The best teams no longer make for the biggest games on Tennessee's schedule. The swing games matter more now.
They ultimately will determine the progress of UT's rebuilding project. And there are enough of them to either wreck the record or make it top-25 material.
You can't expect the Vols to beat SEC East favorites Georgia and South Carolina on the road. You can't expect them to beat Alabama anywhere.
At the other end of the spectrum are the games UT should win: non-conference games against Georgia State, Akron and Troy, as well as SEC games against Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
Four other games fall into uncertain territory: N.C. State, Florida, Mississippi State and Missouri.
If the Vols sweep that foursome, they could have their best season since 2004.
If they lose all four, another seven-loss season is all but assured. So is another coaching search.
I would give UT an edge in all four games, but I doubt the odds-makers would. And it's just that — an edge, not a clear advantage.
N.C. State: The Wolfpack has an established quarterback in Mike Glennon, who is quite capable of capitalizing on whatever breakdowns might occur in UT's new 3-4 alignment. But N.C. State's running game is as questionable as UT's after finishing 109th nationally last season.
The most intriguing match-up will be UT's strength (pass receivers) against N.C. State's strength (a secondary that returns all four starters, including All-American David Amerson).
Another match-up worth noting: UT vs. the Georgia Dome, where the Vols have lost six consecutive games.
Florida: UT's consistent failure against the Gators runs longer than its succession of mishaps in the Georgia Dome.
If the Vols can't put an end to Florida's winning streak (seven and counting) this September, you might as well do an autopsy and declare the rivalry officially dead.
Unlike N.C. State, Florida's offense is unproven in every area. Its defense is solid but not as imposing as it will be when injured end Ronald Powell returns.
The extremists among you might think of this as a must-win game for the Vols.
You're probably right.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs are coming off back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1999-2000. They also will have the cowbell advantage
You know the Bulldogs can make enough noise. You can't be so sure they can produce enough points without departed running back Vick Ballard and without a running threat at quarterback, which has been a standard in Dan Mullen offenses.
UT should be well served by an open date the week before. My advice: Use that extra time to have former Vols address the team on the pitfalls of playing in Starkville, an underrated home-field advantage.
Remember: Even freshman Peyton Manning lost there.
Missouri: The schedule might be the best thing UT has going for it against the Tigers, who, by Nov. 10 in Neyland Stadium, could be traumatized by the SEC experience.
By then, the conference rookie will have played Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Florida. They also will have to play Florida in The Swamp the week before they come to Neyland Stadium.
But Gary Pinkel's spread offense could pose all sorts of problems if quarterback James Franklin is still healthy enough to run and pass as effectively as he did in the Big 12.