Power Ranking Tennessee's 2014 Schedule from Easiest to Toughest

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistJune 18, 2014

Power Ranking Tennessee's 2014 Schedule from Easiest to Toughest

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    This has to be the look Butch Jones would like to give former UT athletic director Mike Hamilton for making the schedule for Jones' first two seasons on Rocky Top.
    This has to be the look Butch Jones would like to give former UT athletic director Mike Hamilton for making the schedule for Jones' first two seasons on Rocky Top.Garry Jones/Associated Press

    Tennessee head coach Butch Jones' "brick-by-brick" rebuilding project will hit a brick wall in 2014 in the form of one of the most difficult schedules in college football.

    Whether the Volunteers can power through it and secure a bowl berth will go a long way in determining just how much momentum Jones has a year from now, when his regime will truly begin to be judged.

    This season is about growing up, getting better and making the postseason for the first time in four years.

    From the regular slate of rigorous SEC opponents to an out-of-conference schedule that features Utah State, Arkansas State and Sugar Bowl champion Oklahoma, there are few freebies on this year's docket.

    Here's a breakdown of the minefield that UT must navigate through to make a bowl game, from the easiest game to the hardest.

    The ranking criteria includes where the game is played, how far along a UT team that could play as many as 25 newcomers from a class ranked seventh by 247Sports is in the maturation process as well as how the Vols match up personnel-wise.

12. Oct. 11 vs. Chattanooga

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    That scheduled Football Championship Subdivision cupcake game can sometimes wind up on your face. Just ask Michigan and Kansas State, among others.

    When the Chattanooga Mocs travel to Knoxville to take on the Vols for the first time since 1969, coach Russ Huesman will be taking a team that has playoff—and upset—aspirations.

    UT will pay little brother $450,000 for the game, according to the Associated Press (h/t GoVolsXtra.com), and the Vols could get their money's worth.

    Quarterback Jacob Huesman helms a strong offense, and UTC led the Southern Conference in most defensive categories a season ago, per SoConSports.com.

    Even so, the talent discrepancy should be enough for the Vols to win handily.

    The Mocs haven't put up much of a fight in "money games" recently, losing 40-7 at Nebraska in 2011 and 49-0 at Alabama last season.

    The season's easiest game comes at a perfect time for UT, too, sandwiched between a terror trio of Oklahoma/Georgia/Florida and another one of Ole Miss/Alabama/South Carolina.

11. Sept. 6 vs. Arkansas State

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    Jonesboro, Arkansas, has become college football's training ground for up-and-coming coaches.

    Over the course of the past three years, Hugh Freeze (Ole Miss), Gus Malzahn (Auburn) and Bryan Harsin (Boise State) have left one-year stints at Arkansas State for greener pastures.

    Former North Carolina offensive coordinator Blake Anderson is the latest rising coaching star to take over the Red Wolves. He will bring his hefty offensive resume into Knoxville.

    Even with the revolving door of coaches, ASU hasn't skipped a beat. They're coming off a 23-20 win over Ball State in last year's GoDaddy Bowl.

    Anderson inherits a team that has some offensive weapons but way too many questions in the trenches to hang with an SEC team.

    Tennessee follows up a serious test in its season opener against Utah State with another home game against the Wolves. This one shouldn't be as difficult as the former, though.

10. Nov. 15 vs. Kentucky

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    When a team has won 28 of its last 29 meetings against an opponent, it's difficult not to go ahead and pencil in a win before the season starts.

    That's exactly how the Tennessee-Kentucky football "rivalry" has gone over the past three decades, with the outcomes always being decidedly orange (other than a forgettable 10-7 loss in 2011).

    But UK is experiencing a recruiting resurgence under second-year coach Mark Stoops, and there is more difference-making talent in Lexington than there has been in years. Much like Butch Jones' Vols, that talent is just young.

    Last year's 27-14 UT win in Lexington showed that the Vols are still ahead of the Wildcats in the rebuilding process. With both teams having so many new faces in 2014, it'll be interesting to see if that dominance continues.

    With all the other juggernauts on the schedule, however, UK doesn't look too bad by comparisonespecially in Knoxville.

9. Nov. 29 at Vanderbilt

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    Tennessee owes Vanderbilt some payback.

    The once-lowly Commodores have beaten the Vols in two consecutive seasons, including a stunning 14-10 win in 2013 when miscues, an overturned ball spot and a late touchdown knocked UT out of bowl contention.

