A not-so-great slate

A program looking to rebuild its confidence after a 5-6 disappointment should not play two top-10 opponents in the season's first three weeks. But that's the fate awaiting the Tennessee Volunteers, who sandwich California (Sept. 2) and Florida (Sept. 16) around Air Force (Sept. 9) in the early going of 2006.

Losses to both the Golden Bears and the Gators could be a crushing blow for a program as emotionally fragile as Tennessee. The players could begin doubting themselves and the fans could begin questioning the coaching staff.

Fortunately for the Big Orange, all three of the games mentioned above are in Knoxville. So is Game 4 against Marshall (Sept. 23).

Following a Game 5 visit to Memphis (Sept. 30), the Vols are looking at five imposing challenges in a row – at Georgia (Oct. 7), Alabama (Oct. 21), at South Carolina (Oct. 28), LSU (Nov. 4) and at Arkansas (Nov. 11). Arkansas has been nearly unbeatable at home under Houston Nutt, so Tennessee may be hard-pressed to go 2-3 during that five-game stretch.

On a positive note, the open date between Georgia and Bama could prove to be a real blessing. The Vols close at Vanderbilt (Nov. 18) and at home vs. Kentucky (Nov. 25).

The optimist might point out that Tennessee's big games with Florida, Alabama and LSU are at home; the pessimist could reply that the Vols have been a mediocre team on home soil in recent years … going just 18-9 over the past four seasons.

Tennessee's key game, as always seems to be the case, is Florida. If the Vols can win their league opener against the Gators, the momentum could help them contend for the Southeastern Conference title.

Conversely, a loss to Florida would leave the Vols facing a long, uphill climb. They haven't won a conference title since 1998, and the natives are getting restless.

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