Schedule analysis: Tennessee

Breaking down Tennessee's schedule for 2012:

Nonconference opponents (with 2011 records)

Aug. 31: vs. N.C. State (8-5), in Atlanta

Sept. 8: Georgia State (3-8)

Sept. 22: Akron (1-11)

Nov. 3: Troy (3-9)

SEC home games

Sept. 15: Florida

Oct. 20: Alabama

Nov. 10: Missouri

Nov. 24: Kentucky

SEC road games

Sept. 29: at Georgia

Oct. 13: at Mississippi State

Oct. 27: at South Carolina

Nov. 17: at Vanderbilt

Gut-check time: The last time Tennessee beat Florida, Ron Zook was coaching the Gators and Phillip Fulmer was coaching the Vols. The year was 2004, which was a few head coaches ago for both schools. If Tennessee is going to make a move in the East this season, the Vols have to figure out a way to end their drought against the Gators. Protecting their home turf will also be critical, and Florida's visit on Sept. 15 will be the Vols' first SEC test of the season.

Trap game: After what Derek Dooley was caught on tape saying in the locker room last season about Tennessee always kicking the (bleep) out of Vanderbilt, you can bet James Franklin and the Commodores will be ready when the Vols roll into Nashville on Nov. 17. The game is sandwiched between home dates with Missouri and Kentucky, and will be the sixth game in as many weeks for the Vols after getting their bye in early October.

Snoozer: After opening the season in Atlanta against N.C. State, Tennessee comes back home the second week of the season to face Georgia State. It's anything but a grueling a nonconference slate for the Vols. Georgia State, Akron and Troy won a combined seven games last season.

Telltale stretch: How well the Vols survive that stretch in the middle of the season where they play three SEC road games in five weeks will go a long way toward shaping their season. It's a four-game stretch with a bye coming after the initial trip to Georgia on Sept. 29. Then comes a trip to Mississippi State on Oct. 13. Alabama comes to Knoxville the next week, and then it's back on the road to face South Carolina on Oct. 27. The Vols have three games in October this coming season. Their SEC October record under Derek Dooley is 0-8. The reality is that another winless October in 2012 will make it very difficult for Dooley to survive.

Final analysis: It's impossible to downplay how important that opener against N.C. State is for the Vols, who have not fared well in the Georgia Dome. In fact, the last time they won a football game in the Georgia Dome was the 1998 SEC championship game. Winning that game gives Tennessee the momentum it needs heading into the SEC opener with Florida two weeks later in Knoxville. If the Vols can manage to win both of those games, they might just be the sleeper in the Eastern Division race. Obviously, the Florida game is the more important of the two, although you wonder how fragile the Vols would be if they stumble in Atlanta. On the flip side, if the Vols were to start 1-2 and lose both of those games, they could be staring down the barrel of their third straight non-winning regular season ... or even worse. When you look at the schedule as a whole, especially if the Vols can stay healthy, eight regular-season wins is certainly possible. Something says that home date with Missouri on Nov. 10 will end up being a huge swing game.