    That game-clinching touchdown was scored by Patton Robinette, a quarterback from nearby Maryville who never got a Tennessee scholarship offer. That made matters more difficult to digest.

    In the offseason, UT nemesis James Franklin bolted Vandy to become the head coach at Penn State, and former Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason took over a VU team that still has some talent stockpiled.

    Though the 'Dores no longer have All-SEC wide receiver Jordan Matthews and star defenders like Kenny Ladler, they'll still be strong along the defensive front seven, anchored by stalwarts like outside linebacker/defensive end Caleb Azubike.

    Azubike hasn't been shy about his feelings toward UT (which also shunned the Nashville-area product in the recruiting process), either, telling the Vols on Twitter to "have fun at home this Christmas" after last year's win.

    This looks like a year where UT can reassert its superiority over its in-state foe, but it certainly won't be easy.

8. Aug. 31 vs. Utah State

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    Tennessee's season opener is simply scary.

    Utah State travels to Neyland Stadium for a Sunday night showdown on the new SEC Network, and the Aggies will bring with them a star quarterback who has garnered considerable Heisman Trophy-buzz.

    Though Chuckie Keeton is coming off a severe knee injury in 2013, he is a dual-threat weapon who is exactly the kind of quarterback who has given the Vols fits recently.

    The national spotlight will be focused squarely on how he performs in a marquee matchup, especially considering there's already a Twitter account, school-sanctioned website and media attention surrounding his Heisman hopes.

    Keeton will be a handful for UT, but he isn't the only Aggie heading to Knoxville. USU returns five starters from a unit that led the Mountain West Conference in scoring defense by more than seven points last season, allowing just 17.1 points per game, per the official site of the MWC.

    This isn't the normal pushover to get UT's youngsters acclimated to the college game; this will be a major early test.

7. Nov. 11 vs. Missouri

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    Last year, Missouri dominated Tennessee in the midst of its march toward the SEC championship game, controlling every facet of the game.

    Though many of the Tigers' stars from that 31-3 win are now gone, the man who orchestrated the victory with 277 total yards and three touchdowns—sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk—returns.

    Like Chuckie Keeton, Mauk can beat teams with his legs or his arm; therefore, he'll force an extremely young UT defense to be disciplined in its rush lanes. That's something the Vols failed to do last year.

    The Tigers must find ways to replace stars like quarterback James Franklin, running back Henry Josey, right tackle Justin Britt and receivers Dorial Green-Beckham, L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas.

    But they return three starting offensive linemen and two of their top three rushers, so Mauk will have plenty of help.

    Defensively, the team's two defensive stars from last season, Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, have moved on to the NFL. But Markus Golden and Shane Ray are stars-in-the-making who were productive backups last season and should be star starters in 2014.

    "I think Markus has a chance to be just as good, if not better, than Michael if he can continue to push himself and work every day like Michael did to turn himself into the player he became," Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel told MUTigers.com.

    All the Tigers' defections should make this game much closer than last season's. 

6. Oct. 4 vs. Florida

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    The annual Tennessee-Florida rivalry is much the same as UT-Kentucky; it's just lopsided in the other direction.

    The Gators have beaten the Vols nine consecutive times, and they'll travel to Knoxville this year for a pivotal game for both programs.

    UF coach Will Muschamp is firmly on the hot seat, and both burners will be turned up if he loses this matchup. For the Vols, many fans are circling this game as a potential win that could be monumental for Butch Jones' tenure.

    Even with quarterback Jeff Driskel and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper trying to turn UF's offensive fortunes around, the Gators don't strike the same fear into the eyes of opponents as in years past—especially not after posting a 4-8 record in 2013.

    But there is still a ton of talent in Gainesville, especially on a defense that features Dante Fowler, Vernon Hargreaves III, Jalen Tabor and others.

    This year's game is massive for UT's bowl hopes, and an early victory could not only springboard that hope, but it would also send fans who are hungry for a win over a major rival into a frenzy.

5. Nov. 1 at South Carolina

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    Butch Jones got his signature win against South Carolina in Neyland Stadium last year, as the Vols parlayed a miracle catch by Marquez North and a last-second field goal by Michael Palardy into a stunning victory.

    Duplicating that in Columbia is going to be a tall task.

    The Gamecocks could have one of the best offensive lines in the conference this seasonthe best, according to ESPN's Chris Lowand they have workhorse Mike Davis to run behind it. 

