Compared to the 2011 season, the Tennessee Volunteers' 2012 schedule is a walk in the park. Only Alabama is a virtually guaranteed loss, and there are plenty of easy wins, too. I've ranked all 12 games from hardest to easiest for this fall.
With the addition of Missouri, Tennessee now has four important SEC East games per year, which will now fall with two at home and two on the road, instead of the former one at home and two on the road every other year.
After drawing one of unluckiest SEC West schedules last year (Alabama, LSU and Arkansas), Tennessee gets an easier draw: Alabama and Mississippi State. The third West game now gone because of the conference expansion.
Coming soon is the predicted finishes in each of these games. But you ought to be able to go through this list and get a pretty good idea of how many other writers and I think the Volunteers will do in 2012.
This game, home or away, will be the toughest game on the Volunteers' schedule for the foreseeable future.
When you put some of the top players in the country with the top coach in the country, you get an annual uphill challenge for Tennessee. It's tough being the only school outside of the SEC West to play Alabama every year.
To illustrate, in the last four years, the Vols have been through three coaches, while Alabama has lost just six games over that span. Yeah, it's going to be a highly difficult game.
A strong, competitive performance from the potent Tennessee offense could give the Vols an outside chance at winning, but this is by far the toughest game on the 2012 schedule.
Though they didn't make it to the SEC Championship Game last year, South Carolina was perhaps the best team in the division. They did, after all, have their best year in school history with an 11-2 finish and a Capital One Bowl win.
South Carolina found depth once starting quarterback Stephen Garcia was dismissed from the team after a troubled career in Columbia. Connor Shaw stepped up admirably, providing an effective combination of passing and running ability.
Star running back Marcus Lattimore suffered a season-ending knee injury early in the 2011 season, leading the way for Shaw and Brandon Wilds to take over the running game.
Lattimore will be back and healthy for the late-October bout, and the new-found depth will be tough to deal with.
One of the main reasons this game isn't ranked as the second-most difficult is that the Tennessee-Georgia game is a virtual toss-up each year.
And in recent history, it's been a huge blowout one way or the other.
Dating back to 2003, the results of the game have been Georgia 20-12, Georgia 41-14, Tennessee 45-19, Georgia 26-14, Tennessee 35-14, Tennessee 51-33, Georgia 27-14, Tennessee 19-14 and Georgia 41-14.
With only two games ending within nine points, you can take one thing to the bank about the game in Athens: No one knows what's going to happen.
Another thing that's for sure is that you'll get a chance to see two future first-round picks in quarterbacks Tyler Bray and Aaron Murray of Georgia. This could easily be another barn-burner.
The Vols got a bit of good news regarding this game when late last week, when Georgia's sophomore running back Isaiah Crowell was dismissed from the team.
This is a virtual must-win game for the Volunteers. I'll be there, and you better be, too. Not in many, many years has Tennessee met a Florida team in such disarray, but that's what happens when this guy is your coach.
After losing their leading passer, leading rusher and second-leading receiver to the 2012 NFL draft, Florida isn't as loaded as usual. John Brantley and Chris Rainey helped extend what is now a seven-year winning streak over Tennessee, but they're both gone.
Former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is gone, as well. It seems like if the Vols are ever going to pounce on a weakened Florida team, this is the year to do it.
On a hot, Saturday afternoon in Neyland, Derek Dooley can make a statement with a potential 4-0 start.
The newcomers to the SEC East are no slouches. With six consecutive eight-win seasons (including two 10-win and one 12-win seasons), Missouri is going to be a very tough game.
It's a late-season game at home in November, though, and the long grind of an SEC season is likely to catch up to the conference rookies. By then, Mizzou will have played Alabama and Florida in two of the previous three weeks, while Tennessee will be coming off a home game with Troy.
Tennessee hasn't fared well in the month of October over the past few years. In fact, the Volunteers' last win in October came against South Carolina on Halloween of 2009 in the infamous black jerseys. (Maybe it's time to bust those babies out again.)
Luckily, Tennessee plays Missouri in November, where the Vols' success has been strong. Since that Halloween game two seasons ago, the Vols have gone 9-3 in November.
This will be a great challenge for Tennessee, but the team has several things working in its favor.
For those outside the Nashville radio reach, Travis is well-known (even by Derek Dooley) for his disdain of the Tennessee head coach and believes that throwing tens of millions of dollars at the problem will fix it.
The quote I remember is, "Dan 'effin' Mullen! Here is $10 million! Go get 'em." Talk about buying high. Mullen had a solid second year at Mississippi State, going 9-4, but besides that one 2009 season, he's 12-13. Mullen's in a similar boat as Dooley, in that regard.
