UT vs. South Carolina
Ty Chandler, #8, sprints through an opening in the line during Tennessee's game against South Carolina at Neyland Stadium on Saturday, October 26, 2019.

Tennessee’s 2020 schedule is unlike any they’ve ever played. Due to safety precautions around COVID-19, the Vols’ schedule shrunk from 12 to 10 games, with all 10 matchups coming against SEC foes.

Gone from the schedule are matchups with Charlotte, Oklahoma, Furman and Troy. Added to the schedule are matchups with Texas A&M and Auburn.

Let’s take a look at the Vols’ opponents.

Tennessee at South Carolina, Sept. 26

The Vols will open up the season on the road in Columbia, South Carolina, against the Gamecocks in the first gauntlet of a 10-game season. 

Under center for South Carolina, graduate transfer Collin Hill displaced previous starter Ryan Hilinski for week one. Other changes include a wholesale change of the offense with new offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. Expect a more typical run-based offense from the new regime.

Across the line, former Tennessee defensive line coach and current Gamecock assistant Tracy Rocker will have a deep group of defensive linemen to work with, even with the loss of last year’s key contributor Javon Kinlaw. 

In the defensive backfield, South Carolina will have two potential NFL first round draft picks: Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu. Rounding out the defense will be linebacker Ernest Jones, who led the team in tackles last season.

This should be a tight matchup, as seven of the past eight meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less, the Vols’ 20-point win last year being the only exception.

Tennessee vs Missouri, Oct. 3

Tennessee’s first game back in Neyland will be against the Tigers from Missouri. Missouri will be counting upon the play of Nick Bolton in the middle of the defense. The linebacker is the heart of the defense and controls his side of the ball like an experienced quarterback. The question for the Tigers will be whether or not the supporting cast will step up around him.

Players who could make a big impact on defense include linebackers Chad Bailey and Devin Nicholson. Bailey was expected to pair with Bolton, but he was injured in preseason. While he could make it back for the end of the season, he will be unavailable for the first couple weeks. Nicholson, on the other hand, is the most promising of the sophomores who look like they could fill that spot next to Bolton.

Elsewhere on the defense, Head Coach Eli Drinkwitz has stated a preference to return the defensive line to its recent level of success, but looking at the personnel, that may be easier said than done.

On offense, the Tigers have refused to name a starter at quarterback. The offensive line has struggled, so they will be looking to redeem themselves.

Tennessee at Georgia, Oct. 10

Tennessee played well in the beginning of the matchup last season until Georgia caught a break and the talent of the Bulldogs just overwhelmed the Vols. 

The story of the Georgia offseason has been turnover in personnel, the most prominent of these being quarterback Jake Fromm, new Vol Cade Mays and offensive line coach Sam Pittman. Additionally, following the move of Pittman to Arkansas, there were many offensive linemen, like Mays, leaving to either the NFL or other colleges.

Coming into fall camp Georgia had two transfer quarterbacks, Jamie Newman from Wake Forest and J.T. Daniels from USC. After tense competition, Newman opted out of the season due to the coronavirus, effectively handing the job to Daniels. Don’t rule out returnee Dwayne Mathis from factoring in at the quarterback spot either.

On the other side of the ball, the Bulldogs have fixed a weakness of theirs on the defensive line. They are set to have a stout pass rush led by Nolan Smith and Jordan Davis.

Tennessee vs Kentucky, Oct. 17

Tennessee will look to play much better than the last time these two teams met in the Battle for the Beer Barrel. When the Vols met the Cats in Lexington last November, Tennessee scraped out a win despite most metrics leaning toward the Big Blue. Kentucky controlled the ball for nearly 42 of the game’s 60 minutes and out-gained the Vols in both yards and first downs.

Coming into this game the Wildcats will have regular starter Terry Wilson back behind center after missing the majority of the 2019 season with an injury. Key to the game for Tennessee could be getting penetration on Wilson, but that won’t be easy for the Vols’ defensive unit. Kentucky was able to take two of the five spots on the All-SEC preseason first team offensive line, so expect the trenches to be a strong position for the Wildcats.

The same can be said for the defensive side of the trenches as Kentucky enters into this season with a furious pass rush led by outside linebackers Jamar “Boogie” Watson and Jordan Wright, but complemented by a group of front seven defenders that legitimately goes three-deep.

Tennessee vs Alabama, Oct. 24

With a storied history involving a combined 40 SEC championships and 14 major national titles, this rival has featured many streaks, and right now, Tennessee is on the wrong side of the longest such streak, failing to taste victory since 2006. 

The Vols should have one of their best shots in recent years to break the streak, as they return the solid offensive line and running game return on the offensive side. Tennessee can also count on a defensive unit with a lot of game experience. 

One of the main questions for the Crimson Tide will be who will line up under center to replace the departing Tua Tagovailoa. Right now the contenders are Mac Jones and Bryce Young, and while Jones is currently in pole position for game one, Young could certainly be involved in this matchup.

On defense, expect more of the same from Alabama. The Tide look poised for a deep rotation of players at all three levels, high on both speed and strength.

Tennessee at Arkansas, Nov. 7

Tennessee heads to northwest Arkansas looking to break a two game losing skid to the Razorbacks. 

New Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman faces a huge challenge in Fayetteville, looking to turn around a program that’s won just four games over the last two seasons and hasn’t won a conference game since October of 2017.

Pittman and Tennessee’s staff have some familiarity with one another as Pittman and Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney worked closely together during stops at Tennessee, Arkansas and Georgia.

The Razorbacks’ quarterback situation was a disaster a year ago, starting five different quarterbacks. Pittman brought in help in Florida transfer Feleipe Franks. Franks was a two-year starter at Florida where his talent showed, but questions about his consistency persisted.

