1. South Carolina Gamecocks
Saturday, Oct. 9; Neyland Stadium; Knoxville, Tenn.
This is the one true likely win on the schedule that is not flirting with being a circled win for Tennessee football. However, likely wins are wins the Vols absolutely have to take advantage of, so it’s the most important game on the list.
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UT’s path to six wins is beating all four non-conference teams, the Vanderbilt Commodores and the South Carolina Gamecocks. The three non-Power Five teams are circled wins. Vandy is a likely win but borderline circled win. Pitt is a toss-up game and as important as South Carolina in that regard. However, if UT loses to Pitt, they could make it up by winning a likely loss somewhere.
Losing to USC involves the same principle, but it’s too great of an opportunity for the Vols to pass up. They have a much better chance against a team at home that they finished ahead of and beat last year on the road and is also undergoing a coaching change, bringing in Shane Beamer, than they do against Pitt.
Add in the SEC East factor, and the Vols need to focus on South Carolina more than anybody else. Of course, USC was a crucial game last year, and beating them in the opener seemed to serve as an omen for a successful season. That obviously didn’t happen. However, every year stands on its own, and the Gamecocks are crucial for the Vols to beat this year.
South Carolina will be a return home for Tennessee football after the Florida Gators and Missouri Tigers on the road. If all goes well, they’ll be 4-2 by that point. However, there’s a gauntlet after that, so they need to win this game to not completely collapse, as the next four are either sure or likely losses. That’s another reason this game is the most important one.