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Ranking the Volunteers' Nonconference Games by Importance

Tennessee Volunteer Football
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Josh Heupel, in his fourth year as the coach of the University of Tennessee Volunteers football program, is preparing for an exciting season. The team's offense will be led by the highly anticipated Nico Iamaleava, a new quarterback with a promising track record. The Southeastern Conference, renowned for its challenging schedule, presents a series of obstacles that every team must overcome.

The nonconference games offer a valuable chance to secure wins, a crucial element in qualifying for a bowl game. Heupel and the Volunteers are not merely aiming for a bowl game—they are setting their sights on securing a spot in the new 12-team playoffs to determine the National Champion. Here is a ranking of their four nonconference games by importance to the Volunteers season.

No 4. Chatanooga Mocs (2023 8-5, 6-2 Southern Conference)

The University of Tennessee Chatanooga Mocs will stroll into Neyland Stadium to start the season. While the Mocs are a playoff-level FCS team, they are not an SEC team, so the task will be daunting, to say the least. This football rivalry was played every year from 1945 to 1966. The Volunteers hold a 40-2-2 margin over the Mocs, with the last game being played in 2019 resulting in a 45-0 victory for Tennessee.

Quarterback Chase Artopoeus returns to handle the Mocs offense, coming off his first real full season of action since high school football. Artopoeus started his career at UCLA under former coach Chip Kelly. Artopoeus is rated as one of the top returning FCS quarterbacks and looks to improve upon last year's 2,672 yards passing with 20 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. Coach Rusty Wright is a Chatanooga Alum and shared the field with Terell Owens in their playing days. Even if the Mocs had Owens, this still would not be a close game. Tennessee rolls in this season's opening tune-up on Aug. 31.

No 3. Kent State Golden Flashes (2023 1-11, 0-8 Mid-American Conference)

The Golden Flashes are entering the new season on the back of a challenging 2023 campaign, where all 11 losses were by double digits. Coach Kenni Burns, now in his second year with the Golden Flashes, is determined to turn the team's fortunes around. With a strong coaching background as a key member of Minnesota coach PJ Fleck's staff, his experience is expected to make a significant impact. The team is looking to bounce back from their previous season's performance, and their upcoming game against the Volunteers will be a crucial test of their progress.

Multiple players saw action at quarterback last year for Kent State, but Purdue transfer Micahel Alaimo will most likely get the nod under center. The Golden Flashes brought in a transfer fromKansas State, Jaren Lewis, who could factor into the rotation. The offensive line play has to be better for the Golden Flashes to succeed this year. The trip to Neyland Stadium will be good for experience, but the Volunteers should easily outclass Kent State on Sept. 14.

Kent State Golden Flashes Football
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No 2. UTEP Miners (2023 3-2, 2-6 Conference USA)

The UTEP Miners made a change at the end of a down year. The Miners welcomed Scotty Walden, previously of Austin Pea University, as their 27th football coach in school history.

"He is one of the most innovative and energetic young coaches in the nation," said UTEP Vice President and Director of Athletics, Jim Senter. "He will put a product on the field that Miner fans will love to watch. His teams are characterized by fast-paced and high-scoring offenses and opportunistic defenses. He did a remarkable job establishing the team culture at Austin Peay, guiding a group of fine young men, and building a championship program in a very short period of time. We can’t be more excited to launch a new era of Miner football."

Quarterback Cade McConnell started the final six games for the Miners last season and might have an inside to the starting position, but do count out Jake McNamara, the brother of the University of Iowa quarterback Cade McNamara. This will be an interesting time for the game since this matchup is the Volunteer's mid-November game (Nov. 23), which usually involves an FCS opponent. UTEP will have the chance to get their feet under them in a new system before traveling to Neyland. This could be a good tune-up for the rivalry game against the Vanderbilt to close the season out.

UTEP Miners Football
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No 1. North Carolina State Wolfpack (2023 9-4, 6-2 Atlantic Coast Conference)

The Wolfpack come into this season with a lot more hype than they have had in many years. Last year, they beat ACC stalwart Clemson, launching them into a bowl appearance against Kansas State. Quarterback Grayson McCall comes in from Coastal Carolina with loads of experience and talent to lead this Robert Anae offense. The Wolfpack will have a threat at every level of the field, which could pose problems for whomever they play, especially the Volunteers. Aydan White returns as one of the ACC's best defensive backs and one of the best in college football, period. With the amount of talent the Wolfpack has, this meeting with Tennessee is crucial for both programs.

The two have only met once in the modern era, and the Volunteers hold a 2-1 advantage over N.C. State. This is a "neutral" site game for the Duke's Mayo Classic (Sept. 7), played at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, but both teams should be well represented by their fans. This game could let the college football world know that either team is ready or not ready for a playoff run. Can Iamaleava handle the pressure of being the guy or will McCall's leadership be enough for the Wolfpack? It should be one of the handful of great early-season games to welcome fans back to the sport they love so much.

Overall Outlook for the Volunteers Nonconference Slate

The Volunteers want to be in the mix for an SEC championship, the playoffs and a possible national title. Tennessee's nonconference schedule is set up to be pretty easy, with the only potential stumbling block being the Duke's Mayo Classic against N.C. State.

Iamaleava will have a great teacher in Heupel, the former Heisman Trophy runner-up in 2000. The offense will look to score fast and often, while the defense has to get better on the back end. This could be a really good year to be a Volunteer and it all starts with handling those nonconference games.

1 Comment

Jun 17

Great article!

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