Power Ranking Tennessee's 2015 Schedule from Easiest to Toughest

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistJune 23, 2015

Power Ranking Tennessee's 2015 Schedule from Easiest to Toughest

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    We still have to wait more than two months for Tennessee to take the field in what has to be the most highly anticipated football season in more than a decade on Rocky Top.

    A schedule rife with stumbling blocks awaits, but a lot of the toughest games on the Vols' slate will be played in the friendly confines of Neyland Stadium. UT will try to make the venerable old stadium a terror for opponents once again.

    Though the Vols rotate a defensively stingy Ole Miss team off the board, they welcome Arkansas to Knoxville just in time for the Razorbacks to be a trendy dark-horse pick to win the SEC West.

    Oklahoma, Georgia and South Carolina also must travel to Neyland.

    Road games against Florida and Missouri await, as does a trip to Bryant-Denny Stadium to take on the hated rival Alabama Crimson Tide. A Halloween jaunt up the interstate to play Kentucky also could be a trap for a team that must play difficult games before and afterward.

    There are plenty of difficult games ahead, and it's hard rating which ones are going to be the toughest. But there's no fun in abstaining.

    Taking into consideration where (and when) the games are played, what's expected in 2015 of the opponent and how the Vols match up, let's take a shot at ranking UT's opponents on this year's schedule.

12. Western Carolina Catamounts

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    The Catamounts will travel across the Smokey Mountains to take on the Vols, and the Football Championship Subdivision team doesn't figure to pose much of a threat.

    Even after playing Alabama tough for more than a quarter last year, Western Carolina succumbed 48-14 despite eventually enjoying its first winning season since 2005.

    WCU coach Mark Speir told the KNS sports page radio show's Vince Ferrara and John Adams in regard to that 'Bama game:

    You know, I was very impressed with our players. We talked about going down there and just controlling what we can control and play our very best game. And you know, we were the first team to score on Alabama on an opening drive all year. And 10 minutes to go in the second quarter it's a 17-14 ballgame. I was just proud how our players went down there to play.

    Western Carolina quarterback Troy Mitchell has some weapons with receiver Karnorris Benson, running back Spearman Robinson and others, but there simply isn't enough defensive talent or depth to hang with the Vols.

    Though UT shouldn't be on the same talent level as that Crimson Tide team, which was ranked No. 1 at the time of last year's game, the outcome of the game should be about the same. After all, a UT Chattanooga team the Vols handled last year beat WCU 51-0.

    The Catamounts are a rung lower in divisions, and the Southern Conference team will play Tennessee early in the season on Sept. 19. All that bodes well for the Vols.

    UT has too many weapons for this to be a close game.

11. North Texas Mean Green

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    There shouldn't be very much bite in the North Texas Mean Green when they come to Knoxville in mid-November.

    After the Vols run the gauntlet of their schedule and before they travel to Columbia, Missouri, for a huge late-season game, the contest against North Texas will be a welcome respite.

    Last year, North Texas coach Dan McCarney had to replace his quarterback, leading rusher, two leading receivers, starting tight end, six members of his defensive front seven and a free safety from a nine-win season. Predictably, the Mean Green didn't fare well, going 4-8.

    There are still plenty of issues—most notably at quarterback, where UNT returns all three shaky signal-callers from a season ago, led by Andrew McNulty. Josh Greer and Dajon Williams also could see snaps.

    The team is going to be a veteran squad, but how much of that is a good thing considering how bad the Mean Green were a season ago? There are still numerous gaping holes, and they shouldn't have anywhere near the talent that the Vols will possess.

    Much of their all-conference talent from a season ago is long gone too.

    The thoughts of Joshua Dobbs, Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara running through UNT's defense lend this to being a late-season stat-padding game, but offensive inefficiency is really where McCarney's bunch will struggle.

    This game won't be close.

10. Bowling Green Falcons

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    The Bowling Green Falcons are not going to be your every-year season-opening fodder.

    The Vols will eventually handle the MAC team it paid to come to Nashville for a game following UAB's temporary dismantling of its football program. But it may not necessarily be a runaway.

    If it is, that probably won't take place until depth and talent dominate the second half.

    In last year's Camellia Bowl against South Alabama, Bowling Green quarterback James Knapke looked like a rising star, spreading the ball around to Roger Lewis and his other offensive weapons. Knapke then proceeded to go out and lose the starting job to Matt Johnson this spring.

    Johnson is no stranger to success, having led the Falcons to the 2013 MAC championship before a season-ending injury in 2014 thrust Knapke into action. In that game, the Falcons throttled a Northern Illinois team with BCS aspirations, 47-27.

