The Tennessee Volunteers' hiring of Jeremy Pruitt has brought a renewed sense of optimism to Rocky Top. But it was never going to be easy for a first-time head coach to quickly reverse the fortunes of a program coming off the worst season in school history. And the Vols’ 2018 football schedule further compounds the daunting task that Pruitt has in front of him.
Pruitt’s Volunteers will be tested right of the gate with a neutral-site game against a stout West Virginia team. And the first five games on Tennessee’s SEC slate are nothing short of brutal. It's a challenging gauntlet that begins at home against rival Florida and concludes with a road trip to face SEC East dark horse South Carolina. Sandwiched in between is a three-game stretch that couldn’t possibly be more difficult. That unforgiving stretch features back-to-back road games against championship contenders Georgia and Auburn, followed by a home matchup against archrival and defending national champion Alabama.
Tennessee Volunteers 2018 Schedule
Bye: Week 6
Week 1 – Sept. 1 vs. West Virginia (Bank of America Stadium - Charlotte, N.C.)
Tennessee and West Virginia meet for the first time ever in the 2018 Belk Kickoff Game. And Jeremy Pruitt will be in for a big test as he makes his head coaching debut for the Vols. The Mountaineers feature one of the top passing attacks in the nation, led by quarterback Will Grier and wide receivers David Stills and Gary Jennings.
Week 2 – Sept. 8 vs. East Tennessee State (Knoxville, Tenn.)
The Vols may need a boost of confidence following the season opener against West Virginia. They should have no trouble getting it in the first-ever meeting against the Buccaneers from the FCS ranks. ETSU only recently restored its football program in 2015 after a 12-year hiatus. The Bucs have compiled a record of 11-22 since returning to the gridiron.
Week 3 – Sept. 15 vs. UTEP (Knoxville, Tenn.)
The Miners from Conference USA were winless last season and widely considered the worst FBS team in the nation. They could be even worse in 2018. This will serve as little more than a tune-up game for the Vols before heading into conference play.
Week 4 – Sept. 22 vs. Florida (Knoxville, Tenn.)
The Volunteers get back to big boy football and begin a brutal five-game stretch with a matchup against the rival Gators at home to open SEC play. Both teams took a serious nose dive last season and look to rebound under the direction of new head coaches in 2018. That will add to the intrigue of this already intense rivalry.
Week 5 – Sept.29 at Georgia (Athens, Ga.)
The Vols travel to Athens to face the defending SEC champion Georgia Bulldogs for their first true road matchup of the 2018 campaign. The dramatic “Hail Mary” conclusion the last time Tennessee visited Sanford Stadium was a testament to just how competitive this series had become. But the gap widened significantly after Georgia’s 41-0 blowout victory in Knoxville last season. Pruitt is now challenged with the tall task of narrowing that gap and restoring order to this great rivalry.
Week 7 – Oct. 13 at Auburn (Auburn, Ala.)
Tennessee will get a chance to rest up with a much-needed bye before hitting the road again to face SEC West foe Auburn. But that’s little consolation against the powerhouse Tigers. This will be the first meeting between the two schools since 2013. Tennessee leads the all-time series with a record of 28-21-3. However, the Vols have lost six straight against the Tigers and have not won a game at Jordan-Hare Stadium since 1998. Ouch!
Week 8 – Oct. 20 vs. Alabama (Knoxville, Tenn.)
The unforgiving stretch continues as the Vols return to Knoxville for the first time in almost a month to take on archrival Alabama. This matchup takes on added significance as Pruitt squares off against his former team and mentor for the first time as a head coach. Former assistant coaches are 0-12 against Nick Saban. And it’s highly unlikely that Pruitt will be the first to beat Saban with a Tennessee team riding an 11-game losing streak against the Crimson Tide. As usual, the defending national champs simply have too much firepower.
Week 9 – Oct. 27 at South Carolina (Columbia, S.C.)
The Vols took the Gamecocks to the wire last season in Knoxville. However, South Carolina has shown marked improvement each season under Will Muschamp. And this looks to be Muschamp’s best team yet. It will be a tall order for Tennessee to come away with a win in Columbia.
Week 10 – Nov. 3 vs. Charlotte (Knoxville, Tenn.)
The Volunteers finally get a much-needed reprieve as they return home to face Charlotte out of Conference USA. The 49ers had only one win in 2017, while averaging just 14 points per game. And much like UTEP, the 49ers aren’t expected to be better in 2018.
Week 11 – Nov. 10 vs. Kentucky (Knoxville, Tenn.)
The Wildcats managed to come up with a rare victory over the Vols last season in Lexington. And elite running back Benny Snell Jr. returns for a Kentucky team coming off back-to-back bowl seasons for the first time since 2010. But the Wildcats do have their fair share of question marks heading into 2018, and they haven’t beaten the Volunteers in Knoxville since 1984.
Week 12 – Nov. 17 vs. Missouri (Knoxville, Tenn.)
Missouri’s high-powered offense racked up 50 points against Tennessee last season in Columbia. That offense returns largely intact, including All-SEC quarterback Drew Lock, who threw for four touchdowns in the Tigers' 33-point win over the Vols. That said, the departure of offensive coordinator Josh Heupel could prove to be a setback for a Tiger offense now led by former Vol head coach Derek Dooley. A Mizzou defense that allowed 32 points per game last season could be a liability again in 2018 as well.
Week 13 – Nov. 24 at Vanderbilt (Nashville, Tenn.)
It’s hard to believe, but Tennessee has dropped four of the last six matchups against in-state foe Vanderbilt, including each of the last two contests. The Vols could have their work cut out for them again against a Commodores team that returns quarterback Kyle Shurmur and the entire offensive line. If there is one game that Pruitt can ill afford to lose in 2018, this is it.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
(Top photo by Kyle Zedaker/Tennessee Athletics, courtesy of UTSports.com)