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Ranking each game of Tennessee’s 2017 football schedule by importance

With spring practice underway and the 2017 football season looming, let’s look at the Tennessee schedule game-by-game and talk about which games will have the biggest stakes.

12. Indiana State

Come on, it’s Indiana State.

11. UMass

The Minutemen almost beat Vanderbilt in 2014 and gave Florida some trouble last year, but shouldn’t prove too tough a challenge in Knoxville on Sept. 23. UMass brings back nearly all of its offensive talent to 2017, and the game is sandwiched between the Florida and Georgia games, so things could be interesting.

10. Missouri

Under first year head coach Barry Odom, the Tigers had a pretty forgetful season and didn’t show too many signs that this year will be much better. Missouri will bring back plenty of its rushing options out of the backfield, but Tennessee’s defense should be much healthier than the one that gave up 37 (in a win) last season.

9. Southern Miss

The Golden Eagles will be bringing in a new full-time quarterback, but they have plenty of quality players and will have the best chance at a non-SEC upset in Neyland Stadium. Southern Miss won at Kentucky last year, but only after the Wildcats blew a massive lead in the season opener. Tennessee might be slow out of the gates late in the season against the Golden Eagles.

8. Kentucky

Kentucky hasn’t come close to beating the Vols since Butch Jones has taken over, and that shouldn’t change anytime soon. The Wildcats got a boost from beating Louisville to end the season, but lost to Georgia Tech in the TaxSlayer Bowl. Kentucky is Tennessee’s little cousin that never does anything useful in backyard football.

7. South Carolina

Well, Will Muschamp is coming back to Knoxville. His last trip to Neyland Stadium was the horrible 10-9 debacle in 2014. The Vols were embarrassed in Columbia last year amid locker room controversy before Jalen Hurd transferred. Are you excited to hear that the Vols’ game against South Carolina this season is coming off of a bye week? At least 19-year-old Jake Bentley shouldn’t be comfortable in Neyland.

6. Vanderbilt

Tennessee can’t lose to Vanderbilt. It’s really that simple. This game is in Knoxville, with a chance for redemption (this is awkward), and anything less than a convincing win will be a disappointment. With in-state talent getting better by the year, the Vols have to assert dominance over the rest of the state.

5. Georgia Tech

Tennessee needs a good start to the season in the worst of ways. The Vols have dominated neutral site games under Jones, but with the fanbase unsure of his future, any first-game slip ups would leave a bad taste in fans’ mouths for a while. Georgia Tech went 5-1 to end the season, but will feature a new starting quarterback and running back in a meticulous offense.

4. LSU

The Vols haven’t beaten an SEC West opponent since a 52-14 thrashing of Ole Miss in 2010. The orange and white also haven’t beaten LSU since the 2005 overtime win in Death Valley. This is a huge chance for Tennessee to get a signature win against the SEC West and prove the program can beat elite teams, especially in Neyland Stadium. Plus, Ed Orgeron is the coach most likely to pull the “it’s great to see all these people out here getting disappointed” postgame quote.

3. Alabama

Tennessee probably won’t be expected to win this game in Tuscaloosa, but it offers a good measuring point for a young offense after 2016’s 49-10 blowout loss to the Crimson Tide in Knoxville. Quinten Dormady or Jarrett Guarantano will be making his toughest start of the year on the road against a team Tennessee hasn’t beaten since 2006. While Alabama lost plenty of talent to graduation and the NFL Draft, the Tide always reload and should be in the College Football Playoff hunt again. The Vols played Alabama close in 2014 and 2015, and they’ll need to do so again this year to keep fans happy with the state of the program.

2. Georgia

Tennessee had the target on its back in the division last year. This season, that target is on Georgia. A big added benefit to the Vols’ season is that season expectations are lower, but the ceiling is higher. That means that Georgia will travel to Knoxville and likely be the favorite — and will at least need this win to take control of the division race. Speaking of Knoxville, Tennessee hasn’t lost an SEC East game in Neyland Stadium since November of 2014, and this matchup has all the makings of the most electric atmosphere of the season. The Vols have to split games (at the least) between the Bulldogs and Gators, and this provides a prime chance to do so. A win gives Tennessee three wins in a row over Georgia.

1. Florida

Simply put, this game could be do-or-die for Tennessee’s season. The Vols stopped the streak last year, but this game could be bigger for both the team and Jones. Florida won’t be the favorite to win the division, but the Gators should be full of young talent. Dormady or Guarantano will be making his first road start in the Swamp in a game that will set the tone for the season and the SEC East. Also, a win would give Tennessee its first win in Gainesville since 2003, and it might just save Butch Jones his job.

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