    "Looking at Matt's productivity with the twos and threes compared to the other guys it was pretty clear who was making the other guys better," Bowling Green coach Dino Babers told the Blade (h/t PennLive.com's Eric F. Epler).

    With Johnson at the helm, BGSU's offense will be electrifying, and this is a team that can win its conference. Will that be enough to hang tight with the Vols? Given all of Tennessee's talent and its offensive playmakers, it shouldn't be.

    UT has too much offensive firepower for Babers' Falcons to shut down. But they'll still score some points, and it'll be a close game for a while.

9. Vanderbilt Commodores

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    Bowling Green may wind up being a better football team than Vanderbilt and will almost certainly finish with a better record.

    But for some reason, the Commodores always seem to play their best football against the Vols.

    Even as poorly as VU played last year under first-year head coach Derek Mason and with the postseason on the line for the Vols, UT still managed to only squeak out a 24-17 victory in Nashville.

    In that game, however, quarterback Joshua Dobbs was a one-person runaway train, single-handedly beating the rival Commodores on offense. Running back Jalen Hurd left the game early with an "upper-body injury."

    A tiptoeing interception by Todd Kelly Jr. along the sideline was huge too, and it still took stopping Vandy on UT's side of the field at the end for what would have been a game-tying touchdown drive.

    UT needed a 76-yard punt return for a touchdown by Cameron Sutton and had to (finally) stifle VU quarterback and Vols killer Patton Robinette on the final drive. Two years ago, Robinette (from nearby Maryville High School) ran in a late touchdown to upset UT in Neyland Stadium.

    On paper, Vanderbilt looks like it's in store for a difficult year again, and the Commodores must go to Knoxville.

    But late in the season with probably no bowl to play for, Mason's team is going to be a tough tilt for the Vols.

    The Commodores always are.

8. South Carolina Gamecocks

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    It doesn't seem right to have South Carolina this low—and it may wind up being a huge swing-and-miss—but there's little reason to believe that head coach Steve Spurrier's bunch will have a huge rebound from last year's struggles.

    While new co-defensive coordinator Jon Hoke should help matters in fixing an atrocious defense from a season ago, he isn't a miracle worker. There are still gaps on that side of the ball.

    On top of that, the Gamecocks lost quarterback Dylan Thompson, running back Mike Davis and a slew of wide receivers, tight ends and offensive linemen. There is talent in Columbia, but it's going to essentially be an offensive overhaul.

    The bad news for the Vols is South Carolina returns stud receiver Pharoh Cooper, who had a career night for the ages in last year's 45-42 overtime loss to UT. He had 11 catches for 233 yards. He scored two receiving touchdowns, ran one in and threw for another one.

    Other than the do-it-all Cooper, Carolina has a nice secondary receiver ready to fill a major role in Deebo Samuel, and if Connor Mitch can step in and be a solid quarterback, it may not be a huge drop-off offensively.

    Brandon Wilds returns at running back, and sophomore David Williams proved this spring that he is a dependable weapon with the ball too.

    "There's a big running back competition, and I respect Dave to the utmost," Wilds said this spring, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Andy Johnston. "He reminds me of a great running back. We are coming out here competing every day."

    With all the new parts, there are plenty of questions for Spurrier. But if it all comes together, the Gamecocks probably belong higher on the list. Getting them in Knoxville will help the Vols go for three consecutive wins over their SEC East rival.

7. Kentucky Wildcats

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    Maybe Kentucky won't run out of steam this year.

    Last season, the Wildcats roared to a 5-1 start, with their only loss coming to Florida in a 36-30 overtime defeat in the Swamp.

    After beating Louisiana-Monroe on Oct. 11, however, they dropped their final six games, and only a 20-10 loss to Missouri and a 44-40 setback against rival Louisville were close. The defense completely fell apart.

    Coach Mark Stoops has recruited very well considering the bowl drought UK is currently mired in, and there are some nice pieces around which to build. But the Wildcats have to find defensive answers, especially after Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith left.

    Offensively, returning starting quarterback Patrick Towles has all the tools to be a next-level star, but he isn't even guaranteed the job, as he's locked in a battle with former 4-star Drew Barker.

    Offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson did tell the Cats' Pause recently that Towles had a "leg up" in the competition, according to 247Sports' Jon Hale.

    "He never really had a terrible day," Dawson said. "That was one thing that I will say about him. That's probably the reason why he has a leg up. It's not that Drew (Barker) played bad this spring. There were days where Drew played great, and Drew had a couple days where he had bad days."

    Running back Stanley "Boom" Williams has home run ability, and there are other weapons too.

