Tennessee Vols Football: 2012 Schedule Even Tougher Than 2011?

Joel Barker@joelabarkerSenior Writer IDecember 28, 2011

LEXINGTON, KY - NOVEMBER 26:  Derek Dooley the head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers watches the action during the game against the Kentucky Wildcats  at Commonwealth Stadium on November 26, 2011 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

In 2011, Tennessee's schedule ranked as one of the toughest in the nation. The Vols played all three SEC West beasts—LSU, Alabama, and Arkansas—in a five-week span from October 15 to November 12.

As if that wasn't tough enough, Tennessee faced eventual SEC East champ Georgia the week before that stretch and SEC East runners-up South Carolina squarely in the middle.

With the official release of the 2012 SEC schedule just around the corner, one has to figure that next season's schedule could be even tougher than the 2011 version which the Vols finished 5-7. 

For starters, Tennessee's opening non-conference opponent is North Carolina State. The Wolfpack are one of the hottest teams in the country heading into their bowl game and will lose only four starters to graduation on both sides of the ball in 2012. 

While the Vols beat Cincinnati handily in Knoxville this season, N.C. State on a neutral field in 2012 should be a much tougher matchup for the Vols. 

We know Tennessee will face Alabama. The issue of saving the "Third Saturday in October" has reportedly been one of the top priorities for SEC schedule decision-makers. We also know Alabama should be one of the top teams in the country heading into 2012. 

There's no doubt the Vols will face Georgia as well. The rejuvenated Bulldogs team could be yet another preseason top ten team next season. 

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Another SEC East foe, South Carolina will most assuredly be in the national conversation as a top-20 team. 

Florida is also among Tennessee's competition in the east. While Florida has dropped from the national consciousness as one of the best programs in the SEC, Tennessee hasn't defeated the Gators since 2004. 

Newest SEC member, Missouri, will be on Tennessee's schedule as well.

Before all the expansion talk became reality, the Vols were supposed to take on Arkansas and Mississippi State, in addition to Alabama from the SEC West next season. With Missouri coming to the SEC East, Tennessee will play only two SEC West foes next season. 

After bearing the brunt of the big three in 2011, having at least one drop off the 2012 schedule will be some relief.

The biggest relief, however, will be non-conference opportunities against Georgia State, Akron and Troy, amidst yet another tough schedule for the Vols.