The Vols are ranked in the preseason coaches’ poll for the third year in a row, just sliding in at #24. But the more relevant note for Tennessee could be the positioning of the other SEC teams in the poll.
The initial poll has Alabama in the top spot, then four SEC teams between 12-16 (LSU, Auburn, Georgia, Florida). Meanwhile the Big Ten has four teams in the Top 10. Arguments over conference supremacy aren’t settled in the preseason poll. But the trend in both leagues does not project well for the SEC when it comes to bowl selections.
The conversation on which league is better usually centers on who’s at the top. But last year there was a significant difference in who’s at the bottom. In S&P+, the SEC’s worst team in 2016 was South Carolina at 79th. The Gamecocks were 6-7. Meanwhile the Big Ten had four teams – 28.5% of the conference – finish worse than that (Maryland 87th, Illinois 95th, Purdue 105th, Rutgers 114th). Illinois and Purdue were 3-9 (as was Michigan State); Rutgers was 2-10.
Being a top-heavy league doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a better league. But it does give your teams a much better chance to make the New Year’s Six.
This year the College Football Playoff semifinals are in New Orleans and Pasadena, which takes almost all the automatic bids to New Year’s Six games off the table. Last year Alabama made the playoff, but the Sugar Bowl was required to take the next best SEC team; thus Auburn got in at 8-4 (and Tennessee would have gotten in at 9-3 had they beaten Vanderbilt). But with the Sugar Bowl in the playoff, only the SEC Champion is required to be taken…and if that champion is Alabama, as most project, and the Tide are in the playoff, the league could be shut out of the New Year’s Six bowls entirely.
And if that sounds drastic? It’s exactly what will happen if the final College Football Playoff poll looks like the preseason coaches’ poll.
You would have something like this:
- Sugar Bowl Semifinal: #1 Alabama vs #4 Southern Cal
- Rose Bowl Semifinal: #2 Ohio State vs #3 Florida State
- Orange Bowl: #5 Clemson vs #6 Penn State
- Fiesta Bowl: #7 Washington vs #9 Michigan
- Cotton Bowl: #8 Oklahoma vs #10 Wisconsin
- Peach Bowl: #11 Oklahoma State vs #21 South Florida (group of five)
Four Big Ten teams in the playoff/New Year’s Six. And only Alabama from the SEC. This would leave the rest of the league scrambling for the Citrus Bowl, then a bunch of 8-4 again in the SEC’s Group of Six (Belk, Liberty, Music City, Outback, Taxslayer, Texas).
The last time the semifinals were in the Sugar Bowl in 2014, the SEC put both Ole Miss and Mississippi State in the New Year’s Six as at-large selections. This put Missouri, the league’s fourth-highest-ranked team, in the Citrus Bowl. But the last two years, the Sugar Bowl has had to go outside the Top 11 (#12 Ole Miss in 2015, #14 Auburn in 2016) to fill its automatic bid. If that happens again this year, the league could get shut out of the New Year’s Six.
“Four Big Ten teams in the Top 10 will never happen,” you say? They got four in the top eight last year. While Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State continue to round-robin each other, Wisconsin (presumably) gets the winner in the conference title game; this year they face only Michigan of those three in the regular season. Meanwhile all four get at least two games with the league’s worst with Maryland and Rutgers in the east division and Illinois and Purdue in the west.
The SEC, on the other hand, has a much higher floor (which helps to prevent a higher ceiling). There are no free wins; Tennessee can attest to that. We continue to point out that while Alabama is 40-4 the last three years, look at the next eight SEC teams:
The nature of the beast has turned cannibalistic: everyone is 8-4 and unhappy. And this year we might feel it even more potently come bowl season: if the SEC doesn’t get a second team in the New Year’s Six, one of these teams could be headed to the Birmingham Bowl.
In this year especially with the Sugar and Rose out of play, the New Year’s Six will truly take the next best/highest-ranked teams in college football. Will the second-best team in the SEC have a clean enough record to make it?