We are less than two weeks away from the Tennessee Volunteers' first game of the 2012 season. It is officially time to get antsy and start talking to your neighbor (who's an Alabama fan again) about the upcoming year. So how will the Vols' season come out?
The high-powered offense is where it all starts for this year's team. Tennessee is built to score first, play pass defense and run the ball in the second half against an exhausted and loosened opposition. That works just fine for me since the Volunteers have as many as six future first-rounders starting on offense.
The defense has to stay healthy. The depth is only average at best, but the skill level of the starting unit, particular at linebacker, is very good. Assuming injuries aren't a killer like last year, this is how I see the 2012 season shaking out.
The 2012 season will kick off in the Georgia Dome on August 31 against the Wolfpack from NC State.
The Vols need to get off to a good start in a pivotal year. Try to imagine the shockwaves that a loss would send through the state of Tennessee. People would be calling for immediate coaching changes. The exact opposite is true if Tennessee can pull off the win.
NC State's pass defense is very strong, led by future top-10 pick David Amerson. It will be strength-on-strength when Tyler Bray throws into the secondary. The Wolfpack also fields a tall, lanky quarterback of their own in Mike Glennon, who threw for over 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns last year.
I believe the Volunteers will exorcise their demons in the Georgia Dome, where their last win was the 1998 SEC Championship.
Tennessee wins 27 to 20.
After a big win in Atlanta, the Volunteers will need a quick study of the Georgia State Panthers.
A young program, Georgia State has only been playing football since 2010, a year where it went an impressive 6-5. The Panthers fell back to earth last season with a 3-8 record but shouldn't be overlooked as they're comprised of players from the talent-rich state of Georgia.
In the home opener, I see Tennessee clicking on all cylinders, a la Montana in 2011.
Tennessee wins 41 to 17.
The last time Tennessee started 3-0 was 2004. It was also the last time they beat Florida. The two go hand-in-hand since the Gators typically fall as the third game of the year.
Let me be clear: It is imperative that the Tennessee Volunteers defeat the Florida Gators and end the seven-year streak this year. Florida, usually a powerhourse, is vulnerable right now. The Gators went a weak 7-6 last year and have a terrible coach, in my opinion.
The Gators lost Charlie Weis to Kansas, John Brantley and Chris Rainey to the NFL and numerous other key figures last year. If not now, when?
Luckily, I believe, if only because I bleed orange, that the Vols will pull it out.
Tennessee wins 27 to 21.
Since 2009, the Akron Zips are 5-31. I'd be interested to see how they would play against the Vols' week two opponent, Georgia State.
Enjoy the tailgate. It'll be the most interesting part of your day.
Tennessee wins 45 to 13.
The Tennessee-Georgia game is one of the most unpredictable games in college football. The outcome is usually a blowout, but you never know which team is going to win.
The Volunteers, now 4-0, will be hoping that they're on the good end of that trend when they travel to Athens for their first SEC road game. As long as Georgia can get past a tough road game at Missouri, it will also be 4-0.
It could be an epic battle with big SEC East implications, but Georgia is a year ahead of the Vols, and I think the Big Orange suffers its first loss.
Tennessee loses 28 to 23.
Tennessee has a nicely timed bye week after the Georgia game where it can prepare for back-to-back SEC West bouts. The first will be a trip to Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs are still a bit of a wild card. They have gone 5-7, 9-4 and 7-6 under head coach Dan Mullen, so it's hard to tell what 2012 will be like. They lost their tight end-quarterback Chris Relf and running back Vick Ballard.
No SEC road game is easy, but the offense should be in fine form by this early-October game. The linebacker corps of Herman Lathers, Jacques Smith, A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt should be able to limit the ground attack.
Tennessee wins 28 to 17.
The defending BCS National Champions Crimson Tide make their way to Knoxville on October 20. Alabama lost quite a bit of talent to the NFL last year, but I don't doubt Nick Saban. It's dangerous.
Tennessee is on a five-game losing streak to its most historic rival, diminishing the fierceness of the rivalry. How vicious can a game be if one team has won seven out of the last 10 meetings? The Volunteers need to even that out.
