So it looks like we’re going to 12, though there will be some weeping and gnashing of teeth over going higher than eight. (And some additional tears for quarterfinal rounds keeping bowls on life support instead of more games on campus.)
Tennessee, of course, is a long, long way from any playoff conversation. But perhaps one way to learn how you’d actually feel about 12 teams is to run it back through our happier days, to see what difference it might’ve made in our glory days. A big thanks to College Poll Archive for facilitating the fun.
If the field was 12 teams (Top 6 conference champions + Top 6 at-large, rankings using AP, BCS, and CFP polls), how often would the Vols have played for it all?
1989: In, first round game in Knoxville. Three-way-tie for the SEC title with the 11-1 Vols, Alabama, and Auburn, but at #8 in the final regular season AP poll, Tennessee is in either way.
1990: In. SEC Champions at the end of a very strange and wildly enjoyable 8-2-2 campaign.
1991: In. Here’s a good example of how a season might be remembered differently: the ’91 Vols are basically thought of as the Miracle at South Bend team, and that’s about it. But they would’ve squeaked into the playoffs at #10.
1992: Bubble until mid-November. The Johnny Majors-Phillip Fulmer drama would’ve included a fall from what felt like playoff certainty in early October to a hill too steep to climb after three straight losses. Still, another theme emerges for the first time here: even outside the Top 12, if you can win the SEC East, you get a chance to dramatically improve your fate in Atlanta. In 1992, the Vols were alive for Atlanta until mid-November, when Georgia beat Auburn and Florida escaped South Carolina.
1993: In, first round game in Knoxville. The ol’ “Best Vol squad of the 90s in SP+” would’ve not only made the field, but hosted a first round game at #6 in the final regular season AP poll. No season would’ve had its fate more drastically altered; this group would’ve gone to the playoff feeling like a legit national championship contender.
1995: In, first round game in Knoxville. Couldn’t earn a first round bye since the Gators won the SEC, but the #4 Vols are in easily.
1996: In. That Memphis loss stings a little less now eh?
1997: In, first round bye. No worries with Michigan and Nebraska both going undefeated.
1998: In, first round bye. Obviously.
1999: In, first round game in Knoxville. In the, “You made the regular season less meaningful!” camp: Tennessee’s 1999 loss to Arkansas took them out of the national championship picture. In a 12-team playoff, it would’ve cost them basically zero: the Vols were still #5 in the final regular season BCS standings.
2001: In, first round game in Knoxville. Tennessee’s loss to LSU in the SEC Championship Game moves from the most heartbreaking Saturday of our lives to, “Oh man, now we have to play an extra game.”
2003: In, first round game in Knoxville. Here’s another season that looks very different in a 12-team playoff. The Vols finished eighth in the final regular season BCS standings at 10-2, got hosed into the Peach Bowl, then tried to fight Clemson for an hour and lost thanks to 134521087 penalties. But in a 12-team playoff, not only is Casey Clausen’s final team in, they’re hosting.
2004: Bubble until Atlanta. The Vols finished 15th in the BCS after losing to undefeated Auburn in Atlanta, but that’s obviously a win-and-you’re-in scenario.
2006: Bubble until mid-November. Instead of the loss to LSU being the one that cost the Vols, it would’ve been the next one at Arkansas that took Tennessee out.
2007: Bubble until Atlanta. Same as 2004, win in Atlanta and you’re in.
The Vols, of course, would’ve been out from 2008-2015. Even that 2015 squad, who played so many great teams so close, was too far behind to catch up. The 2016 squad would’ve been on the bubble until mid-November, when Florida’s win over LSU knocked the Vols out of Atlanta. Then back to spectating from 2017 to the present day.
So pros: the Vols are in 11 times in 15 years from 1989-2003. They only earn first-round byes in 1997 and 1998 thanks to Steve Spurrier, but do host a first round game six times. And they’re technically in the national championship conversation deep into 2004 and 2007, years that otherwise could only shoot for the division title by then.
And cons: those division titles end up meaning pretty much nothing, though much of that is because of who Tennessee was as a program by that point. Instead of 2004 and 2007 feeling like a disappointment, Tennessee just misses the playoffs in 2004, 2006, and 2007 after making it 11 of 15 times prior. That, of course, is the same hot seat for Phillip Fulmer in 2008; mileage will always vary, but I’m not sure this new scenario will automatically lead to more job security for everyone.
Asking if this scenario increases or diminishes Tennessee’s legacy would be entirely dependent on what those Vols did in those hypothetical playoffs. But I think it’s safe to say it can keep all kinds of teams in the conversation for much longer…and it can diminish all other accomplishments.
The best news for Tennessee coming into what will be a landscape-shifting moment for how we define success in college football: we haven’t had much by any definition in 14 years. So while this kind of shift may not automatically make life any easier for someone like Kirby Smart, any kind of success – stealing an SEC East title, just hanging around the conversation, or being one of those teams that makes someone say, “You know, we used to have better teams here in the Outback Bowl…”…it’s all forward progress from here.