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With the start of the University of Tennessee's spring football practice now just 13 days away, it seems somewhat fitting to begin to look at the Volunteers' 2020 season and what might be expected of Jeremy Pruitt's third Big Orange team.

At least it seems a little more appropriate than this time last week, thanks to Charlotte coach Will Healy, the former Boyd Buchanan star, putting the Vols in the Top 20 during an interview with our Sports department's David Paschall.

"It's not that hard figuring out what they have coming back," said Healy, whose 49ers will open the season inside Neyland Stadium on Sept. 5. "It's a top-20 team in the country, and we're playing them at their place."

And that they should be. But what if they could become better than that? Top 15 maybe? Top 10? College Football Playoff good?

OK, forgive me, Big Orange Nation. All this rain has waterlogged my brain.

But it is kind of fun to think what might be if the stars align right for these Vols. Assuming, of course, the clouds will part long enough to see them.

So how good could these Vols be? Or, from an opposite perspective, could Healy's Charlotte crowd, fresh off an improbable bowl berth, pull another Georgia State and shock UT inside Neyland for a second straight season opener?

That would seem unlikely, if only because of that Georgia State embarrassment. Once burned, twice learned, so to speak. So make UT 1-0 after one game. Especially if you take this quote from Healy at face value, which you probably shouldn't: "We're not going to put too much into the Tennessee game."

Even so, UT should have too much talent and experience to lose to Healy's Heroes, so let's move along.

Up next will come a visit to Norman, Oklahoma, to take on the Sooners. OU lost a bunch of offensive weapons, including quarterback Jalen Hurts, from last year's CFP squad. But Lincoln Riley is still the coach, the game's in Norman and it's a pretty tall order to expect the Vols — who have their own offensive stars such as JaJuan Jennings to replace — to win this one.

Nevertheless, that's just what's going to happen. Make it UT 31, OU 28, the first big upset of the college season.

Furman is up next and while the Paladins are often a force to be reckoned with in the Southern Conference, having reached the FCS playoffs last season, they're no match for the Vols. So let's improve UT to 3-0 heading into

Florida week! Yes, the Gators visit Neyland Stadium on Sept. 26 with nothing more on the line than, well, everything, if you're a Volniac. It isn't just that Florida's won 14 of the last 15 meetings between the two, or that last year's 34-3 crushing of the Orange was arguably the Vols' worst game of the season. If Tennessee is to prove that it's back among the Southeastern Conference's elite, it must start here.

And so it will. Make it UT 28, Florida 27, the Gators missing a potential game-winning field goal inside the final minute.

Now 4-0 for the season, the Vols next host Missouri and its new football coach, Eliah Drinkwitz. Tigers fans will need a few drinks after this one as the Vols roll 41-17 behind four touchdown passes from Jarrett Guarantano.

If there's a so-called trap game on UT's schedule it arrives on Oct. 10, when the Vols visit South Carolina to face the Gamecocks and their embattled coach Will Muschamp. Having started the season 3-0, SC should stand 3-2 when UT arrives in Columbia, having lost back-to-back games to Florida and Kentucky.

Tennessee doesn't flinch, however. The Vols win 28-20 to move to 6-0 heading into an open date.

What comes next will determine whether this becomes a really good season or a great one. It's Alabama, after all, which hasn't lost to UT since Nick Saban took over the Tide in time for the 2007 season. But with this one being played in Neyland Stadium and ESPN's "GameDay" crew in the house, make it Tennessee 27, Alabama 21 — and number of unlit victory cigars returned to Tuscaloosa 115 or so.

The problem with big victories is how you handle them. Because of that, the Vols catch a scheduling break in that the next two games after Alabama come on the road at woeful Arkansas, then home against the SEC team UT owns like no other — Kentucky.

This is not to say that neither of those teams absolutely, positively can't beat the Big Orange. Just that they won't. So if you're doing the math, the Vols will arrive at Georgia's Sanford Stadium on Nov. 14 with a 9-0 record, a Top 10 ranking (No. 4) and dreams of a College Football Playoff berth dancing in their heads.

Fortunately for UT, the Dawgs will arrive at this one more physically and mentally drained than the Vols, having just faced Florida in Jacksonville and South Carolina in Columbia. Once again, UT wins 24-22 to keep its date with the SEC title game alive.

The final two regular-season games are anticlimactic. Troy at home. Vanderbilt in Nashville, with 80% of the crowd clad in pale orange. What awaits is an SEC title game against Auburn. What awaits is a loss made tougher to swallow by Auburn true freshman defensive lineman Jay Hardy, the former McCallie School star who shockingly said no to the Big Orange, twice sacking Guarantano in the final quarter.

Still, 12-1 and heading to the Sugar Bowl is nothing to feel bad about. At least that's the way it could end up if Tennessee begins the season by putting way more into Charlotte than Healy says the 49ers (wink, wink) are putting into the Vols.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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