Tennessee won't win a bowl game this week. And there's no hint of a five-star running back suddenly becoming infatuated with the Vols.
But the last week of December is still a huge upgrade over the last week of November. You don't have to look hard at the SEC's newly released 2012 football schedule to appreciate that.
LSU is off UT's schedule and nightmare list. Arkansas is gone, too — a welcome victim of conference expansion in Tennessee's case.
Mississippi State will take LSU's place in the non-divisional rotation. So what if UT has to play the Bulldogs on their home field. That's better than having to play LSU anywhere.
Missouri will make its first trip to Neyland Stadium as a new member of the SEC. Better Missouri than Arkansas, which, if not for expansion, would have been back on UT's schedule.
The most obvious benefit of the schedule: fewer sure losses.
When you looked ahead to the 2011 season, there was no reason to believe that even under the most bizarre circumstances UT could beat Alabama, Arkansas or LSU. Those games played out just as expected: Opponents 124, Vols 20.
Contrast that with the new schedule. Only Alabama looms as a certain defeat. If you asked "What about Georgia," you haven't been paying attention.
The Bulldogs have all the makings of a top-10 team with plenty of prominent players returning and another accommodating schedule, which won't include Alabama, LSU or Arkansas from the West. But despite their back-to-back victories over the Vols, the Bulldogs have had too many recent mishaps in the series to assume they won't play their worst game of the season against Tennessee.
And the Vols at their best could beat the Bulldogs at their worst.
Another favorable aspect of UT's next conference schedule: the October workload has been reduced considerably. Moving Georgia to the last week of September is a plus. So is the Oct. 6 open date, which will give the Vols a week off before they take on Mississippi State, Alabama and South Carolina in succession.
If you go through the conference schedule one Saturday at a time, you can find more subtle advantages for Tennessee.
The week before it opens the conference season against Florida, it will play Georgia State. Florida will play at Texas A&M the week before it plays at Neyland Stadium.
The week before Georgia, UT will play Akron. The week before UT, Georgia will play Vanderbilt.
The Vols will have two weeks to prepare for Mississippi State, which will play at Kentucky the Saturday before it plays UT.
Alabama will play at Missouri before playing at Neyland Stadium. South Carolina will play back-to-back road games against LSU and Florida before playing UT at Williams-Brice Stadium. Missouri will play at Florida the Saturday before coming to Knoxville. UT will warm up for Missouri with a home game against Troy.
No SEC schedule is easy, especially for a UT program that is 11-21 in the conference the last four seasons. But this schedule is at least easier than the ones that have helped turn its program topsy-turvy.
The Vols haven't won more than seven games since 2007. This schedule will give them a chance to do just that.