SEC slates: Tennessee

With a new coaching staff and a new system in place, Tennessee's football team really needs to open this season with a couple of confidence-building victories.

The 2009 schedule appears likely to provide them. The Vols debut against a Western Kentucky team that is riding an eight-game losing streak and coming off a 2-10 record last fall. The Hilltoppers were no match for the two SEC teams they faced a year ago, losing 41-7 to Alabama and 41-3 to Kentucky. In short, they appear to be the ideal foe for Lane Kiffin's coming-out party.

Game 2 will be a little sterner test. UCLA went 4-8 last season, including a 59-0 loss to Brigham Young. The Bruins stunned Tennessee in the '08 opener at Pasadena, however, starting the Vols on their way to a 5-7 nightmare that cost Phillip Fulmer his job. UT's returning players will be highly motivated to avenge that setback, so the Vols should begin the Kiffin era with a 2-0 record.

Things get interesting at this point, since Game 3 is at Florida. Playing the best team in college football on its home field is never a walk in the park. Given the friction between Urban Meyer and Kiffin, it's a safe bet the Gators will run up the score if they can.

No matter what happens to Tennessee in The Swamp, it should get back on track quickly since Game 4 is at Neyland Stadium against Ohio University. The Bobcats went 4-8 last fall but did play Ohio State off its feet before losing 26-14 in Columbus.

Game 5 might be the key to Tennessee's season. The Vols host an Auburn team that also is coming off a 5-7 record and a coaching staff overhaul. The Big Orange really needs to beat the Tigers because Game 6 (Oct. 10 vs. Georgia) and Game 7 (Oct. 24 at Alabama) do not look promising. Game 8 (Oct. 31 vs. South Carolina) is no gimme, either.

Following four rugged SEC tests in October, Tennessee opens November with a visit from Memphis. Tommy West's Tigers went 6-6 last season before losing to South Florida in the St. Petersburg Bowl. The Vols should win unless they are looking ahead to Game 10 at Ole Miss, which projects to be a top-10 team this season.

Tennessee then closes out the regular season by hosting Vanderbilt and visiting Kentucky. Neither game will be easy but each appears winnable.

All things considered, the Vols' 2009 schedule sets up fairly well. The four non-conference foes went a combined 16-33 last fall, and five of the first six games are at home. With Georgia facing major question marks on offense, a 5-1 start for Tennessee is not beyond the realm of possibility.

The biggest problem with the Vols' slate is their SEC road schedule. They must face three top-20 teams away from home – at Florida, at Alabama and at Ole Miss. Game 12 at Kentucky also projects to be difficult since the Wildcats could be fighting to secure a program-record fourth consecutive bowl bid.

Bottom line: Tennessee's schedule is reasonably favorable. If the Vols can handle Auburn and South Carolina at home, they should go 8-4. If they can knock off Georgia, as well, a 9-3 mark could be in the cards.

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