Mississippi State played most of last year with a tight end at quarterback, Chris Relf. Now a senior, Relf will also be expected to shoulder the running game load since Vick Ballard was drafted into the NFL.
A strong defensive team, Mississippi State allowed less than 19 points per game in 2011. The game in Starkville against Tennessee will be a very dichotomous one with the Volunteers looking to outscore most opponents, and State trying to limit ball movement.
If the game were in Knoxville, I'd feel great about it. But a road trip into the SEC West always presents its challenges. The last time the Big Orange won an SEC West road game was in 2007.
But their opponent was Mississippi State.
The first words of the highly entertaining "Things that Vol Fans Say Often" are, "Oh man I can't wait for football season!"
Those are the words I say every time I think of going to the Aug. 31st Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta.
The Volunteers have had an entire offseason to stew over the hugely disappointing loss at Kentucky that prevented them from reaching a bowl and ended the longest winning streak in the country. I expect them to come out with their hearts on fire in Atlanta.
NC State had a nice 8-5 season last year with a bowl win, but their lone impressive victory was against a No. 7 Clemson team that tuckered out late in the year.
Along with Missouri and maybe Florida, I believe NC State matches the talent level of the Volunteers closest of any of Tennessee's opponents this fall.
However, the team desperately needs to overcome its aversion to playing in the Georgia Dome. The Vols have lost three bowl games and three SEC Championship games since their last win in the Dome, the 1998 SEC Championship.
I really enjoy being a graduate student at Vanderbilt. The professors are excellent and my fellow students are awesome. Nashville is also an terrific city. Really, there's only one drawback, James Franklin.
Let me set the record straight for any Vandy fan that finds his or her way here: Tennessee fans don't "fear" Franklin because he's a threat to the Volunteers' success.
Franklin is a fine coach with the potential to vastly improve the program, but it takes much longer than 12 months to turn around a tradition that has gone back to the time of General Neyland.
We're more annoyed with Franklin because he's a thorn in our side. If left unattended, it could become serious, but by most accounts, no big deal.
Just remember Bobby Johnson went 7-6 (better than Franklin's 2011 campaign) in 2009 and followed that up with a 2-10 2010 season. It happens.
But for 60 minutes, an inspired team with good talent can compete with anyone, and Vanderbilt certainly has talent now. The game in Nashville should swing the Volunteers' way, but it's going to be very chippy and contentious. I'm already excited.
At the end of all the talk, Tennessee sports a six-year winning streak on Vandy. Let's not act like this is a viable rivalry quite yet, Franklinites.
The Tennessee Volunteers have to begin a new winning streak against Kentucky this fall. Against what was one of the worst teams from Lexington I've ever seen, the Vols played uninspired football and lost much more than one game.
They lost the confidence of their fanbase.
Looking back in five years, this game will be seen as a turning point in the program, for better or for worse.
If the Vols come out flat and show a hangover effect from last November, the program will be forced to restart its team from the coaching staff down.
But if Tennessee comes out of the gates in the 2012 season like I think they will, the 2011 loss will be seen as catalyst for a new era of good Big Orange football, including a win against Kentucky this year.
Be sure to watch out for Khalid Henderson, a linebacker from Georgia that Derek Dooley let go for various bogus reasons, none of which had to do with personality or grades. This feels like a potential Randall Cobb situation, where a Kentucky player has a four-year vendetta against the Vols.
Troy went 3-9 last year in the Sun Belt.
Let's not look over any opponent, but this one should resemble the 2011 game against another Sun Belt team, MTSU.
Tennessee meets Troy right after the South Carolina game and just before the Missouri, Vanderbilt and Kentucky stretch of the season, so it will be a good chance to make sure everything is in line for a strong finish.
Sandwiched between the Florida game and Georgia game are the Akron Zips, owners of a 1-11 record each of the last two years.
Yeah, these guys are really, really bad.
Similar to the game with Troy, this will be a chance for the Vols to recoup after a (hopeful) Florida win in preparation for the trip to Georgia.
I love football. We all do. So when a school decides to start its own football program, I'm not going sit back and laugh when they go through inevitable growing pains.
Georgia State started its program in 2010 and is now transitioning to join the Sun Belt by 2013. The Panthers will meet the Volunteers the first weekend in September, after Tennessee's game with NC State.
If the Vols did anything well with scheduling, it was planning the easier games around the SEC battles. Georgia State should be a could chance for Tyler Bray and the offense to get in rhythm for the Florida game the week after.