Breaking down Tennessee’s 2016 football schedule

Tennessee may have a chance to knock on the door of the College Football Playoff in 2016. First, the Vols will have to get through a difficult SEC schedule.

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 01, 2016 linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin #21 of the Tennessee Volunteers during the Outback Bowl between the Tennessee Volunteers and the Northwestern Wildcats at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL. Photo By Craig Bisacre/Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee enters the 2016 season with heavy expectations and a schedule that looks to favorably affect its quest to live up to those expectations. The gauntlet that is the SEC does not give many breaks, but Tennessee got relatively lucky with its draw. The non-conference slate is as easy as it has been in years, and the Vols’ two toughest conference games are at home.

Tennessee’s season likely will hinge on how it comes out of the stretch that begins with Florida and ends with Alabama. If UT can escape with at least a 3-1 record over the course of those four games, the Vols could find themselves in the hunt for one of the four coveted College Football Playoff spots. However, the SEC is always a challenge. The Vols cannot afford to overlook anyone if they want to reclaim their rightful place among college football’s heavyweights.

Here is a look at Tennessee’s 2016 football schedule.

Week 1: Appalachian State

Appalachian State travels from Boone, North Carolina to Knoxville to open the season against the Vols. Given the Mountaineers’ history and the surprisingly talented roster it currently boasts, this is a team that should not be overlooked. The Mountaineers, coming off an 11-2 season, return a dynamic backfield led by quarterback Taylor Lamb and tailback Marcus Cox. It is worth noting, however, that one of their two losses last season was a 41-10 drubbing in Death Valley at the hands of Clemson.

Week 2: Virginia Tech — Bristol Motor Speedway

The Volunteers meet the Hokies in a highly-anticipated bout that will take place at Bristol Motor Speedway, and will likely take its place as the most highly-attended college football game of all time. This Virginia Tech team seems to be a far cry from the powerhouse that former coach Frank Beamer built over the last couple of decades, and also looks to be entering a rebuilding phase under new coach Justin Fuente. Fuente retained legendary defensive coordinator Bud Foster, and will be well prepared for the Vols on that side of the ball. The big questions are on the offensive side. It is hard to believe that the Hokies have the firepower to keep up with Tennessee.

Week 3: Ohio

The Ohio Bobcats are coming off an 8-5 season, but have almost no hope of hanging with the Volunteers when these two teams face off in Neyland Stadium. The Bobcats are not expected to get very much production from their skill positions on offense and simply do not have the athleticism on defense to stop the Vols from scoring.

Week 4: Florida

An eleven-year streak is on the line for the Gators as they march into Neyland Stadium, attempting to break the hearts of Tennessee fans for a 12th-straight year. Like many of the best teams on the Volunteers’ schedule, the Gators have questions surrounding the quarterback position. Tennessee was close to ending the streak last fall, but gave up a two-touchdown fourth quarter lead in the Swamp. That comeback by Florida was the game that kept the Vols from winning the SEC East and playing Alabama in Atlanta for the conference title. Home-field advantage could be the difference in this one. Neyland Stadium will be rocking in the biggest game of the season to that point. This game will probably determine how the season comes together for Tennessee. It could be the boost that propels the Vols to a division title for the first time since 2007, or it could be the game that sends them back to a similar record to last year and stagnates their improvement.

Week 5: at Georgia

One of the most enigmatic teams in the country, the Georgia Bulldogs host Tennessee in what could be an early-season SEC East championship game. The ‘Dawgs have question marks all over the field, but talent is not one of them. One question for Kirby Smart’s team are probably if running back, and potential Heisman finalist, Nick Chubb can return to form following a devastating knee injury. Additionally, there is the question of who will start at quarterback for the Bulldogs. Talent will keep Georgia in the hunt, but without its workhorse in the backfield and consistent production from whoever starts under center, it’s hard to see the Bulldogs being a legitimate contender in Smart’s first season on the sidelines.

Week 6: at Texas A&M

The Volunteers’ most challenging stretch of the season continues when they travel to College Station to take on the always-dangerous Aggies. Newly-named starting quarterback, Trevor Knight, won his only start against the Volunteers during his time playing for the Oklahoma Sooners. The Vols could be in for a shootout in Texas. A&M has shown an ability over the years to hang points on the scoreboard on just about anyone in the country. As good as they have been at putting points on the scoreboard, the Aggies have been equally as bad at keeping points off of it. Former Tennessee and LSU defensive coordinator, John Chavis, is hoping to change that in his second year leading the Aggie defense.

Week 7: Alabama

Tennessee hosts defending national champions, Alabama, in a game that is always circled on fans’ calendars. Back in its rightful place on the third Saturday in October, this game very well could be a preview of the conference title game in Atlanta. A lot of that hinges on what the Tide can get out of their quarterback, and how well the new starters buy in. Talent is never a question for Nick Saban’s crew, no matter how many players declare early for the NFL Draft. The Volunteers will try to break another losing streak that has been ongoing since the Phillip Fulmer era, and another one that has been hard on the ego of Vol fans everywhere. This game should be an entertaining battle between two of the most talented football teams in the country. This is one game where the Vols probably won’t be the betting favorite, which is something that may not happen the rest of the season.

Week 8: Bye

Week 9: at South Carolina

Following their bye week, the Vols hit the easier part of the schedule, which kicks off with a South Carolina team trying to build for the future under former Florida coach Will Muschamp. The conference’s closest series over the last several seasons, by average margin of victory, should not follow the recent trend. Even though no road game in the SEC should be seen as an easy out, it’s hard to imagine the Vols struggling against a Gamecocks team that probably will be fighting to make it to a .500 record at best.

Week 10: Tennessee Tech

This game serves as nothing more than an opportunity for the Vols to get rest for their key players as they prepare for the stretch run, acting as almost a second bye week. The Golden Eagles are an FCS team breaking in a new coach, following a calamitous 4-7 record and a sixth-place finish in the Ohio Valley Conference. What else is there to say about this one?

Week 11: Kentucky

Kentucky seems to get better every year, but still manages to go 5-7. There is no reason to think that the Wildcats will buck that trend, and by the time this game rolls around, Big Blue Nation will be fully enthralled in basketball madness. Tennessee will not be short on motivation in front of the Neyland Stadium faithful. The Vols may very well be nearing the end of a race for a division title.

Week 12: Missouri

Senior day in Knoxville will welcome the Missouri Tigers, winner of the SEC East in two of the last three years. The Tigers’ defense will probably be their calling card once again this year, but offensive struggles will probably force them to fight just to make it to the postseason. The game will not be pretty. What Mizzou game has since it joined the SEC? The Tigers give themselves a chance in just about every game by makingit an ugly, defensive battle for sixty minutes.

Week 13: at Vanderbilt

After having decent success under James Franklin, the Commodores appear to have fallen back to their place as conference doormat. This is a Vanderbilt team, however, that can be very dangerous if it finds any sort of production from the quarterback and wide receiver positions. Even if that’s not the case, the Commodores always tend to treat the game against their in-state rivals as their bowl game.

Featured image by Craig Bisacre, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

Edited by Cody McClure

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Freshman studying Journalism and Electronic Media at UTK. Has appeared on several radio broadcasts, and even put out a podcast episode of his own once upon a time. Somehow is not clinically depressed, despite being a lifelong die hard Clippers and Volunteers fan.