    Given UT's concerns with youth and inexperience on the defensive line, that's a terrible matchup.

    Steve Spurrier lost his heart and soul in quarterback Connor Shaw, but if Dylan Thompson can stretch the field and get the passing game working downfield, the Gamecocks are going to be hard to handle.

    The Vols always play Carolina tough, though, much like Georgia. By the time they roll around on the schedule, UT is going to know what it can expect from itself and its opponents.

    The Gamecocks will want payback, but it won't be so easy to take.

4. Oct. 18 at Ole Miss

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    Rotating Gus Malzahn's loaded Auburn team off the schedule is never a bad thing. Unfortunately for the Vols, they replaced the Tigers with an extremely talented Ole Miss team that is coming of age.

    And they get to play them in Oxford.

    The fruits of two strong recruiting classes from Hugh Freeze will be on full display, especially on defense. Robert and Denzel Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Cody Prewitt and others roam the expanses between opposing offenses and the goal line.

    The Rebels are a sleeper pick to win the SEC West, but even if Alabama and Auburn are too tough for them to overcome, they look good enough to handle a young Tennessee team.

    Getting off to a quick start will be essential to UT's hopes for an upset. If Bo Wallace is inconsistent and turns the ball over, the Vols will have a chance.

    This one looks like a matchup nightmare for the Vols on paper.

3. Sept. 27 at Georgia

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    There is little doubt that Georgia has enough weapons to represent the SEC East in the conference championship game.

    It's just a matter of whether or not the Bulldogs can navigate a brutal schedule that includes a road trip to division rival South Carolina and a game against SEC West beast Auburn.

    As for the game in Athens against the Vols, UGA should catch Tennessee at an ideal time. The Vols will have just played Oklahoma, and even though the youngsters will already be battle-tested, getting the talented Dawgs as their first league foe isn't an easy draw.

    B/R's Barrett Sallee believes Hutson Mason has the experience and weapons to win a national title at UGA, but a lot of things must fall into place.

    Coach Mark Richt's team must stay healthy, something it couldn't do last year. Todd Gurley has to have the kind of world-class season experts expect from him. And new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has to take Todd Grantham's players and mold them into a championship-caliber unit.

    The Vols seemingly always play Georgia close, losing by single scores in each of the past two seasons. But they'll have to play one of their best games of the season to hang tight this year.

2. Oct. 25 vs. Alabama

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    Since Nick Saban came to Tuscaloosa seven seasons ago, the Vols have not beaten the Crimson Tide.

    It's hard to envision them doing it this year, either.

    UA simply has too much talent, too much depth and too many playmakers. No matter how good Tennessee's group of freshmen look, it's going to be tough lining up across from A'Shawn Robinson, throwing passes on Landon Collins or plugging Derrick Henry or T.J. Yeldon in the hole for a loss.

    Tennessee may have an advantage with its receivers lining up against Bama's young and untested secondary, but talent like that of UA finds a way to improve as the season goes along. By late October, they'll be strong.

    Given UT's inexperience along the defensive line, Alabama's wave of NFL running backs will be nearly impossible to defend.

    The Vols need to close the gap from the whippings they've taken to their rival recently, but making that monumental step and actually beating 'Bama seems far-fetched right now.

    UT does get the Tide at home and after it has battled some tough opponents, so that will help.

    But playing a team with this much talent is always going to be a big test.

1. Sept. 13 at Oklahoma

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    For the second season in a row, the Vols will travel to an out-of-conference powerhouse for a marquee game without possessing marquee talent.

    This time, UT has to go to Norman to take on the Oklahoma Sooners a year removed from getting embarrassed at Eugene by Oregon.

    Thanks, former athletic director Mike Hamilton.

    He probably didn't get a Christmas card from the Jones family.

    Sooners quarterback Trevor Knight became a star in a Sugar Bowl thumping of Alabama last year, wrote CNNSI.com's Lars Anderson, and if he builds on that perfect game, he will be impossible for a green Vols defense to contain.

    OU has one of the most dynamic freshmen in the nation in running back Joe Mixon along with most of its heavy lifters back on defense, and it's playing at home.

    Tennessee may improve and eventually get a huge win this year, but beating Oklahoma this early in the year in Norman would be one of college football's biggest upsets of the season.

    All box scores courtesy of ESPN.com, unless otherwise noted. Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter here: @Brad_Shepard