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Does the 2015 Schedule Favor the Vols?

Josh Dobbs-1

In case you haven’t heard, the hype machine for the 2015 Tennessee Volunteers has done nothing but put on steam since that January 2nd curb-stomping the Vols put on Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl. That destruction of a mediocre Hawkeyes team is being touted as the watershed moment for Tennessee’s football program turning the corner and finding its identity under now third-year head coach Butch Jones. That win also vaulted the Vols into the minds of national college football experts and opinion-makers as a team that could shake up the SEC during the 2015 season.

Every time it appears as if some national “expert” is going to offer a bit of levity on how and/or why the Vols are too young, too inexperienced, over-hyped or simply not good enough, all they do is dump a big ole bucket of gasoline onto the current forrest fire that is the 2015 Tennessee football hype.

The Greg McElroys, Marcus Spears, Booger McFarlands and Kirk Hirbstreits of the world are buying Big Orange stock faster than Billy-Ray Valentine and Louis Winthorpe III in the final scene of Trading Places.

And while the Vols are clearly going to be more talented, more experienced and more familiar with the schemes in 2015 than they were a year ago, it’s not necessarily always about how a team plays, but also who they play and when they play them.

In this article I wanted to look at Tennessee’s 12 regular season opponents as it pertains to when they play the Vols, where they play the Vols, and who they’ll have played leading up to their game against the Vols. I wanted to see if the schedule, although difficult, may actually favor Tennessee more than most are anticipating.

This isn’t a game-by-game prediction for the season, just a look at some of the things that people fail to calculate in when making their preseason or in-season predictions.

Bowling Green: Saturday, September 5th at 3:00 p.m. Nissan Stadium. Nashville, TN.
This will obviously be game one of the season for each team with no advantage given to either team outside of Tennessee’s distinguished talent edge and the fact that Vol fans will likely take over Nashville for a bit of a home-field feel.

Oklahoma: Saturday, September 12th at 6:00 p.m. Neyland Stadium. Knoxville, TN.
The Sooners will travel to Knoxville after a compelling game against the Akron Zips. Akron was 5-7 on 2014, including a 27-10 loss to the same Bowling Green team that the Vols will play in week one. Needless to say, they aren’t likely to give Oklahoma much of a fight, so we’ll call this one another push based on previous opponent, but with the Vols getting a nice advantage due to a true home-field environment and the fact that it’s the home opener. Add in the fact that it’s a night game (or, at least it will be by the time the second half starts) and you’ve got a nice setup for the Vols to make life difficult for Bob Stoops and the boys from Norman.

Western Carolina: Saturday, September 19th at 7:00 p.m. Neyland Stadium. Knoxville, TN.
The Vols may be a little battered and bruised following what is sure to be a physical contest against OU, but they’ll get just what the doctor ordered when Western Carolina comes to town. The Vols will likely be in a position to rest the starters and get young guys some playing time before the first half ends in this one.

Florida: Saturday, September 26th. Time: TBA. Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Gainesville, Florida.
This is where things start to get interesting when weighing previous opponents. Florida will be coming off of their first road game and first SEC contest under first-year head coach Jim McElwain as they travel to Lexington to face Kentucky in a 7:30 p.m. game on the SEC Network. Most Vol fans will remember Kentucky as the team that got absolutely throttled by Tennessee (50-16) in Neyland last year. However, that same team took Florida to three overtimes in The Swamp before losing 36-30 thanks to a missed delay-of-game penalty in the first overtime period that allowed Florida to score a touchdown and extend the game.

What happens if Kentucky is able to get revenge in Commonwealth Stadium? Where will this Florida team’s psyche be if Kentucky ends the 28-game losing streak against the Gators? All of these are hypothetical questions, obviously, but the odds of beating Florida go way up for Tennessee if the Gators are coming off of a demoralizing loss to Kentucky. Home-field advantage goes to the Gators in this one, but the in-stadium atmosphere could take a huge hit if the home team sits at 2-1.

Also worth noting, Tennessee basically gets two weeks to prepare for Florida this year thanks to that Western Carolina game, whereas Florida – coming off of a conference game – will only have the one. The advantage in that regard is hard to quantify, but certainly favors the Vols.

Arkansas: Saturday, October 3rd. Time: TBA. Neyland Stadium. Knoxville, Tennessee.
This game should come out roughly even for each team regarding previous opponents, with Tennessee coming off of games against Western Carolina and  at Florida, and Arkansas coming off of games against Texas Tech (who they beat 49-28 on the road last season) and a neutral-site game against Texas A&M in Cowboys Stadium in Arlington Texas.

I think most SEC experts would agree that Texas A&M should be better than Florida in 2015, so perhaps a slight edge to the Vols there. Couple that with Arkansas having to travel to Knoxville for their first true road game of 2015, and the Vols appear to be catching Arkansas in a pretty good spot considering the relative youth of the 2015 season.

Again, advantage to the Vols for getting this game at home, but no crazy scheduling advantage this early in the season.

Georgia: Saturday, October 10th. Time: TBA. Neyland Stadium. Knoxville, Tennessee.
The Vols coming off of a physical, old-school punching match against Arkansas has to be seen as a slight disadvantage heading into their game against Georgia. The Bulldogs, however, will be coming off of a home game against Alabama. This will be the first time that Georgia and Alabama will play each other in the regular season since 2008.

Last season, Georgia defeated the Vols 35-32 in Athens after crushing Troy 66-0 Between the Hedges the week before. The Bulldogs aren’t likely to be afforded the luxury of resting starters and getting in an extra week of game planning for the Vols in 2015 with a big game against Alabama coming only a week prior. Throw in the fact that UGA has to travel to Neyland Stadium for this game and you have the makings of streak-ending opportunity for Tennessee against the team that the SEC media predicted to win the East heading into the season.

