Tennessee Football: Ranking the Hardest Games of the 2014 Schedule

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2014

Tennessee Football: Ranking the Hardest Games of the 2014 Schedule

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    The schedule makers who were in charge during years past haven't done the Tennessee Volunteers any recent favors.

    As head coach Butch Jones tries to spearhead this massive rebuilding effort in Knoxville, his first campaign was dotted with land-mine games against the SEC's top programs and a road trip to Oregon during a 5-7 2013 season.

    Unfortunately for Jones and a UT team that got much more talented but a lot younger, a rugged 2014 schedule features many of the same pitfalls. Nine of the Vols' 12 opponents were bowl participants.

    There are really only four games—Arkansas State, Chattanooga, Kentucky and Vanderbilt—that the Vols should definitely win. Even games like the season opener against Utah State and star quarterback Chuckie Keeton are extremely dangerous.

    Many of Tennessee's toughest games, such as Oklahoma, Georgia, Ole Miss and South Carolina, will be away from Neyland Stadium. And even though Tennessee rotates off national title runner-up Auburn, it adds a road tilt against the uber-talented Rebels. 

    Any time you have a list of difficult games that doesn't include the Florida Gators, a team who has beaten UT every year since 2004, you know it's a hard slate.

    Let's rank the five toughest games on the Vols schedule in what is expected to be yet another challenging season on the road to recovery.

5. Nov. 1 at South Carolina

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    Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

    Think Steve Spurrier isn't going to have his Gamecocks ready for this one? After this?

    Yes, that 23-21 upset of South Carolina was Butch Jones' crowning achievement during his first season, and though things went downhill after that game, the win was legitimate. Tennessee simply played the better football game.

    Spurrier won't have Connor Shaw around this year, and that is going to be a major adjustment for a USC team that is used to having him make plays. Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles are also going to be big losses on defense.

    But this is a program that now has three consecutive 11-win seasons. Spurrier has built a program that is recruiting at a high level and performing at an even higher one.

    With this game in Columbia and the revenge factor in play, the Vols are going to have to play another great game to win. Stocky running back Mike Davis could be a matchup nightmare for a UT team that will be searching for the right lineup up front.

    As always, the game against South Carolina comes at the end of a rugged stretch for Tennessee, and how the Vols have grown up throughout the first two-thirds of the season will go a long way in determining the outcome.

4. Oct. 18 at Ole Miss

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    Hugh Freeze has turned around Ole Miss in just a couple of seasons, taking the Rebels to two bowl victories in his first two years.

    Last year, they rode a wave of freshman talent to finish 8-5, a game better than they did during Freeze's inaugural campaign. The Vols and Butch Jones are trying to follow in Freeze's rebuilding footsteps, but they're a season behind them in that process.

    In 2013, Ole Miss stunned the recruiting world by piecing together a class of 29 players that finished ranked fourth by 247Sports. Jones' first full recruiting class in Knoxville was 32 players strong and finished seventh in the same service.

    All that talent will meet in Oxford on Oct. 10, but Ole Miss will probably be the heavy favorites, thanks to being a year further along in the process, a lot more talented on defense and with a senior quarterback in Bo Wallace at the helm.

    As Wallace goes, the Rebs go, so he'll try to develop a lot more consistency in '14. But the talent is in place to challenge Auburn and Alabama in the SEC West.

    It's a matter of Ole Miss putting everything together, and the Vols will get to experience that talented youth movement up close and personal.

3. Sept. 27 at Georgia

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    Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

    Thank goodness for Tennessee (and the rest of the SEC), Aaron Murray is gone to the NFL.

    Unfortunately for all of Georgia's opponents, the Bulldogs return arguably the Heisman Trophy front-runner in running back Todd Gurley, along with backfield mate Keith Marshall, who injured his knee against UT last year and was lost for the season.

    Marshall was far from the only player UGA lost in an injury-riddled 2013 that saw players dropping like flies. Wide receivers Justin Scott-Wesley, Malcolm Mitchell and Michael Bennett all suffered season-ending injuries, and Georgia was never the same offensively.

    Senior Hutson Mason replaced injured Aaron Murray (who also tore an ACL) for the Georgia Tech game and was solid. If he builds on that, the Dawgs are going to be the favorites in the SEC East in 2014—especially if new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt meshes with all the talent UGA returns on defense.

    Tennessee was literally an inch from upsetting Georgia in Neyland Stadium last year, so despite the heartbreak, Jones will have his team believing it can pull it off again this season.

    The Vols get them a bit earlier than usual as they'll open their SEC slate with someone other than the Gators for the first time in years. It's hard to see UT beating a veteran Dawgs squad in Athens, but if it does, it will be the start of the turnaround for Jones' team.

2. Sept. 13 at Oklahoma

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    Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

    For much of last season, Bob Stoops' Oklahoma Sooners sputtered around a subpar Big 12, trying to find its offensive identity and a quarterback.

    Then, they got to the Sugar Bowl, dominated powerful Alabama, 45-31, and—according to Sports Illustrated's Lars Anderson—found its next superstar signal-caller in redshirt freshman Trevor Knight.

    Knight had been middling for much of the season, but his immense abilities were showcased against the Crimson Tide as he moved the pocket and dissected UA's talented secondary. Now, as an encore, the Sooners will be ranked in the preseason top five with Knight at the reins.

    And, of course, the Vols begin a home-and-home series with them in Norman.

    ESPN's Brandon Chatmon notes that Oklahoma returns a bevy of talent in the trenches, and he expects the Sooners defense to be even deeper and strong than it was last season.

    Throw in the fact that Joe Mixon (perhaps the next Adrian Peterson), the 6'2", 195-pound running back with a 5-star rating, per 247Sports, signed with Stoops, and there is plenty to be excited about in Oklahoma.

    Stoops has a history of fumbling away a ton of talent during lapses, and a young UT team heavy on talent and sensing a major opportunity on a national platform will be dangerous.

    But there appears to be too much talent for Tennessee to contend with on the road against one of the nation's top teams.

1. Oct. 25 vs. Alabama

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    Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

    For better or worse, Tennessee fans will always compare the Volunteers to the ultimate litmus test: long-time rival Alabama.

    Despite the sobering fact that these two programs are light years away from one another currently with the consistent, efficient Tide being on top of the college football world and Tennessee in the early stages of rebuilding, this is still a rivalry.

    There is still as much talent on Bama's roster as anybody's in the country. But the simple fact that the Crimson Tide doesn't have a proven quarterback behind departed A.J. McCarron is reason enough to give the Vols hope that UA is vulnerable.

    Even so, Nick Saban is going to have his team playing quality football.

    With the star running back triumvirate of T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake, it's going to be difficult for a UT team replacing six of its front seven on defense to contain.

    There will always be additional pressure on this game because of the hatred that permeates the rivalry, and there have been many years when the records can be thrown out when game time comes around.

    So there is always that element of intrigue surrounding the aura of the game.

    If the Vols beat Bama, it will make their season. So any game that carries that much weight has to be the most important (and, in this case, still the most difficult) contest of the season.