    Tennessee needs to be on upset alert on Oct. 31 on that trip to Lexington. The game comes a week after the Alabama game (closing out a grueling stretch of Florida, Arkansas, Georgia and the Crimson Tide) and the week before the South Carolina game.

6. Florida Gators

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    Again, this seems low on the list for Florida, a team the Vols haven't beaten since 2004.

    That's a 10-year streak of futility that continued last year, when UT blew a 9-0 lead entering the fourth quarter as the Gators scored 10 unanswered points to win one of the most offensively inept games of the year.

    UT coach Butch Jones told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan that game was the "lowest moment" of his entire coaching career:

    It's like last year, when we laid it out, the South Carolina game was really the culmination of really learning how to win. But I think the changing point was the Florida game, because obviously it was extremely disappointing for all involved. It was probably the lowest moment I've ever had in my career, and I had to put my tie on and go home and have 12 individuals at my house for an official visit.

    But our players, our young football team could have listened to all the clutter and distraction out there, and they didn't listen to any of the noises. I knew if we could cross that hurdle, that would make us a better football team by the end of the season. And you go 4-1, you win a bowl game—a great bowl game, a New Year's Day bowl game, so to speak—and it propels you.

    That Gators team that beat UT last year fired its coach, Will Muschamp. Now, new head coach Jim McElwain has plenty of offensive obstacles to overcome to put a quality product on the field in 2015.

    Led by Vernon Hargreaves III, UF's defense should still be stout, and given that the game is in Gainesville, it certainly won't be easy for the Vols to break the streak. But this is the best opportunity UT has had in a long time.

    The Vols should have the horses to get it done.

5. Missouri Tigers

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    Tennessee has yet to beat Missouri since the Tigers became a member of the SEC.

    Last year, though the Vols were favored late in the season, they had a difficult time blocking Shane Ray and Markus Golden, who controlled the game from the defensive side of the ball. Then, quarterback Maty Mauk made just enough plays to beat UT again.

    This season, UT must travel to Mizzou late in the year to try to see if it can finally get over the hump.

    There are many questions for Missouri coach Gary Pinkel's team, which must find playmakers at receiver and on defense, especially now that stud defensive lineman Harold Brantley apparently won't be available following injuries he suffered in a car wreck.

    The Kansas City Star's Tod Palmer noted that the release by the MU athletic department stated there was no timetable on the team's most experienced lineman's return.

    The bright spots for the Tigers are they return Mauk as well as electric running back Russell Hansbrough, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards a season ago. They also have a strong offensive line returning as well as plenty of veteran leadership in the back seven on defense.

    With new defensive coordinator Barry Odom leaving Memphis to take over for longtime coordinator Dave Steckel, there are question marks. But Odom is thought to be a rising star in the coaching ranks.

    In each of the past two seasons, Mizzou had its share of doubters. Each year, the Tigers represented the SEC East in the conference championship game. So, it wouldn't be wise to count them out.

    There are holes the Tigers need to fill, but given that the game is on the road against a team that will have found some continuity late in the season, this will be a tough matchup for the Vols.

4. Oklahoma Sooners

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    Before everything fell apart last year for Oklahoma, the Sooners dismantled UT 34-10 in a game that could have been closer if not for a couple of backbreaking plays.

    The Vols seem better equipped to handle OU this year as Bob Stoops' team makes the return trip to Knoxville. But the game certainly won't be easy.

    Stoops made wholesale changes on his coaching staff and vowed in a press conference to return the Sooners to competing for national championships. The first leg of that makeover involves new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, who came over from East Carolina.

    Riley is bringing the Air Raid offense back to Norman for the first time since the 2000s, when the Sooners owned the Big 12.

    "We had so much success with it through the years, and just little by little here in the last several years, we kind of slowly drifted away from it," Stoops told the Associated Press' Cliff Brunt (via USA Today). "I had a goal in mind to get back to running that type of system, and I felt we got the absolute best guy to do it."

    The quarterback best suited to run that offense is Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield, who should hold an advantage over Trevor Knight in the race. Behind whoever wins the quarterback derby will be some of the nation's top tailbacks.

    Sophomore Samaje Perine is a monster, coming off a 1,713-yard, 21-touchdown freshman year. The two backups—Alex Ross and Joe Mixon—have top-shelf talent too.

    The defense has major holes to fill, especially with the loss of defensive tackle Jordan Phillips. There isn't a lot of depth at linebacker, and with defensive coordinator Mike Stoops expecting a move back toward a four-man front, there may be some growing pains.

    But still, this is a talented team coming to Knoxville with something to prove.

3. Arkansas Razorbacks

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    Arkansas may be a bit one-dimensional on offense, but that dimension can cripple defenses from the opening drive to the end of the game.

