Power Ranking the Tennessee Volunteers 2013 Schedule from Easiest to Toughest
The Tennessee Football Twitter account is doing a countdown to the first game of the season everyday. Right now, the number stands at 73 days. Looking ahead to the upcoming 2013 season, I've ranked the Volunteers' 12 opponents from easiest to toughest to beat.
From lowly Austin Peay and South Alabama to national powerhouses Oregon and Alabama, the Vols' list of games this fall run the full spectrum of difficulty. Winning the easy games and fighting hard in the tough ones should be fully expected and commended for a rebuilding team.
It's those middle-of-the-road games that will decide the season, though. With two or three virtually guaranteed wins, the Vols need three or four more wins to get to their first bowl in five years with a chance to bring home a trophy for the first time in seven.
So how do Tennessee's opponents stack up?
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The worst team on the Volunteers' 2013 schedule is in-state school Austin Peay. The Governors haven't won more than four games since 2007 and have three two-win seasons over that span.
Austin Peay is Tennessee's first opponent of the season, so there may be some first quarter jitters the Vols have to shake, but the final result will most certainly be a convincing win.
In 2012, the Volunteers played college football youngster Georgia State. The result was a 51-13 blowout. This year, South Alabama plays a similar role.
The Jaguars had their first season in 2009, playing small military academies like Hargrave, Fork Union and Milford that year and the next. In 2011, they moved up to the FCS and went 6-4.
Last year, South Alabama made the leap to the FBS and scored a 2-11 record in the Sun Belt Conference. They're still building their program and by virtue of that, they are the Vols' second-weakest 2013 opponent.
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Tennessee's lone SEC win in 2012 came with an interim head coach against a perennially weak Kentucky team.
But have you seen the 2014 recruiting rankings lately? After pumping your fist for the 50th time over the Volunteers' ranking, take a look at the Wildcats. As of the morning of June 19, they're No. 1.
Mark Stoops has brought the same kind of energy to Kentucky that Butch Jones has brought to Tennessee. In three or four years, we might have a fun, contested battle on our hands.
But this fall, the Vols should handle their SEC foe without too much hassle.
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One name, two words: Bobby Petrino.
Petrino is a lot of things to a lot of people. Just ask Louisville, the Atlanta Falcons and Arkansas. One thing he is to everybody is a great offensive mind.
Against a Tennessee defense that gave up five touchdowns per game last year, that's disconcerting. The Hilltoppers will be an early test for the Volunteers as their second opponent.
Coming off back-to-back winning seasons, this isn't the same Western Kentucky team that had just joined the FBS in 2009 when the Vols defeated the Toppers 63-7.
While the level of talent certainly favors Tennessee, this game can't be overlooked by the Vols, who will be tempted to do so with a trip to Florida coming up.
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I hear a lot of chatter about how improved Auburn will be in 2013. That's fine, but if you're someone who believes that, you must logically think that Tennessee will be even better.
First, the Tigers' new coach Gus Malzahn has had one successful season with Arkansas State, while the Vols' Butch Jones has six seasons under his belt, five winning records and four conference titles.
Second, Auburn was one of the few SEC teams that was weaker than Tennessee last year. They went 0-8 in the conference and finished 3-9 overall. The Volunteers squeaked one win out in the conference and finished 5-7.
Third, though the Vols' defense was horrific in 2012 allowing a league-worst 470 yards per game, Auburn came in at second-worst with 420 yards per game. In terms of who had the more embarrassing defense, it's a wash.
Suffice it to say, if you're high on Auburn, you have to be higher on Tennessee. The Tigers should be improved over last year, but they still rank below Vandy and Missouri in the power ranking.
In fact, Western Kentucky and Kentucky might have legitimate cases to be head of War Eagle.
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Missouri was overwhelmed during their first year in the SEC. The Tigers finished 2-6 in the conference and 5-7 overall. Of course, one of their two SEC wins was a barn-burner in Knoxville.
