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‘Vols Have Talent, Opportunity

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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The Volunteers, one way or another, will help shape the national narrative.

Winners of six consecutive games dating back to last October, Tennessee enters this summer as one of the hottest programs in all of college football. Looking ahead to this fall, it's both a momentum they have earned and a momentum they may need. Suddenly a national name once again, the fast-rising Volunteers have perhaps the game's toughest schedule awaiting. Tennessee will face four pre-season top ten teams, all of whom are considered legitimate championship contenders, playing at Oklahoma, Florida, Alabama and at Georgia.

The Volunteers, one way or another, will help shape the national narrative.

Over the second half of this past year, there weren't many better teams in the country. Tennessee, after a disappointing 1-4 overall start, promptly beat Mississippi State, was at least relatively competitive at Alabama and then rallied off a half-dozen wins in a row. The Volunteers put an exclamation point on their emphatic run with a thrilling TaxSlayer Bowl triumph over Indiana. Down 22-9 with less than five minutes remaining, Rocky Top erupted for 14 points in 30 seconds, sprinting into this off-season with a remarkable one-point victory.

Tennessee, again, has college football talking. In addition to having the nation's top recruiting class, the Volunteers return a a quarterback entering his fourth year as a starter in veteran Jarrett Guarantano, 12 of their top 15 tacklers on defense and just may have the SEC's premier offensive line, led by All-American guard Trey Smith. Head coach Jeremy Pruitt has established unrelenting program expectations and, after the end of 2019, Tennessee should have the confidence to reach them.

A schedule for the ages will be a challenge and opportunity alike.

It's natural to draw parallels between last season's Texas A&M team and this season's Tennessee. Both programs, fit with talented rosters, completed the year prior with big bowl wins in Jacksonville and, quite quickly, considerable buzz for the future. The Aggies won eight games a season ago, but were unable to win any of their four top ten matchups against Clemson, Alabama, Georgia or LSU. It was a good season for Texas A&M, though not a great season; it, in review, was probably a bridge season given the way results turned out. Now, that same spotlight is on the Volunteers.

An early trip to Norman could prove to be the ultimate litmus test or indicator or what is to come. Oklahoma has made the College Football Playoff three years running and the anticipation is for more of the same. This will be the third meeting the past seven years, but just the fifth clash between the two superpowers all-time. Tennessee has defeated the Sooners only once, the inaugural meeting in the 1939 Orange Bowl. As usual, Tennessee will be a bye week before a midway clash with Alabama, a contest which always comes with a national scope. The significance of Pruitt's return to Athens to face Georgia will largely depend on what Tennessee has done to that point. 

The most important game of the season, for Tennessee, could be on September 26th when Florida comes to Knoxville. Though the Volunteers have not had much success in the recent series, a home win would be the type of upset that could change the dynamic in the SEC East. Pruitt remains looking for a signature victory at Tennessee; the possibility of a win over the Gators would make the Volutneers a major factor in the division and come early enough in the season where they would still be a lot to be determined.

At the very least, Tennessee is in the mix.

There are multiple reasons for optimism for the Volunteers. Though daunting, the schedule should be considered part of that potential. Tennessee has proven it can beat many of the teams it plays; next, the 'Vols need to show they can be competitive against the best of the best. That is the charge of any top program. That has always been the goal at Tennessee.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports