Excitement is building in Knoxville. It’s almost football time in Tennessee, and you can feel it in the air whether you’re on campus or anywhere in Knox County.
It’s exactly one week until the Vols’ season officially begins, and there’s a lot of buzz about Tennessee football in 2022.
The biggest reason for the noise (or addition)? Tennessee is entering its second year under coach Josh Heupel, who just went 7-5 in his first regular season on Rocky Top with a depleted roster and program scheme. And the best part of Heupel’s first season is that a talented starting quarterback emerged and will return in 2022.
Heupel and Hooker are back together. Another season to hone their craft and make this offense even better. It can only go up from here, right?
So I think. And most people probably do. But again, Tennessee has a tough schedule filled with challenging SEC games and the defending ACC champions in the Johnny Majors Classic.
The Vols also have some appearances, but this year the two under Heupel come with a lot of exciting plays that should have a lot of offense.
Because if we learned one thing about this Josh Heupel offense in 2021, it’s that this offense never fails to entertain.
With that said, now that we’re seven days away from kickoff, let’s take a look at the seven most exciting games on Tennessee’s 2022 schedule.
#7: South Carolina
Like Tennessee, there’s a lot to be excited about with the Gamecocks this season. Second-year coach Shane Beamer is coming off a solid first year, and one of Columbia’s hottest new residents in 2022 is the former No. 1 mock overall and Heisman Trophy favorite Spencer Rattler.
The Rattler’s junior campaign with Oklahoma last year was a disaster, but he is looking to turn his college football career around with a new team. Will this happen? It remains to be seen.
If it does, the Vols’ penultimate game of the season could be a doozie in Columbia.
There is a chance that Tennessee and Alabama enter the week seven matchup undefeated, meaning the Vols would have beaten LSU, Florida and Pitt. A tall task, but doable.
If both teams are undefeated, this game is higher than six on this list. Both teams will likely be ranked in the Top 15, and the excitement of Tennessee fans in Neyland will be through the roof. Still, I don’t expect this game to go down like most of the other games on this list. This Nick Saban team might be one of the best of his coaching career, which is saying something.
The Tide returns the best quarterback and linebacker, perhaps the best overall player, in Bryce Young and Will Anderson.
No more convincing needed. This Alabama team is formidable and will be Tennessee’s toughest test of the season. Maybe they can keep it a four-quarter game, but don’t be surprised if the seats at Neyland Stadium are pretty empty with two minutes left in the fourth quarter.
Georgia is a slightly smaller version of Alabama. I don’t expect the Vols to win, but there is a better chance for the Big Orange to knock off the defending champs than the Tide.
Another reason this game is higher on this list is because of national media buzz that the Vols have a real chance to knock off Georgia, especially with Roman Harper picking UT to upset the Dawgs on the SEC Network.
Tennessee should give Georgia more of a run for their money than they did in last year’s 41-17 loss. However, Tennessee isn’t quite there yet to make this game one of the more attractive contests on the Vols’ schedule.
The Vols will meet the 2019 national champions in Baton Rouge in week six for their fifth game of the season.
The Vols are currently on a five-game losing streak against the Tigers that dates back to 2006, but this could very well be the year Tennessee slips up.
LSU had a down year in 2021, going 6-7 and getting blown out by Kansas State in the Texas Bowl. The year without a question mark at starting quarterback and Ed Orgeron was fired.
But the good news for the once-undefeated Tigers is that Brian Kelly is now the head coach, coming to Baton Rouge after a very successful stint at Notre Dame.
This game will be tough for Tennessee, no doubt. Not the hardest, but I would call it the third most challenging game of the season. I could see it going either way, and the game could serve as a turning point for Tennessee’s season if they lose to Florida and Pitt.
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But this game doesn’t crack the top three because it doesn’t have the revenge factor that Pitt does, and LSU isn’t and has no reason to be an immediate Tennessee rival.
Which puts us in the top three.
The Johnny Majors Classic returns in 2022 for the second installment.
The Vols will travel north to play at the newly named Acrisure Stadium this time around. That’s the bad news because Neyland always gives Tennessee a leg up.
The good news is that Pitt won’t have first-round pick Kenny Pickett starting at quarterback. Pickett carried the Vols games last year and served as the first example of how poor Tennessee’s defense was at stopping quarterbacks from running.
UT kept the game competitive until September of 2021, despite their (then) starting quarterback being injured in Joe Milton III.
It was certainly an eye-opening experience for Heupel’s Vols, as Hendon Hooker proved to be the right man for the starting job.
It makes UT fans around the country wonder, if Hendon Hooker had started that game, would Tennessee have won? What if an open Cedric Tillman hadn’t fallen? Ultimately, the Vols lost by just eight points.
The Vols are in a good position to get revenge on the Panthers in 2022, but Pitt is still a solid team. The second leg of the Johnny Majors Classic will be a fun test for the Big Orange early in Heupel’s second year.
Perhaps the University of Tennessee’s ultimate rival, the Kentucky Wildcats will travel down I-75 South in late October to take on the Vols.
As many know, UT has had the UK’s number for the 21st century, losing just three times.
The Vols are coming off a thrilling win against the Cats in 2021, in which Hendon Hooker and Will Levis went toe-to-toe, enjoying each other’s defense.
VFL sixth pick Alontae Taylor was definitely the difference, however, as the Vols defeated Kentucky 45-42 in the thriller.
Both quarterbacks will get a chance to do it again, and I don’t see how this game can be anything other than a head-to-head shootout. Considering that not only Kentucky and Tennessee but everything College football fans witnessed last year in Lexington, the Vols vs. The Cats in Week Nine is arguably one of UT’s most exciting games on this year’s schedule.
But not number one.
Was there ever any doubt that this wouldn’t be number one?
“This is finally the year.”
That’s the saying that’s spreading among Tennessee fans and filling the air in Knoxville.
And rightfully so. Because if there’s one year, it’s this one.
Florida has a first-year coach in Billy Napier and, on paper, doesn’t have the roster the Gators usually have.
The second half of last season for the Gators was ugly; don’t get over it. Losing to Missouri, South Carolina (by two shots), a tough LSU team, UCF and allowing Samford to score 52 points is not a good look.
However, there is still reason to be excited about Florida’s season, as Anthony Richardson is no slouch at quarterback. However, there’s no denying that this 2022 Gators team just isn’t at the typical Florida level.
The Vols have only beaten the Gators three times this century, but this is Tennessee’s best chance to turn things around in a long time, making it the most exciting game of the Vols’ season.
We’ll see what’s in store for the 52nd installment of the rivalry on September 24 at Neyland Stadium.
Photo: Calvin Mattheis of the Knoxville News Sentinel