If you look back at recent history, Tennessee football set the standard when it came to SEC teams playing tough non-conference schedules. Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer almost always went out of their way to select a couple of brutal teams a year.
Recently, the rest of the league has done the same thing. Meanwhile, the Vols have fallen behind. For the second time in three years, they will play all four non-SEC games at home with their one Power Five opponent, the Pittsburgh Panthers, being unranked.
This led to Jerry Palm of CBS Sports listing Tennessee football as the SEC team with the easiest non-conference schedule of the year. He first named the Georgia Bulldogs as the team with the toughest non-conference slate, noting that they play the Clemson Tigers. Here’s what he then said about the Vols.
"Tennessee’s opponents, on the other hand, may not combine for more than 10 wins against FBS teams. Pittsburgh will have most of those, including possibly one against the Volunteers."
Yes, Pitt is obviously the toughest game, and we should note that even as a questionable Power Five non-conference game, they could still be favored over UT, as Pat Narduzzi hasn’t had a losing season since 2017, his only one in six years with the program. However, the rest of the slate for the program is atrocious.
All three other teams had losing records last year. In fact, none of them have had a winning record since 2015. The Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles are the Vols’ one FCS team, and they have finished below .500 all but one year over the past decade, when they went 6-6 in 2019. Last year they went 2-5 at their level.
Meanwhile, the Bowling Green Falcons will be the Vols’ opener. They were the team to finish with a winning record in 2015, and that was when they had Dino Babers and went 10-4. Ironically, UT played BGSU to open that season as well. Head coach Scot Loeffler has gone 3-14 in two years there, including an 0-5 campaign last year.
Then there are the South Alabama Jaguars, who have never had a winning record in FBS play. They are coming off a 4-7 campaign and entering the year with a new head coach, Kane Wommack. That should be another win.
A big reason for bowl eligibility expectations surrounding Tennessee football on the field this year, even if the NCAA investigation changes things, is due to this easy non-conference slate. Should the Vols win all four, they’ll have no excuse to not get six wins.