At first glance, Butch Jones’ second Tennessee football schedule looks even tougher than his first.
The SEC released its 2014 schedule Wednesday, and, in doing so, unleashed a debate as to which teams got a break and which got the shaft.
The Vols didn’t get either.
Still, a pragmatist could make a case that UT has at least a slightly tougher road to bowl eligibility in 2014 than it does in 2013.
Start with the marquee non-conference game. It’s a wash. The Vols aren’t picked by anyone to get a win at Oregon. They won’t be picked by anyone to get a win at Oklahoma in 2014.
Tennessee should win its other three non-conference games in 2013 and again in 2014. But the ’14 fare, at least on paper, is an upgrade.
Swaping Chattanooga for Austin Peay won’t trip the toughness sensor. Western Kentucky could be a headache this year. Another Sun Belt team, Arkansas State, replaces the Hilltoppers in 2014.
The Red Wolves don’t have Bobby Petrino on the sideline but they were 10-3 last year and are picked to finish higher than Western Kentucky this season.
Now substitute Utah State for South Alabama. There goes the alarm. The Aggies went 11-2 last year, won the final WAC title and will have quarterback Chuckie Keeton as a third-year starter in 2014.
They have also given a severe dose of the puckers to Auburn fans at Jordan-Hare (2011) and Wiscosin fans at Camp Randall (2012) in the past two years.
Moving to the SEC grind, remove a home game against Auburn and replace it with a visit to Ole Miss. Based on the current perception of those two programs, nobody voluntarily makes that trade.
On to the usual suspects that make up the heart of UT’s conference schedule.
This year it’s Florida and Alabama on the road, Georgia and South Carolina at home. In 2014, it’s the opposite.
Beating Alabama here, there or Wembley Stadium is unlikely. End of story.
A home win over Florida is more realistic than a win at The Swamp. However, the real reality is that the Vols haven’t beaten the Gators since 2005 and Florida has won the past three trips to Neyland by an average of 18.3 points.
The game has lost its headliner appeal and was thus pushed back to October for the first time since 1991.
As for Georgia and South Carolina, the Vols will be underdogs this year and likely next. The better upset chance would appear be this year in Knoxville rather than next year in Athens or Columbia.
In ’14 the Vols will finish with Vanderbilt, not Kentucky. James Franklin has given the ’Dores more of a home-field edge. The Vols get Vandy in Knoxville this year but can no longer assume Big Orange fans will take over Vandy’s stadium in 2014 the way they used to do.
Kentucky will improve under new coach Mark Stoops. The Vols will improve more under Jones. Lexington in ’13 or Knoxville in ’14, Tennessee should be favored.
Getting Missouri at home in ’14 is preferable to playing in Columbia this year. There lies the best chance for an improved head-to-head result.
By December, of course, we could have a different view of any number of teams. Tennessee, for one, is very much a work in progress. Key veterans will be leaving after 2013, promising recruits arriving for 2014.
But for now, at first glance — second, too, come to think of it — it looks like the journey revealed Wednesday gets tougher.