Scheduling is the single most scrutinized topic during any offseason. Fans look rivals’ teams and claim they are playing an easy schedule: “They play cupcakes, where is their strength of schedule?”
Meanwhile, most teams start thinking three, four, five or more years down the road to begin figuring out what programs would make good opponents to building a schedule worthy of a College Football Playoff shot.
In the SEC, this usually means one big nonconference game to start the season, then a slate full of cupcakes to counteract the “grueling” SEC schedule. First-year Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt needs to seriously consider bucking that trend to legitimize the Vols moving forward, and here are five teams that he could add to the schedule to accomplish that feat.
The Tigers have enjoyed an impressive run under Dabo Swinney. Clemson has won a national championship and appeared in the last three College Football Playoffs. Beating this team, or even playing the Tigers in a close loss, would begin to establish the Vols’ elite status once again. Not to mention that Tennessee would get to face off against a fair number of Knoxville area kids who left to play for contenders instead of their hometown team.
Imagine the power this would have in recruiting. For the last several years, the only school in orange and white pulling the best kids from Knoxville has been the Tigers. If Pruitt and the Vols scheduled Clemson and beat Swinney and company, recruiting would boom.
Going up north or bringing the Wolverines south down I-75 would be huge for the Vols. Currently, both programs are in a weird, limbo-like state where they aren’t sure what the future looks like. Harbaugh and the boys in blue have struggled to win big games. Their best win in 2017? Florida, though even that team was not as advertised. One thing Michigan does have going for it is that they bring a certain amount of prestige, even in “down” years.
Pruitt would be able to show off his offensive upside against defensive-minded Harbaugh, along with his offensive staff of course. If Tennessee could consistently move the ball up and down on the Wolverines defense, it would be a huge statement to fans across the SEC. Despite an incredibly struggling offensive force, Michigan has had a strong defense under Harbaugh’s regime. Breaking down that defense and adding to the Wolverines’ number of big losses would be a huge leap forward for the Vols.
Remember Ducks Pull Trucks? Well, what about Bears Throw Chairs? Scheduling the Bruins would give the Vols a chance to play a tough offense. An offense that, in all likelihood, will be faster and more up-tempo than anything Tennessee will face in the conference.
Oh, and don’t forget that the Vols either offered Kelly and he declined, or Kelly expressed interest and the regime at the time said: “Nah, we’re good.” With Pruitt’s specialty being defense, he would be able to prove that he was the better hire because he can stop the “unstoppable” offense that Kelly has boasted en route to so many college victories.
O.K., so maybe the Big Ten East scares Vols fans — while that’s not likely, some may prefer to look west. Wisconsin plays an overall weak schedule and loses to Ohio State ALLLLLL the time. Nebraska might be an interesting dark horse. Iowa wins one big conference game a year. But above all those, you see Northwestern. The Wildcats are 2-3 against SEC teams in bowl games in their history. Tennessee is 2-0 against the Wildcats.
I know this doesn’t bring the prestige that a bigger Power 5 team might, but they do beef up the schedule a little. Maybe popping the Wildcats in the open slot that falls in the middle of conference play would keep the team sharp and focused. The Wildcats are no slouch either. Pat Fitzgerald has instilled a gritty determination into that program, challenging the Wildcatsto face up against all opponents as if they could beat their brains out. It doesn’t always work, but at least they aren’t a guaranteed roll-over opponent anymore.
Memphis’ program has been on the rise in recent years under former coach Justin Fuente and now Mike Norvell. Pruitt could set up a cross-state rivalry and truly take the state. Memphis would agree to play the Vols as a way to boost its own potential playoff or New Year’s Six bowl aspirations. Tennessee could use the help of beating a team outside of the Power 5 that still holds sway in the eyes of the committee. Once again, this game would be a way for Pruitt to show off his defensive prowess and could help to prove that the Vols are back for good.
The best part about adding Memphis to the schedule would be the potential strength the Vols could add to its nonconference slate. Tennessee could include Memphis and a Power 5 team to show the committee that the Vols are not afraid of a fight. They could prove that the committee needs to cut them slack for a loss in a season. They have one of the most grueling SEC schedules every year already with Alabama always on the schedule. If Tennessee added an average Power 5 team and a successful Group of Five squad like Memphis, no one could argue that the Vols’ schedule is fitting of a championship team should they run they table or lose one game.