The Tennessee Vols surpassed expectations last season by going 7-6 in Josh Heupel’s first season as the program’s head coach.

7-6 may sound like a mediocre season, but it was incredibly impressive considering the challenges that Heupel faced. The program was dealing with a mass exodus of talented players while also facing an NCAA recruiting investigation when Heupel arrived.

If the Vols would’ve gone 5-7 in Heupel’s first season, I don’t think anyone would’ve batted an eye. It would’ve been a disappointment, but it would’ve been understandable.

But last year is in the past. And now that we know Heupel can win in the SEC, the expectation will be for the program to improve every year. That means Tennessee needs to win at least eight regular-season games in 2022. Winning nine regular-season games (along with a bowl game win to get to 10 wins for the first time since 2007), would be ideal.

I think there are two specific games on the schedule that are more important than the other games. Now, of course, every game is important. But there are certain games that we pretty much know how they’ll play out. We know the Vols probably aren’t beating Alabama or Georgia. And we know they’ll probably beat Vanderbilt and Missouri.

It’s those “toss-up” games that can be important. And two of those toss-up games are critical to the way we will view Tennessee’s 2022 season when it’s all said and done.

Tennessee Vols
Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker (5) runs the ball during a game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla. on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.
Kns Tennessee Florida Football

The matchups against Pittsburgh (on the road, September 10) and Florida (at home, September 24) are easily the two most important games on the Vols’ schedule in 2022.

Tennessee could’ve beat Pittsburgh last year. Maybe if they would’ve started Hendon Hooker at quarterback instead of Joe Milton, they would’ve.

If the Volunteers are going to take a massive step forward, they need to go on the road against a tough out-of-conference foe and win. We saw last year that Tennessee is capable of beating Pittsburgh. And now that the Panthers no longer have Kenny Pickett under center, there’s really no excuse to lose this game. It won’t be easy, but if Heupel wants fans to believe in his system long-term, this is a game that has to be won.

As for Florida, well it speaks for itself, right? Tennesee has only beat the Gators once since 2004. Florida had some great teams under Urban Meyer. Nearly everyone was losing to the Tim Tebow-led Gators in the mid-2000s. But since Meyer left Gainesville, Florida has been very, very beatable.

The Gators are on their fourth head coach in the last decade. They’ve had down years yet they’ve still dominated Tennessee.

In 2022, Florida once again has a new head coach. Billy Napier has never coached a down in the SEC. There’s going to be a learning curve. The Vols need to make a statement against Florida in 2022.

If the Vols win both these games, I think they easily win nine regular-season games (maybe even 10, depending on the LSU game).

Wins in these two games will show Vol fans that progress is truly being made on Rocky Top for the first time in a long time.

Featured image via Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports.