A 7-6 season in year one was considered a pretty successful campaign for Josh Heupel in year one. Now, what will he do for an encore with the bulk of his starters back? Tennessee’s win total sits at 7.5, and most think they can get to that eight win mark. Games against Ball State, Akron, UT-Martin, Vanderbilt are viewed as layups, while matchups against South Carolina and Missouri are expected wins.
What’s that leave? Of course you’ve got extremely tough games against Alabama and Georgia — and then you’ve got four true swing games that really could go either way. Let’s take a closer look, and rank them by importance.
1. Florida (September 24th)
I’ll just be blunt and say it. Tennessee has to beat Florida this season. It’s one of those, ‘if not now, when?’ type of deals. The game is in Knoxville. Senior quarterback Hendon Hooker is back and entering year two with Josh Heupel. Florida is in full out rebuild mode in year one under Billy Napier.
If Tennessee is going to continue to take steps forward as a program, this is one that you have to get. It’s time to get over the hump and beat the Gators once again. No excuses, it’s just that simple. A loss here would be extremely difficult to swallow.
For what it’s worth, the early line is out to Tennessee -5.5 here, per DraftKings Sportsbook.
2. at Pittsburgh (September 10th)
This is such an interesting matchup, coming off of a wild game last season. Pittsburgh lost star quarterback Kenny Pickett and stud receiver Jordan Addison, yet the Panthers are getting plenty of respect in the polls following an ACC title last year. Pitt is going to be stout up front on both sides of the ball, and likely will play a complete contrast to Tennessee’s lightning-fast pace.
Either Nick Patti or Kedon Slovis has big shoes to fill under center, and they’ll be breaking in plenty of new receivers as well. Can Pitt win the game in the trenches and slow down the pace enough to stop Tennessee?
This was a game that the Volunteers should have won last season, if only Joe Milton was able to connect on a couple of those wide open deep shots in the first quarter.
It’s a massive early test for both sides, one that will set the tone for the rest of the season.
3. at LSU (October 8th)
Tennessee has a real shot to be 4-0 ahead of their trip to Baton Rouge. Wouldn’t that be something? Hence the importance of this swing game — especially coming one week ahead of Alabama coming to Knoxville.
LSU enters year one under Brian Kelly, and frankly they’re a bit of a mystery playing in the always difficult SEC West. The Tigers have a win total of just seven, and money has come in heavily on the under so far.
Kelly has a raging quarterback battle going on, with Arizona State transfer Jayden Daniels and longtime Tiger Myles Brennan both in the mix. The winner will be throwing to one of the most talented receiver rooms in the SEC, led by Kayshon Boutte, Malik Nabers and Jack Beck.
As many questions as there are, you know LSU will still have plenty of talent. And winning in Death Valley is always difficult. The good news here for Tennessee is that they’ll get a bye week ahead to prepare.
4. Kentucky (October 29th)
Kentucky has edged out Tennessee in the projected SEC East by the media, and they’ve also managed to find themselves ranked in the coaches poll, beating out the Volunteers by a few slots.
The consensus thought has been that it will be a Tennessee-Kentucky battle for the No. 2 slot in the East, and it may very well come down to this date on the calendar. Like Tennessee, Kentucky returns quarterback Will Levis and star running back Chris Rodriguez. Mark Stoops has laid a really solid foundation for the Wildcats, but it remains to be seen if they can get over the next hump.
And still yet, they lost to Tennessee in Lexington in Josh Heupel’s first season. Kentucky has beaten Tennessee just three times in the last 37 tries, each of those coming in the last eleven years.
If Tennessee takes care of the six wins they should get, and then grabs two of these four games, that gets them to 8-4. Could they do more? Absolutely. Could they hang with Alabama or Georgia? We’ve already seen them do that last season.
Realistically speaking though, 8-4 seems like the bet to make — and 9-3 isn’t too crazy. These four points on the schedule will tell the tale.