Alabama: Saturday, October 24th. Time: TBA. Bryant-Denny Stadium. Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Ok, here’s the big one. This game is basically the entire reason for this article, because for the first time in a long time the Vols are coming into their game against the Tide with a serious scheduling advantage.

Remember earlier when I mentioned Tennessee’s throttling of Kentucky last season? That Kentucky team was playing in their eighth-straight game at that point in the year and the Vols were coming out of their bye week. Kentucky was coming out of three straight SEC games against LSU, Mississippi State and Missouri – all losses – and was, by most accounts, a worn down football team that was fading fast after a 5-1 start to the season.

This year’s Alabama team will be coming out of a much similar stretch of games when they welcome the Vols to Tuscaloosa on the fourth(?) Saturday in October, and the Vols will, once again be coming into an SEC game off of a week’s rest.

In the three consecutive weeks leading up to their game against Tennessee, the Crimson Tide will face Georgia in Athens, Arkansas in Tuscaloosa, and Texas A&M in College station. Alabama’s schedule in 2015 has been labeled by some services as the toughest in the country, and no stretch appears more difficult than the four-game stretch that concludes the with their game against Vols.

I’m not suggesting that this Tennessee team is ready to beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa. But I am suggesting that there is no better slot for this game to fall on the schedule than where it did for Tennessee.

Kentucky: Saturday, October 31st. Time: TBA. Commonwealth Stadium. Lexington Kentucky.
This game is an interesting one to me. Tennessee will have played a physical Alabama team the week before on the road, only to turn around and travel to Lexington the week after.

Kentucky, not exactly having an easy road themselves, will be coming off of back-to-back games against Auburn and at Mississippi State.

Listen, Kentucky’s not great, but they are improving slowly under Mark Stoops. The game falling on Halloween makes it slightly more intriguing, but let’s be real here. Tennessee will have no business losing this game, regardless of when/where it’s played.

South Carolina: Saturday, November 7th. Time: TBA. Neyland Stadium. Knoxville, Tennessee.
If you’re a Vol fan, then this game should scare you – at least a little bit. Not because South Carolina is going to be some juggernaut at this stage of the 2015 season, but because Steve Spurrier is hard to beat three years in a row.

The Vols should be coming off of a cruise-control win in Lexington, but South Carolina’s prior game is a bit more unpredictable. The Gamecocks got destroyed in last year’s home-opener against Texas A&M (52-28), and this year they’ll travel to College Station for their attempt at revenge before heading to Knoxville to face the Vols.

A&M is perhaps the most unpredictable team in the league for 2015, having the ability to finish anywhere between 1st and 7th in the Western division. And while Kentucky should provide the Vols with little trouble, the Gamecocks will likely have to put in a full 12 rounds against A&M. Spurrier in Neyland isn’t a comforting thought for Tennessee fans, but recent history is on the Vols’ side.

North Texas: Saturday, November 14th. Time: TBA. Neyland Stadium. Knoxville, Tennessee.
No disrespect to the North Texas Mean Green, their fans, or historic football program, but it shouldn’t matter if this was their first game of the season and Tennessee’s twentieth. The Vols have no business losing this game.

Missouri: Saturday, November 21st. Time: TBA. Faurot Field. Columbia, Missouri.
The Vols should, essentially, be coming off of a bye week for this contest against Missouri. My hunch is that some of the preparation-work during “North Texas Week” will actually feature some plans for Missouri as the Vols try to beat the Tigers for the first time since they joined the SEC.

That extra prep should help, and so should the fact that Missouri will have hosted Mississippi State and then traveled to Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City to play BYU in the two games prior to this one.

Vanderbilt: Saturday, November 28th. Time: TBA. Neyland Stadium. Knoxville, TN.
Tennessee will be Vanderbilt’s seventh straight game to close the season, with games at South Carolina, at Florida and against Texas A&M in Nashville falling in that stretch for the Commodores.

Tennessee’s previous game in Missouri will likely be a tough one based on the last three meetings, but the Vols will catch a presumably bad Vanderbilt team at the tail-end of their toughest stretch of the season. Much like the game against Kentucky on Halloween, the Vols should have no trouble dispatching this divisional foe.

Summation:

The most interesting thing about Tennessee’s 2015 schedule is that they do not face a single team that will be coming out of a bye-week (I don’t remember the last time that happened). They’ll also get their bye-week before playing  at Alabama, which will be Alabama’s eighth-straight game and fifth SEC opponent in a row. In fact, Alabama wiill face LSU, Tennessee and Texas A&M on the week following each team’s bye.

Tennessee will play eight games in the state of Tennessee and play seven SEC games against teams coming out of league games the week before. Six of those SEC teams (Ark, UGA, Bama, UK, USC and Vandy) will be coming off of games against the SEC West (the “stronger” division), and four of those six (Ark, Alabama, USC and Vandy) will be coming off of games against Texas A&M.

Tennessee will play four SEC teams (Ark, UGA, Bama, Vandy) who are playing in at least their their fifth straight game – either to start the season or after their bye-week – and the Vols will play no more than three consecutive SEC games without a bye-week or a ‘weak’ opponent to break up the schedule.

That’s a lot of words to say that the Vols will receive a bit of help from the schedule at various times throughout the upcoming season. I don’t know that anyone could look at Tennessee’s schedule and necessarily call it “favorable,” but the Vols certainly received a better draw than many of their SEC brethren in 2015.

And the hype-machine rolls on.

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