No. 24 UT Tackles Tough Slate

Tennessee has faced tougher schedules than what it tackles this fall, but the climb to the SEC Championship has never been more steep in Phillip Fulmer's 12-year tenure than it is in 2004.

This contention is graphically illustrated in the recently released Sporting News college football issue in which Georgia is picked to win the national crown while defending co-champion LSU is ranked No. 4. The Vols, who have lost four straight to Georgia, plays the Bulldogs in Athens. To reach the SEC Championship showdown in Atlanta where a rematch of the 2001 title tilt with LSU would likely await, No. 24 ranked Tennessee would not only have to get past No. 1 Georgia on the road but it was also have to prevail over No. 12 Florida in Knoxville — something that hasn't happened since 1998.

Tennessee also tangles with No. 19 ranked Auburn in Knoxville. The Tigers, who return the nation's top rated running back in Carnell Williams, beat the Vols last season in Auburn, a loss that cost UT a share of the SEC East title.

A titanic test awaits Tennessee in Columbia, S.C., where No. 31 ranked South Carolina will aim to end an 11-game losing streak to UT. Tennessee had to go to overtime to defeat the Gamecocks in 2003. The Vols also have challenging home games against No. 34 Alabama, which played UT to a virtual five-OT stalemate last season, and No. 49 Notre Dame. That gives UT six of 11 games against top 50 ranked opponents in the Sporting News rankings.

Tennessee also has the difficult task of playing No. 53 ranked Mississippi in Oxford a week after playing No. 1 Georgia in Athens. This will be the first meeting between the Vols and Rebels since former UT offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe took over the Ole Miss helm, following UT's victory over Mississippi State in the 1998 SEC championship contest. Tennessee is running the same offense it was under Cutcliffe, who, in turn, runs a similar offense at Mississippi.

Ultimately, the Volunteers must face Florida, Louisiana Tech (homecoming), Auburn, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina and Notre Dame without a single off week. Tennessee has an off week after the opener against No. 83 UNLV and plays eight straight games before getting its second off week before traveling to No. 80 Vanderbilt and finishing the season at home against No. 73 Kentucky. Before this season Tennessee had been receiving an off week before the Alabama encounter.

The Vols do play seven home dates including the first four games of the season. But they also play four of their next six on the road. Overall, it looks like a slate with three or four losses built in, especially considering a freshman could take the lion's share of UT's snaps. Tennessee finished 8-4 in both 1994 and 2000 when Peyton Manning and Casey Clausen ran the show as true freshmen.

It should be noted that Sporting News tabbed Auburn as the nation's top rated team in 2003. The Tigers lost their first two games of the season and never challenged LSU in the SEC West.

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