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Butch brings hope, but nobody would volunteer for Tennessee's slate

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Do you want to see a Tennessee fan go from utterly excited to completely depressed in just a matter of minutes? Tell him this story:

Back in July at the ACC preseason media days in Greensboro, N.C., Commissioner John Swofford declared that his league played the toughest non-conference schedule in all of college football. Then he proceeded to rattle off these opponents. The rankings are from the preseason Associated Press Top 25 which was released last Saturday:

No. 1 Alabama (vs. Virginia Tech in Atlanta on Dec. 31)

No. 3 Oregon (at Virginia Sept. 7)

No. 5 Georgia (at Clemson on Aug. 31; at Georgia Tech on Nov. 30)

No. 6 South Carolina (vs. North Carolina on Aug. 29; vs. Clemson on Nov. 30)

No. 10 Florida (vs. Florida State on Nov. 30)

I thought Swofford had made a pretty compelling case that the ACC was at least willing to play some very good non-conference games. So I Tweeted it out. Less than one minute later I got a response from a Tennessee fan:

"But Tony! We play all five of those teams THIS YEAR!"

Ouch!

Butch Jones has brought a lot of enthusiasm to Knoxville as he prepares for his first season as Tennessee's head coach. But he inherits a program in a pretty deep hole. Tennessee played LSU for the SEC championship in 2007 and the program has been in a downward spiral ever since. In the past five seasons the Volunteers are 23-27 overall, 12-28 in the SEC. They begin this season with their fourth head coach since 2008.

"It has been a very difficult thing to watch," said former head coach Phillip Fulmer, who was let go in 2008 after 152 wins in 16 seasons.

"It's going to take some time but Tennessee is going to come back. We always come back."

Historically, Tennessee has never remained in a slump very long. The Volunteers enter 2013 off of three straight losing seasons (6-7, 5-7, 5-7) under Derek Dooley. In fact, until this recent skid, Tennessee had not had back-to-back losing seasons since 1910-11. That consistency is why Tennessee's first win this fall will be the 800th in school history. Only seven FBS schools have more victories.

"We have one of the great traditions in all of college football which is why I wanted to be here," said Jones, who is 50-27 as a head coach in six years at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. "There is no doubt that we have work to do. There is also no doubt that we have everything we need here to be successful and to compete for championships."

Tennessee will certainly be OK in the long haul. There are just too many resources in Knoxville to keep losing. Recruiting can be a challenge because there are simply not enough blue-chip prospects in the state. Tennessee, unlike the other traditional powers in the SEC, has to recruit nationally in order to get enough elite athletes.

But the short term, because of the schedule, has a chance to be pretty ugly. Let's break it down:

Tennessee should win its first two games against Austin Peay, which was 2-9 as a member of the Ohio Valley Conference (FCS) last season, and Western Kentucky, where Bobby Petrino takes over for Willie Taggart, now at South Florida.

But after that Tennessee plays back-to-back road games with Oregon (12-1 last season) and Florida (11-2). In those two weeks alone the Tennessee football team will travel more than 6,200 miles.

After racking up all those frequent flyer miles, Tennessee has a home game with South Alabama on Sept. 28. Then in the next four weeks Tennessee will play Georgia (12-2 last season), South Carolina (11-2), and Alabama (13-1), the defending national champion. All three return senior quarterbacks.

"But one of the reasons I wanted to come to Tennessee was because I wanted to play against the very best," said junior linebacker A.J. Johnson. "And there's no doubt that we're playing the toughest schedule in the country."

The reality is that getting to six wins and a bowl game would be a pretty significant achievement for this team. Because after that stretch of five Top 10 opponents, Tennessee:

Goes to Missouri, which promises to be better in its second year in the SEC if quarterback James Franklin can stay healthy.

Hosts Auburn (3-9 last season) which will be significantly improved in Gus Malzahn's first year as head coach.

Hosts Vanderbilt, which won nine games last season for the first time since 1915. One of those wins was against Tennessee (41-18), the first time the Commodores had beaten the Volunteers in Nashville since 1982.

Tennessee will play this schedule with a very talented offensive line, but a new quarterback, new wide receivers and a defense that returns eight starters but gave up 35.7 points per game (104th nationally) last season.

Senior running back Rajion Neal has looked at the schedule but he is still optimistic.

"We have a lot of guys who have played a bunch. They have seen the ups and downs," said Neal, who ran for 708 yards on what was primarily a passing team. "We still think it's our time now. But we know it's not going to be easy."

No kidding.

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