College football is a special game. We all know that. A big reason is because it is also the shortest season among the sports that we hold so dear. Baseball, basketball, hockey … it feels like their seasons last forever. Even pro football has a longer season than the college game.

But college football … we cherish each game because there are so few of them to tide us over until the next season. This year the schedule is reduced even further: Just 10 opportunities, and none of the standard gimmes.

So with that in mind, this opening game for Tennessee at South Carolina is crucial. If the Vols want to have a winning season, they have to win this game.

It really is that simple.

After the Gamecocks’ matchup, it’s a home game against a Missouri program in transition. But then things get tricky.  The Vols typically play one of the tougher schedules in the country. That happens when you always have to face Alabama, Georgia and Florida, along with normally at least 1 quality out of conference opponent. Before the pandemic, the Vols had Oklahoma on the docket.

With that Sooners game, and all out of conference contests canceled, the Vols picked up 2 more SEC games and didn’t get much of a break. Their 2 additional SEC contests are against Texas A&M and Auburn, 2 teams that are ranked in the top 10 nationally.

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Sports betting in Tennessee officially launched on November 1, 2020, and many of the largest sportsbooks are live and operating in the volunteer state. Tennessee is only one of a handful of SEC football states with legalized sports betting.

Tennessee’s 2020 schedule is a challenge, and starting in week 3 it gets tough. They’ll face Georgia, Kentucky and Alabama in weeks 3-5.  Tennessee has lost to UGA by a combined score of 122-26 the past 3 seasons. The Vols traditionally handle UK, but the Wildcats are no longer a pushover. And the Vols have lost to Alabama 13 consecutive times.

There are 2 likely losses in that trifecta — and some think Kentucky is better than Tennessee. That stretch in particular explains why the opener is so critical.

So let’s say that the Vols beat South Carolina. That’s a game they should win; they dominated South Carolina 41-21 last season. Will Muschamp enters the opener already on the hot seat. The Gamecocks are coming off a 4-8 season. They just named grad transfer Collin Hill the starting quarterback. They’re largely starting over on offense.

A week later, Tennessee it is Missouri, a team that the Vols should also beat. The Vols won last year’s game to end a 2-game slide in the series. Like South Carolina, Missouri also is starting over on offense, even more so. The Tigers have a new head coach, offensive coordinator and starting quarterback.

Best-case, the Vols would be 2-0, feeling confident and carrying momentum into the Georgia/Kentucky/Alabama stretch leading into the bye week.

But if you lose the South Carolina game, pressure starts to build.

Let’s say you still beat Mizzou to get to 1-1, and then do what you typically do and beat UK. You are still looking at a 2-3 mark at that point. If you split the Mizzou/Kentucky games, then you’d be at 1-4 for the 2nd straight year. Who knows where their minds would be if that happens.

Yes, last year the Vols were able to bounce back from a 1-4 start to finish at 8-5. The difference is that in 2019, there were more games left and the Vols’ schedule got much easier. UAB, Missouri and Vanderbilt didn’t strike much fear into the hearts of Vols fans.

In 2020, Tennessee faces Texas A&M, Auburn and Florida after the bye. The Vols still get Arkansas and Vanderbilt, but overall a 5-5 mark might be as good as you could hope for, and that would have to be considered a step back in year 3 of the Jeremy Pruitt era.

The 2020 college football season has been and will continue to be full of unknowns. But as always, the teams that will fare well are the teams that consistently beat the teams that they are supposed to beat.

The Vols should defeat the Gamecocks. UT has more talent. Their incoming recruiting class was much better. Right now, Tennessee simply has a better overall football program than South Carolina.

But if the Vols don’t win this game, it could be a harbinger of bad things to come the rest of the way for Tennessee.