A successful season through the eyes of bowl projections

Here’s something that caught my eye from media days this week:

One thing about this conversation: the team that should be the consensus “third best” team in the league, Texas A&M, isn’t on our schedule. So to some degree, it doesn’t matter whether you think the Vols or Aggies is better on December 1, unless we’re both in Atlanta.

But this conversation could come into play when it’s time to consider postseason destinations.

Bowls are always a fickle way to judge the success of one’s season; there’s so little control Tennessee or anyone else has if you find yourself in the SEC’s group of six bowls (“Outback”, Gator, Music City, Liberty, Texas, and Las Vegas this year, alternating seasons with the Belk/Mayo). The Vols haven’t made it north of this tier since playing in the Cotton Bowl in 2004; with that game now in the CFP rotation, the Citrus Bowl in 2001 is really the most recent comparison.

Two of the most straightforward ways to identify success – bowl destination and division championship – could both look quite different in a couple years. But for now, getting to the “Outback” (one appearance in the last 15 years) or the Citrus (none in the last 21 years) would be a clear indicator of a successful season for Tennessee.

And if the Vols are really the third best team in the SEC? They could go even higher than that.

How good do you have to be to make the Sugar Bowl?

We’re eight years in with the College Football Playoff. Every three years, the Sugar Bowl hosts a national semifinal. The other two years, including this fall, New Orleans gets the highest-ranked SEC team that isn’t in the semifinals. In 2017 and 2021, the league got two teams into the semifinals; I’m sure many preseason projections for this fall will put Alabama and Georgia there again.

So, historically speaking, who makes the Sugar Bowl as the SEC’s designated team?

  • 2015: Ole Miss (9-3, #12 CFP poll)
  • 2016: Auburn (8-4, #17 CFP poll)
  • 2018: Georgia (11-2, #6 CFP poll, lost in Atlanta)
  • 2019: Georgia (11-2, #5 CFP poll, lost in Atlanta)
  • 2021: Ole Miss (10-2, #8 CFP poll)

We know that 2016 story well, when the Vols were a win at Vanderbilt away from making it themselves at what would’ve been 9-3. As we’ll see, that season itself was an outlier, with everyone who wasn’t Alabama finishing with at least four losses. But in general, if you get to 9-3 or better? You’re going to come in for a nice landing:

What happens to SEC teams who finish at least 9-3?

  • 2021: Alabama (12-1, CFP), Georgia (12-1, CFP), Ole Miss (10-2, Sugar), Kentucky (9-3, Citrus)
  • 2020: Alabama (11-0, CFP), Georgia (7-2, Peach), Florida (8-3, Cotton), Texas A&M (8-1, Orange)
  • 2019: LSU (13-0, CFP), Georgia (11-2, Sugar), Florida (10-2, Orange), Alabama (10-2, Citrus), Auburn (9-3, Outback)
  • 2018: Alabama (12-0, CFP), LSU (9-3, Fiesta), Georgia (11-2, Sugar), Florida (9-3, Peach), Kentucky (9-3, Citrus)
  • 2017: Alabama (11-1, CFP), Georgia (12-1, CFP), Auburn (10-3, Peach), LSU (9-3, Citrus)
  • 2016: Alabama (13-0, CFP)
  • 2015: Alabama (12-1, CFP), Ole Miss (9-3, Sugar), Florida (10-3, Citrus), Georgia (10-3, Gator), LSU (9-3, Texas)
  • 2014: Alabama (12-1, CFP), Mississippi State (10-2, Orange), Ole Miss (9-3, Peach), Missouri (10-3, Citrus), Georgia (9-3, Belk)

In eight years of the playoffs, 33 SEC teams have had three or fewer losses on selection Sunday. Of that group, only four made something “less” than the Citrus Bowl. And only 2019 Auburn went down that path in the last six years.

So from a Tennessee perspective, not only would a 9-3 regular season give you the best record in Knoxville in the last 15 years, it should send you to a bowl destination of Citrus or better. And depending on what happens at the tippy-top of the league, it could send you somewhere even better.

If we again see Alabama and Georgia both in the playoff, could a 9-3 Tennessee have the league’s next-best resume? It’s on this level that games like Texas A&M/Miami, Arkansas/Cincinnati, and without question Tennessee/Pitt come into play.

So on the surface, it may seem like it doesn’t matter if you think Tennessee is better than Texas A&M (or Arkansas!). The Vols are good enough to first pursue the idea of success through the lens of giving themselves a chance to compete for the SEC East title.

But beneath all of that, keep your eyes on the bowl projections. A 9-3 finish and Orlando for the Vols? One or both of those would automatically give you the best season in 15+ years.

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Isaac Bishop
Isaac Bishop
2 months ago

I think 9-3 would be a huge step forward for this program and empower a win hungry fan base. The best part is that it should be reasonable. On a very basic overview of the schedule one could argue that we should be favored in ten games this year. Just winning the games we should be favored in will be more than enough to reach that goal and give us a one game buffer. BVS prevents me from saying that 9-3 is reasonable expectations though. I still feel like 8-4 is reasonable, but not necessarily successful. Crazy how much different… Read more »