    Running backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams make up the best duo in the country, and they're going to be running behind a huge, talented offensive line that dominated the SEC at times a season ago.

    Sure, the Razorbacks need to generate a little more yardage through the air to keep teams honest, but with senior Brandon Allen returning at quarterback, they've got that ability.

    Allen hasn't been very accurate throughout his career, but all he really needs to do is manage the game.

    "It's fun to go into this senior year knowing you've got a guy that's been battle-tested, he's got some really good players around him, we should have our best offensive line coming back and two 1,000-yard rushers isn't bad, either," coach Bret Bielema told ESPN after the spring game.

    There are defensive question marks, but none of those are as big as the ones the Hogs faced a season ago coming off a 3-9 season, when they went winless in the SEC. Bielema hired a virtual no-name defensive coordinator in Robb Smith, and he turned around the unit.

    Arkansas shut out LSU and Ole Miss and held Texas to 59 net yards in the AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl. The Razorbacks must replace defensive stars in Darius Philon, Trey Flowers, Martrell Spaight and Alan Turner, and those are huge voids.

    But Smith has proved he can mix and match before. If he does it again this year, the Hogs are going to be tough to beat, even in Knoxville.

2. Georgia Bulldogs

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    Tennessee has come painfully close to upsetting the Georgia Bulldogs in each of the past three seasons, but the Vols just can't complete what would be Butch Jones' signature win.

    UGA comes into the 2015 season as the league favorites yet again, riding the muscular shoulders of a generational talent at running back in sophomore Nick Chubb. Backups Keith Marshall, Sony Michel and A.J. Turman are good enough to where the Dawgs may not have to throw it around much.

    That would be good news considering the quarterback situation.

    Brice Ramsey exited spring as the leader to take over Georgia's signal-caller position vacated by steady fifth-year senior Hutson Mason a season ago. The battle got a little more crowded recently when Virginia graduate transfer Greyson Lambert decided to return to his native state to play his final season.

    He confirmed that to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Seth Emerson earlier this month with a simple: "Yes sir. I'm going to Georgia." 

    Neither Ramsey nor Lambert has done anything to strike fear in opponents' hearts, but all they really need to do is trim down mistakes and manage the game, much the way Mason did a year ago and like Brandon Allen does for Arkansas.

    If the winner of the quarterback race can do that, Georgia will be tough.

    Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt returns a stable of pass-rushers that has the potential to be as good as any in the country, and the way Georgia recruits, there is going to be an abundance of talent on that side of the ball.

    Leonard Floyd and Lorenzo Carter have elite potential, and in the second year of Pruitt's 3-4 scheme, UGA should thrive.

    There are issues at quarterback, receiver and at center. Though Georgia must replace some defensive line talent, the Dawgs have a wealth of young talent whom anybody in the country would covet.

    Coach Mark Richt has a ton of able players, and if everything falls into place, Georgia should be representing the East in the SEC Championship Game.

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    It doesn't matter that Alabama must replace its quarterback and all-world receiver Amari Cooper.

    Sure, there are depth concerns at running back behind stud junior Derrick Henry and senior Kenyan Drake.

    Yes, there are question marks when it comes to the pass rush and the secondary.

    But 'Bama is 'Bama, and the Crimson Tide have owned Tennessee in recent years. It makes Vols fans uncomfortable to admit it, but facts are facts.

    The gap seemed to close a bit last year once a shellshocked UT team inserted quarterback Joshua Dobbs into the lineup. He gave the Tide fits, and though it didn't matter on the scoreboard, it was the beginning of things to come, as UT went 4-1 down the stretch.

    This year, Alabama will be prepared for Dobbs, and that will make things a little more difficult for a Tennessee team that finally looks ready to compete again with its longtime nemesis. It has been eight years since UT has toppled the Tide, and though it's a possibility this season, it's going to be tough.

    That's part of the reason why 'Bama occupies the top spot on this list. Until UT gets over the hump of beating it, you have to believe coach Nick Saban's group is the favorite.

    Throw in that the game is in Tuscaloosa and that UA is loaded with years' worth of 5-star prospects, and it's asking a lot to chalk up a win for the Vols.

    It has been a long time since Tennessee fans realistically believed their team had a fighting chance to beat 'Bama, though, so this year is going to be fun. Coach Butch Jones has stockpiled his own bunch of talent in Knoxville, and there is plenty of optimism that the Vols can hang.

    This year's game has all the trappings of a rivalry again if UT can hold up its end of the bargain. The Tide may not compete for a national championship with all the concerns this year, but they've still got enough talent that winning at Bryant-Denny Stadium has to be considered a long shot.

    All observations gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. All statistics gathered from CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information obtained from 247Sports.

    Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.