessee-Florida week, so concentrate all of your energy on that. But Georgia also plays Ole Miss, and a loss to the Rebels may turn out to be extremely important. Let's hope the games are at different times so we don't have to watch the other-games scoreboard during the game.

Week 5

This is Tennessee-Georgia week, and I'm still convinced that this is the most important game of the season for the Vols. Other good games, though, include Stanford at Washington, Oklahoma at TCU, Wisconsin at Michigan, and North Carolina at Florida State.

Week 6

The Vols travel to Texas A&M, a game we may be overlooking. Watch the LSU-Florida game as well, though, hoping for a Gators' loss. This is also Red River Rivalry week (Texas-Oklahoma) and the week that FSU plays rival Miami.

Week 7

Alabama-Tennessee, Stanford-Notre Dame, and Ohio State-Wisconsin.

Week 8

A well-deserved break for the Vols (as well as the Gators and the Bulldogs), but Ole Miss and LSU play, and that should be a good one.

Week 9

The Vols take on the Gamecocks, and if you assume a win for the good guys there, the most important game could be Florida-Georgia, depending on how our games against them went. Clemson and Florida State also square off, as do Michigan and Michigan State, all of which should be really good games.

Week 10

While the Vols play Tennessee Tech, Alabama and LSU will play for what will likely be the SEC West crown (but don't count out Ole Miss), and we're rooting for an Arkansas win over Florida.

Week 11

It's Tennessee and Kentucky week, but we're also watching for a helpful upset by Auburn over Georgia. Out West, USC plays Washington.

Week 12

Tennessee plays Missouri, and Michigan State takes the first crack at Ohio State, who will have to fend off the Spartans and the Wolverines in back-to-back weeks.

Week 13

LSU plays Texas A&M on Thursday, and then it's Rivalry Week. It's Tennessee-Vandy (woo!), Notre Dame-USC, the Iron Bowl, Florida-Florida State, and Michigan-Ohio State. What a fun day.

Week 14

SEC Championship Saturday, plus Oklahoma-Oklahoma State.

I don't know about you, but that schedule gets me all worked up for the season to start. Hopefully, the Vols will do their part to keep it interesting all the way to December. If so, we won't just enjoy the Vols more this season, we'll enjoy the entire season more.