Magazines are hitting shelves – get ours here! – and with them an early round of bowl projections for Tennessee. The good news: I haven’t seen the Vols projected to come up empty in the postseason yet, nor have I seen Tennessee projected to spend December in Birmingham or Shreveport.
It’s all an educated guessing game at this point; a couple of outlets have the Vols projected to the Belk (247) and Gator (Sporting News) Bowls. But these two and their SEC group of six counterparts – the Outback, Music City, Liberty, and Texas bowls – are reasonable destinations for Tennessee this fall. Any bowl appearance would be progress by definition, but an expectation for the Vols to get back in this group of six tier comes with a ceiling at its top in Tampa, or just beyond it in Orlando.
The first question to ask when making these projections is, “How many SEC teams do you think will make the College Football Playoff & New Year’s Six?” In the first five years of the playoff, the SEC put 14 teams in those two tiers, an average of 2.8 per year. With the semifinals in Atlanta and Tempe this year, the Sugar Bowl will automatically take the highest-rated SEC team not in the playoffs; that means at least two from this conference off the board if you expect Alabama to make it six-for-six in the CFP. Last season we saw a record four SEC teams come off the board before the Citrus Bowl, with the Tide in the playoff and LSU, Georgia, and Florida all in the New Year’s Six.
The Citrus Bowl picks next, then the league office works with schools and bowls to “assign” teams to the group of six games. Here’s how all of that has looked since the playoff began in 2014:
If the SEC gets three teams in the CFP and New Year’s Six, and the fourth team goes to the Citrus Bowl, the Vols or anyone else would just need to be considered one of the ten best teams in the league to make a group of six bowl. Seeing Tennessee routinely projected in this group suggests an expectation the Vols won’t just sneak in at 6-6, but fall in line with their Vegas projection of 7-5.
We wrote on the value of 7-5 a few weeks ago, but the bowl game adds another layer of context. If the Vols hit their Vegas number and win the bowl game, an 8-5 finish would be the third best season of the last 12 years:
- 9-4: Butch Years 3 & 4
- 7-6: Kiffin, Butch Year 2
- 6-7: Dooley Year 1
- 5-7: Fulmer Final Year, Dooley Years 2 & 3, Butch Year 1, Pruitt Year 1
- 4-8: Butch Year 5
The relative value of 7-5 would depend on which seven and which five, but should easily slide the Vols into a group of six bowl for a shot at a nice aftertaste. That continues to look like a reasonable expectation for Tennessee this fall.