After enough hand wringing to make the knuckles bleed on every man, woman and child east of the Mississippi, the SEC has released its conference football schedule for 2012.
The dates and the opponents are not as important as the names that are not on the list for various teams. Georgia getting to duck Alabama, which figures to be among the nation's elite again next year, is a coup. So is Tennessee getting to skip out on the back end of its home-and-home with Arkansas, which again will have the league's best passing attack next fall.
The on-paper win for the Vols, however, offers this simple question: What is the number of wins for 2012 to be deemed a success? Is it eight? Is it more since the schedule is as favorable as any in the league?
If you go week by week, it becomes clear that heading into a crucial third season in Knoxville, Volunteers coach Derek Dooley got a favorable draw. It also becomes clear that anything less than seven wins -- provided super-talented receiver Justin Hunter returns full speed from his September ACL tear -- will be viewed as a sizable disappointment. (Although after the Vols missed a bowl for the second time in the last four years, the term "disappointment" has a historically low meaning right now in Knoxville.)
Still, seven wins seems to be the baseline with eight wins being the break-even point from expected to improving. Let's examine the Vols' schedule (and remember, this is considering each side is healthy and there are no Cam Newton-type offseason additions for either club):
North Carolina State (at the Georgia Dome): Tennessee has to have this one. Period. This could be the biggest game of the Derek Dooley era or the beginning of the end of the Derek Dooley era. And yes, that may seem like overstatement more than nine months off, but so be it. The Vols will be slight favorites, if in name only, and the Dome figures to be colored a familiar Orange hue.
Georgia State (in Knoxville): Easy win.
Florida (in Knoxville): This can be viewed as the biggest SEC game of the Vols' season, if for no other reason than it's the starting point. Considering the Vols were a dreadful 1-7 in SEC play in 2011 -- and that one win came in overtime against Vanderbilt in late November -- getting an early SEC win would be huge. UT should be favored since Florida's offensive question marks are bigger than the Vols' defensive question marks.
Akron (in Knoxville): Dunk. Sorry, Terry Bowden fans.
Georgia (at Athens): Georgia figures to be the preseason favorite in the SEC East, and the Bulldogs likely will be a preseason top-10 pick. But Georgia may have to replace the guts of its big-play secondary, a thing that could bode well for a Tennessee team that figures to be a pass-happy bunch next fall. Georgia will be a favorite by at least a TD.
Mississippi State (at Starkville): This game depends as much on how UT fared in the first four as it does anything else. If UT is no worse than 3-1 heading to Starkville, the Vols should be fine. If they are still searching for their first SEC win, this one could be sticky.
Alabama (in Knoxville): Loss, and let's just move along. Yes, Alabama is going to lose a lot of talented pieces after running to the BCS title game, but Nick Saban has been stockpiling weapons like a 1980s Russian rogue agent.
South Carolina (in Columbia): The Gamecocks got the short draw on the new-look SEC schedule, getting the toughest draw in the East with crossover games against Arkansas and LSU. That may cost them the SEC East but not against UT, since Steve Spurrier and South Carolina have more talent than the Vols.
Troy (in Knoxville): Easy win.
Missouri (in Knoxville): Missouri is an unknown, although Tigers coach Gary Pinkel has earned a lot of respect for reshaping a program that is now worthy of the SEC's attention. That said, drawing Missouri late in the season figures to be a good thing, since the Tigers have zero idea of the physical toll an SEC schedule can demand.
Vanderbilt (in Nashville): There figures to be more emotion around this game than most UT-Vandy affairs after the Vols' overtime win and postgame celebration last month that drew the ire of Vandy coach James Franklin. Added emotion, though, doesn't change the expectation that UT should win.
Kentucky (in Knoxville): This game, not unlike the Mississippi State game, depends greatly on how the season develops before it. If UT is 8-3 and looking for a New Year's Day bowl bid, this one seems simple. If UT is dealing with the same late-season drama -- and several thousand empty seats -- that it had late in 2011, well, maybe UK will look to build on its one-game winning streak in the series.
Eight wins seems supremely attainable, but then again, a bowl game seemed supremely attainable this season. That said, if 11 months from now the Vols are fighting for six wins rather than eight, then the talk likely around the program will switch from the future to who will be the coach in the future.
Contact Jay Greeson at email@example.com or 423-757-6273.