I haven't felt this good about the Third Saturday in October in many years. Alabama is without Trent Richardson, Dont'a Hightower, Dre Kirkpatrick, Courtney Upshaw and Mark Barron, all taken in the top 35 picks of the 2012 NFL draft.
This could be the year that Tennessee sneaks by Alabama, but you have to unseat the champion before I'll call an upset.
Tennessee loses 27 to 17.
October is always a tough month for Tennessee, but when the Vols meet South Carolina, they'll know they're almost out of it.
The Gamecocks are coming off one of their best years in school history, an 11-2 season with a Capital One Bowl win. Marcus Lattimore is returning from his knee injury, and Stephen Garcia is no longer causing distractions. South Carolina might be even better than last year.
Of course, the Tyler Bray-less and Justin Hunter-less Volunteers hung with South Carolina quite well last season, losing a low-scoring affair 14-3. South Carolina's defense is going to be good again, but Tennessee's offense could challenge Arkansas as the best in the SEC.
It's going to be a great game, but the edge goes to the home-field team and the better coach.
Tennessee loses 24 to 21.
After four straight SEC games, three of which are losses, Tennessee will welcome a trip back to Neyland against the Trojans of Troy.
Troy's 3-9 record last year might have been an outlier. Before that, the Trojans had five consecutive seasons of eight wins or more. They shouldn't be overlooked, especially when the Volunteers will be seeking a strong finish to the season.
It will be interesting to watch how Raijon Neal's role has evolved by November. He is currently outperforming presumed starter Marlin Lane and is well-known as a workout warrior.
Tennessee wins 34 to 17.
The Volunteers will welcome SEC East newcomer Missouri to Neyland for the first time ever. In fact, it will be the first meeting between the two schools in history, and at 6-3, Tennessee will be in great position to turn up the heat for the end of the season.
The Tigers have had great success under head coach Gary Pinkel, especially since 2007, going 48-19 with three bowl wins over that span. Missouri has an excellent dual-threat quarterback named James Franklin (another reason to hate that name) who threw for 2,865 yards and 21 touchdowns as well as ran for 981 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2011.
I suspect that the 3-4 defense will have the kinks worked out by November 10, which will help Tennessee contain Franklin. As always, the potent Vol offense should lead the way for one of the most exciting wins of the year.
Tennessee wins 30 to 27.
Derek Dooley is 2-0 against Vanderbilt in his young Tennessee career, but neither win has been easy. With James Franklin's used car sales pitch working on high schoolers so well, it's important that Dooley get a strong win against the in-state foe.
This game is bound to have several personal foul penalties and scuffles after the whistle, as any game between Tennessee and Vanderbilt should. Of course, what Vols fans want is a return to normalcy with an easy win.
I don't think it's going to be easy, but it will be Dooley's most convincing victory over the Commodores. Just remember that Bobby Johnson followed up a 7-6 season in 2009 with a 2-10 season in 2010. Let's see what Franklin does in year two before we anoint him the next Bear Bryant.
Tennessee wins 31 to 17.
Two days after Thanksgiving, the Tennessee Volunteers will get a chance to avenge their embarrassing loss to Kentucky from last year. I expect it to be sweet.
The Wildcats are on the verge of a coaching change with Joker Phillips unless he can get to the six-win mark, like Kentucky had done in the previous five seasons. Unfortunately for the Vols, his signature win in his two-year tenure is the streak-snapping victory last year over Tennessee.
Kentucky is the worst team in SEC East, and the Volunteers' appetite won't be satisfied by Thanksgiving turkey alone.
Tennessee wins 30 to 14.
As I was writing this article, I wasn't keeping track of exactly how many wins and losses I was predicting.
When I got to the end, I couldn't believe that I had honestly picked a 9-3 record for the Vols, but I stand by it. The Georgia loss is no guarantee, either.
Whether you think I'm off by one, two or even three games, one thing that we can agree on is that anything less than a bowl trip is wholly unacceptable. An unprecedented third consecutive losing season would certainly lead to another coaching change.
The schedule lines up nicely for the Vols. The talent and experience is there. A 9-3 or 8-4 regular season would send Tennessee to a very nice bowl game, perhaps back to where the season all started at the Chick-fil-A Bowl.