In the five years prior to joining the conference, Mizzou won 48 games in the Big 12. At their current rate, they'll win 25 games in their first five years in the SEC. Clearly, they're on a different trajectory than fellow SEC newcomer Texas A&M.
Still, the Tigers have been around the block with head coach Gary Pinkel. He's 90-61 with Missouri, finished 12-2 in 2007 and has won four bowl games. The team has been very good during his 12-year tenure.
But "very good" is just south of average for Tennessee's list of 2013 opponents.
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After a perfect storm in 2012 (Tennessee having a lame duck coach who was already bad to begin with combined with a hot Vanderbilt team with a ton of seniors led by a coach who exudes confidence at all times) led to the most embarrassing loss in years, it's important the 2013 team get the Vols back on their feet with the Commodores.
It's very possible but won't be easy. James Franklin has brought in more talent than Vandy has ever seen in just a few years.
The Volunteers have a much better coach this year who has pumped life into the program. The game is at home in Neyland Stadium. The Commodores graduated 11 of their 22 starters from last year. The perfect storm is over.
But Vanderbilt is officially a test. They're a solid No. 6 in the opponent power ranking.
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I, along with many other fans, was unpleasantly surprised at how good the Gators were in 2012. Remember when College Game Day came to Knoxville to feature No. 23 Tennessee take on No. 18 Florida? It feels like decades ago.
The Vols ended up being way worse and the Gators way better than we all thought.
Florida lost eight players to the NFL Draft, but they will return such stars as Jeff Driskell, DJ Humphries and Dominique Easley.
I recall Nick Saban's 2008 Alabama squad surprising many by coming of age a year earlier than projected. That team went 12-2 and won the national championship the next year.
I'm not prepared to say the 2013 Florida team, who arrived a year earlier than expected with a 11-2 record last year, will follow it up with a season like Alabama's 2009 and win the title. But the Gators will certainly be a top-15 team again.
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The Gamecocks might end up proving me wrong and be better than the fourth ranking on this list of 2013 opponents because of Jadeveon Clowney.
It's not often that one player can mean so much to a team, but Clowney is one of those players. Just take a look at last year's bout with Tennessee in Columbia. True sophomore Antonio Richardson brilliantly held Clowney in check for 70 plays.
The only problem is that the Volunteers ran 71 plays that Saturday. Clowney beat Richardson around the edge late in the fourth quarter and forced a game-ending fumble.
Though South Carolina lost Marcus Lattimore, injuries kept him from being a viable offensive force for the past two years, so his departure won't be felt nearly as much as if he had been healthy.
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The Bulldogs came within a few feet and mere seconds of winning the SEC Championship and earning the right to tear into Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship. It's easy to forget how good some teams are in this conference.
Georgia lost two first-round linebackers, Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree, to April's NFL Draft, along with six other players, so they may not be as strong as the 2012 crew.
However, the 2013 Volunteer offense certainly won't be as potent as last year's group, either, so the loss of such defensive talent for Georgia isn't enough for them to drop lower than the third-toughest team on the schedule.
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The Ducks have been the pioneers of the trendy up tempo, no huddle offense that Butch Jones plans to run at Tennessee once everything is up and running.
There is a reason for that: They're fast. They win with it.
Oregon has been one of the country's most successful teams since Chip Kelly took over in 2009, going 46-7 with four consecutive BCS bowl trips over that time. Of course, Kelly is now with the Philadelphia Eagles, but most of his players remain, as well as his apprentice Mark Helfrich, now the head coach.
Suffice it to say, the Vols will still see a fast, well-conditioned team in Eugene this fall on their first trip ever to the northwest.
Behind Alabama, Oregon might be the most dominant college football team in the nation over the past five years.
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The two-time defending champion Crimson Tide are unquestionably the toughest team on the Vols' 2013 schedule.
With the maturation of key players like AJ McCarron and TJ Yeldon, Alabama might even be better than last year's 13-win team.
The last time Tennessee defeated their arch rivals was in 2006. The streak will likely continue for a couple more years...