Rating UT's toughest foes

Tennessee faces one of the nation's most difficult schedules.

The Vols play six teams that won a bowl game last year, and two others that played in a bowl. Seven teams won at least eight games. Only two teams on the 12-game schedule won fewer than six games.

The strength of schedule was ranked among the 20 toughest in the nation by several publications.

But it's not the toughest schedule in the eight-game conference round robin. Auburn and South Carolina encounter a tougher road.

Auburn plays at LSU, at Georgia, at Arkansas and at Florida.

South Carolina plays at LSU, at Georgia, at Arkansas and at Tennessee.

Tennessee has a more balanced SEC slate. The Vols visit Florida, Mississippi State, Alabama and Kentucky while hosting Georgia, South Carolina, Arkansas and Vanderbilt.

Tennessee doesn't play any back-to-back SEC games against teams that won at least eight games.

But it does open the season against three teams that combined to win 32 games, with two on the road.

By the evening of Sept. 15, the Vols will probably have an idea which direction the season is headed. While it's possible the Vols could start 1-2 and run the table, history suggests such a streak is unlikely.

How would you rate Tennessee's schedule from easiest game to toughest?

Here's a look:

12. Louisiana Lafayette (6-6). The Vols' homecoming game is sandwiched between two tough SEC opponents – South Carolina and Arkansas. But the Ragin' Cajuns aren't used to playing in front of 100,000-plus fans, and only 12 starters return. The Cajuns lost a four-year starter at quarterback but return Tyrell Fenroy, the school's only 1,000-yard rusher. He's done it two consecutive seasons. The Cajuns, picked sixth in the Sun Belt Conference, lost to LSU and Texas A&M by a combined 96-10 last year.

11. Arkansas State (6-6). The Indians return most of the skill players from an offense that averaged just 15.2 points per game. Only four times did they score more than two touchdowns in a game. They lost to Oklahoma State and Auburn by a combined 62-7. They play Texas and UT on the road. Reggie Arnold (1,076 rushing yards) is one of four 1,000-yard backs UT faces this season. The Vols play the Indians the week after facing Florida.

10. Mississippi State (3-9). The Bulldogs are one of two teams on the schedule with a losing record. Sly Croom has won just four SEC games in three seasons, but he got Ron Zook fired at Florida and Mike Shula fired at Alabama. State returns nine starters from one of the SEC's worst offenses (103 in the nation) and five starters from a decent defense (41 in the nation). Croom is usually good for one big upset a year.

9. Vanderbilt (4-8). The Commodores are no longer an easy out, but they aren't good enough to beat good teams in the SEC. Chris Nickson is the type mobile quarterback that can give teams fits. But UT shut him down last year. Receiver Earl Bennett is a terrific talent, but the ‘Dores don't have many offensive threats and the defense is average. The Vols scored a season-high 39 points on Vandy last season.

8. Kentucky (8-5). The Wildcats have one of the SEC's most explosive offenses, led by quarterback Andre Woodson, receivers Keenan Burton and Dickey Lyons Jr. and running back Rafael Little. But a defense that ranked 118th in the nation last year (453.4 yards per game) remains a concern. Kentucky hasn't beaten Tennessee since 1984, the second-longest futility streak in the nation to Navy and Notre Dame.

7. South Carolina (8-5). Steve Spurrier's first Gamecock team won in Knoxville on the night Peyton Manning's number was retired. How ironic, considering Manning couldn't beat Spurrier when the Ol' Ball Coach was at Florida. The Gamecocks should have an improved defense – 10 starters return – but a brutal road schedule will prevent matching last year's eight-win total.

6. Alabama (6-7). Nick Saban was hired to beat Auburn and Tennessee and restore Crimson Tide football to championship form. Tennessee will be the third huge home game for Saban; he faces Arkansas and Georgia in September. The Tide should have a strong offense but the defense doesn't have the personnel to match what Joe Kines did the previous three years. Still, the atmosphere at Bryant-Denny could be electric.

5. Arkansas (10-4). Tennessee had its worst rushing defense in a dozen years last season and the Hogs have been the SEC's best rushing team since Houston Nutt was hired in 1998. Darren McFadden is arguably the nation's best back. Felix Jones rushed for more than 1,000 yards last year. And the offensive line is strong once again. Arkansas will be a tough matchup for UT but by Nov. 10 the Hogs could be out of the SEC race, thus lack incentive. If Arkansas is still in the West race, look out.

4. Southern Miss. No, I don't think USM is better than Arkansas. But the positioning of UT's home opener is dangerous – after Cal and before Florida. The Eagles are favored to win Conference USA. Coach Jeff Bower returns a mobile quarterback and a 1,388-yard rusher in Damion Fletcher. Eight starters return from a defense that held Marshall to seven points. The Golden Eagles weren't competitive against two ranked opponents last year, Florida (34-7) and Virginia Tech (36-6). USM is 4-24 against SEC teams under Bower.

3. Georgia (9-4). The Bulldogs have won three in a row at Neyland Stadium, a feat accomplished by only one other team (Alabama) in the modern era. Mark Richt said the keys have been steady play by his quarterbacks and good breaks. Georgia is stinging from allowing 51 points to UT in Athens last season. But the Bulldogs, who ranked No. 8 in the nation in total defense last year, lost eight starters (both defensive ends and all three linebackers) and don't figure to match up well against Tennessee's offense. Still, Richt has had UT's number in Neyland Stadium.

2. California (10-3). The Golden Bears are still smarting from 35-18 rout (it was 35-0 in the second half) at Neyland Stadium to open last season. While Cal went on to win 10 games and destroy Texas A&M in a bowl game, the UT lose haunted the team. Now, Jeff Tedford can extract revenge. Cal might have the best passing attack the Vols face all season, and UT's secondary is breaking in three new starters. The crowd won't compare to most SEC venues, but the revenge-minded Bears will be tough to beat.

1. Florida (13-1). While I'm convinced Florida will lose three or four games because the Gators return just two defensive starters, they still will be hard to handle in Gainesville. Florida could have one of the nation's best offenses if Tim Tebow is productive at quarterback. UT has won two of the last three games in The Swamp and should be able to move the ball against Florida's young defense. But this will be the first true home test for Urban Meyer's defending national champions, and he'll have them jacked up.

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