As we head into a new school year on Rocky Top, let’s take a look at some of the matchups that will have immense impact on Vol sports’ 2020-21 seasons.
Disclaimer: Due to the instability surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic some of the games listed have not had announced dates with all game dates subject to change.
Tennessee vs. Georgia, TBA
Georgia head coach Scott Stricklin and Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello have both done wonders in rejuvenating their prospective programs since arriving, and the two were at the top of the list of coaches that were upset by the lost 2020 season.
Both programs were set to have their best seasons since Stricklin and Vitello arrived and while plenty of talent still remains, both coaches lost star pitchers to the MLB Draft in Georgia’s Emerson Hancock (pick No. 6) and Tennessee’s Garrett Crochet (pick No. 11).
Two years ago, Vitello’s program got its first signature series win by taking two out of three over No. 4 Georgia.
Recreating that success against a division rival would show sustained growth from Vitello’s program and could be an easier series than Vanderbilt and Florida, who will likely both be in the top three in 2021.
Tennessee vs. Florida, Dec. 6
Tennessee and Florida’s mid September showdown is always one of the staples of the SEC schedule. For just the second time since the SEC split into leagues in 1992 the Vols and the Gators won’t meet in September.
Florida has dominated Tennessee in the past two years since Jeremy Pruitt and Dan Mullen took over their respected programs with the Gators out scoring the Vols, 81-24.
Pruitt has vastly improved Tennessee’s talent the last two years, but the Gators are ranked No. 8 in the preseason coaches poll and are anticipating their best season yet under Mullen. The matchup will be played at Neyland Stadium, but with capacity expected to be severely limited, who knows how much of a factor home field will play.
Improved quarterback play and limiting egregious blunders that have haunted Tennessee in the matchup over the past 15 years will be key if the Vols want to pull the upset.
Tennessee vs. Kentucky, Oct. 17
The Kentucky matchup doesn’t pop out when you look at Tennessee’s loaded 10-game season. However, there won’t be many more important than this when it comes to the Vols’ chances of winning more than five games this year.
While Tennessee has still been successful against the Wildcats, Mark Stoops has quietly turned Kentucky into a solid SEC program, averaging eight wins a season over the last four years.
There may not be a team on its schedule that Tennessee is more equally matched up with than the Wildcats. When factoring in “others receiving votes,” the Vols rank No. 26 in the preseason coaches poll, with Kentucky coming in at No. 29.
Tennessee and Jeremy Pruitt have had Stoops’ number, with Pruitt winning both head-to-head matchups including the 2018 upset over No. 11 Kentucky. Tennessee will be debuting new black alternate uniforms for the matchup and Kentucky will be looking for its first win in Neyland Stadium in 36 years.
Tennessee vs. Memphis, Dec. 19
The third, and final, scheduled matchup between these two instate rivals doesn’t match the criteria of having “immense impact” on the Vols’ season, but the stakes and intensity will be high in Nashville for the rubber match.
Sparks flew postgame between head coaches Rick Barnes and Penny Hardaway after Tennessee won the first matchup of the renewed rivalry in December of 2018. Hardaway cursed Barnes’ name during a press conference the following week, adding fuel to the rivalries’ already blazing fire.
With Memphis taking round two in Knoxville a year ago, and Barnes and Tennessee showing no desire to renew the series, the third matchup with a split crowd at Bridgestone Arena could be the most fun yet.
Memphis failed to meet expectations a year ago after star center James Wiseman sat out the season, but the Tigers have talented pieces back and hope incoming five-star Moussa Cissé can fill the void Wiseman left a year ago.
Tennessee at/vs. Kentucky, TBA
In a long list of things Rick Barnes has done well at Tennessee, nothing is higher than beating Kentucky and intensifying the border rivalry.
The Wildcats are the unquestioned gold standard of SEC basketball, but Barnes' program has made a move to the top of the SEC and competed well against Kentucky, winning seven of 12 matchups against the Wildcats.
Kentucky lost its four top players from a year ago, but John Calipari’s program doesn’t rebuild, it reloads. Both schools are in a strong position to compete for the SEC championship in 2020-21, and the two matchups between the two will surely play a large role in deciding the conference’s champion.
Tennessee vs. Vanderbilt, TBA
Vanderbilt’s program has been a model of consistency and will enter 2020 with back-to-back SEC East titles and an SEC championship in 2018.
Thanks in part to injuries, Tennessee fell back to the middle of the SEC in 2019 after finishing second in the league in 2018 and making it to the NCAA quarterfinals for the first time in program history.
Head coach Brian Pensky has pieced together a talented roster that could surge back to the top of the SEC. The Vols lost just three seniors from a year ago, but all were big pieces including stars MA Vignola and Katie Cousins.
The Lady Vols have lost four straight to Vanderbilt with three of those defeats coming by only one goal. Tennessee has played the Commodores well and getting over the hump could be a season defining win for the Big Orange.
Tennessee at Florida, TBA
The SEC dominates softball as much, if not more, than any other sport and both the Lady Vols and Gators have been two of the conference’s most consistent programs.
In 2019, Tennessee got one of its biggest series wins of the season at No. 4 Florida but the Gators would get revenge two months later eliminating Tennessee in the super regional. The three game series was tight until the very end with Florida winning game three on a walk-off. The three games were decided by a combined five runs.
There will be a lot of high profile series involving the Lady Vols this season, but the matchup in Gainesville could prove huge in the SEC East race.
Tennessee vs. Connecticut, Jan. 21
The biggest rivalry in women’s college basketball is set to pit the sport’s two most storied programs against each other. After playing each other every year for over a decade, the two didn’t play for 13 years before the rivalry was renewed last season.
UConn’s success has separated itself from the Lady Vols in the past decade, and the Huskies beat outmatched Tennessee 60-45 last year.
Expectations are higher for Tennessee in head coach Kellie Harper’s second season at the helm, and a strong performance against the nation’s top program would be a good sign of growth.
A win over Connecticut would be the program’s biggest in a very long time and would likely signal a return to former glory for the Lady Vols.