How good Franks will be at Arkansas remains to be seen, but at the least he should be an upgrade over the Razorbacks quarterback situation the past few seasons. 

Running back Rakeem Boyd is back for his senior year after being the Razorbacks best playmaker the last two seasons. The junior college transfer ran for over 1,100 yards a year ago, tallying eight touchdowns.

Arkansas’ defense has some major holes in it, particularly against the run where they gave up over 200 yards a year ago. The Razorbacks had the worst defense in the SEC a year ago, giving up 36.8 points per game, five more than the next worse.

The early November road trip to Fayetteville should be one that the Vols can take care of, but Pittman’s group could show large growth in year one.

Tennessee vs. Texas A&M, Nov. 14

Texas A&M will finally make its first trip to Neyland Stadium, eight seasons after joining the SEC. The matchup was one created due to the odd circumstances hanging above the season and the SEC’s 10-game conference only schedule.

Expectations are high for Jimbo Fisher’s third season in College Station, but two difficult SEC games added to their schedule will make life harder for the Aggies. 

Despite a strong 2019 campaign, Texas A&M’s offense struggled to find consistency and ability to move the ball. The unit ranked just eighth in the league with 395 yards per game.

The success of the Aggies offense falls largely on the shoulders of senior quarterback Kellen Mond. Mond earned a reputation as a strong runner, where he totaled 1,112 yards and 16 touchdowns in his first three seasons. Like the Aggies offense as a whole, consistency has been an issue for Mond when throwing the ball. Being more consistent as a passer will help Mond and the Aggies’ offense tremendously.

Defensively, Texas A&M ranked ninth in the SEC and 39th nationally in points given up per game. The Aggies should be solid on that side of the ball again in 2020, and defensive tackle DeMarvin Leal is likely to be a first round pick next spring.

Tennessee at Auburn, Nov. 21

The second add on game of Tennessee’s 2020 season is its matchup with Auburn. The Vols will travel back to Auburn where Jeremy Pruitt earned his first, and perhaps biggest, SEC win as underdogs in 2018.

Auburn comes off an up-and-down 2019 season that saw them post a 9-4 record including a win over in-state rival Alabama. The Tigers return their quarterback in sophomore Bo Nix. Nix started as a freshman where he threw 16 touchdowns and Auburn finished ninth in the SEC in passing yards.

Like Mond, consistency throwing the football has been an area for improvement, but after a promising year one starting, Nix should show growth in 2020.

The Tigers receiving core should also be a strength, with leading receiver Seth Williams and track star Anthony Schwartz returning. The question mark for Auburn’s offense is along the line of scrimmage where they must replace four starters.

Along the defensive line, Auburn must replace a pair of NFL draftees in Marlon Davidson and Derrick Brown. The two will be tough to replace, but the Tigers typically reload instead of rebuild on the defensive line and returning starter Big Kat Bryant is an All-SEC candidate.

The back end of Auburn’s defense was its weakness in 2019, ranking just eighth in the SEC in passing defense. Tennessee also found success throwing the ball down the field against Auburn’s secondary in 2018.

Tennessee gets Auburn at an interesting spot of the Tigers schedule, the week after Auburn travels to Mississippi State and the week before Auburn will travel to Alabama.

Tennessee at Vanderbilt, Nov. 28

Tennessee’s Thanksgiving weekend matchup will stay the same during the 2020 season as the Vols will travel west on Interstate 40 to face off against in-state rival Vanderbilt.

Before COVID-19 hit, no one in the SEC was on a hotter seat than Derek Mason. The Commodores won just three games in 2019 including an embarrassing loss to UNLV, who became the first team in Mountain West history to go winless in conference play.

It will be an uphill battle again for Vanderbilt in 2020. The Commodores have had multiple players opt out of the 2020 season including a pair of starting offensive lineman. 

Vanderbilt lost its two best playmakers from a year ago as running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn and tight end Kalija Lipscomb are now in the NFL.

Vanderbilt played four different quarterbacks a year ago and all have departed. JUCO transfers Danny Clark and Jeremy Moussa are expected to compete in an open quarterback competition.

Defense has been the strength of Mason’s program, but the Commodores defense took a step back in 2019, ranking 13th in the SEC in scoring defense by giving up 31.8 points per game.

The good news for Vanderbilt is that perhaps their three best defenders all return, in Dimitri Moore, Dashaun Jerkins and Tae Daley.

Tennessee vs. Florida, Dec. 6

For the first time since 2001 Tennessee will not meet Florida for a September matchup but instead for the regular season finale. 

The Gators have been a top 10 program since Dan Mullen took over two years ago, combining for 21 wins and a pair of New Year's Six bowl appearances. The expectation has changed in Mullen’s third year, as fans expect the Gators to overtake Georgia and win their first SEC east championship since 2016.

Kyle Trask returns at quarterback. The junior debuted last season when Feleipe Franks went down against Kentucky and turned in a strong season, throwing for 2,951 yards and 25 touchdowns.

Florida returns most starters along an offensive line that struggled to help the Gators establish a run game, ranking 13th in yards per carry.

The Gators lost a plethora of playmakers including receivers Van Jefferson, Tyrie Cleveland and Freddie Swain. All-American tight end Kyle Pitts should become a regular weapon for Trask.

Florida’s defense was strong a year ago, ranking second in the conference in points against, sixth in passing yards against and second in rushing yards against. Gone is leading tackler David Reese and corner CJ Henderson, but talent remains in the secondary with Marco Wilson and Trey Dean, perhaps the SEC’s best nickelback.

Florida has been a disastrous matchup for Tennessee over the past 15 years, winning the matchup just once. Things haven’t gone much better for Pruitt as his two squads have been outscored 81-24.

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