Tennessee is bowl eligible for just the sixth time in the last 12 years, the first time since 2016, and the first time since 2015 when you’re actually looking forward to it. If the Vols beat Vanderbilt and win their bowl game, an 8-5 finish would be the third-best season for Tennessee in these last dozen years.
There’s a lot to celebrate, some of which includes not just postseason eligibility but the opportunity to play in January. Those two things seemed improbable and impossible after the Vols were blown out at Florida in a 1-3 start. But thanks to the good work of both Tennessee and the SEC’s upper tier, a January 1 date in Florida is the most likely scenario for the Vols if they handle Vanderbilt.
First, how Tennessee gets there. Then, who they might play.
SEC Bowl Tie-Ins: CFP, NY6 & Orlando
We start with the College Football Playoff. LSU is currently atop those rankings, with the regular season finale against Texas A&M and the SEC Championship left to go. Georgia was fourth last week and should stay there; the Dawgs get 3-8 Georgia Tech, then LSU.
If LSU beats Texas A&M, they should be in regardless of what happens in Atlanta. If Georgia beats Georgia Tech, the Dawgs should be in if they beat LSU. If LSU beats Georgia, Alabama could re-enter the fray if they beat Auburn on Saturday. The 11-1 Tua-less Tide would be in the conversation with Utah and the Oklahoma/Baylor rematch victor if they all win out.
Regardless, the SEC will almost certainly have one team in the College Football Playoff, and possibly two.
From there, the Sugar Bowl is required to take the next highest-ranked SEC team in the CFP poll. This will almost certainly be Georgia or Alabama.
The Sugar Bowl will take from the SEC and Big 12, the Rose Bowl from the Big Ten and Pac-12. The Orange Bowl will take the next highest-ranked ACC team (which was none of them last week; the assumption is this will be the winner of Virginia/Virginia Tech after they then lose to Clemson).
The other team in the Orange Bowl is the next-highest-ranked at-large team from the SEC, Big Ten, or Notre Dame. Because of that, it matters less if the league gets two teams in the playoff this year: either one of Georgia/Alabama makes the playoff and the other goes to the Sugar Bowl, or neither of them make the playoff but one goes to the Sugar and one could go to the Orange. You’d need the lesser of Georgia/Alabama to be ranked higher than the lesser of Penn State and the winner of this week’s Wisconsin/Minnesota game.
Finally, the Cotton Bowl will take the top Group of Five team and the highest-rated available at-large team. That could be the aforementioned lesser of Penn State/Wisconsin/Minnesota. But it could also be Florida, currently 11th in the CFP poll.
Translation: the SEC should have either three or four teams in the College Football Playoff and New Year’s Six.
The Citrus Bowl is next, and gets first pick of all the remaining SEC teams. If Florida makes it four in the CFP/NY6, Auburn is the natural choice here. If the Gators are left out of the CFP/NY6, they’re likely to end up in Orlando.
SEC Bowl Tie-Ins: The Group of Six
That’s the Outback, Gator, Music City, Belk, Liberty, and Texas Bowls. And I list them this way because that’s typically been their order of prestige. The league office says, “In consultation with SEC member institutions, as well as these six bowls, the conference will make the assignments for the bowl games in the pool system.”
This has never meant that all six are created equal. The old pecking order puts the Outback at the top of the list, and that’s held form: a ranked SEC team has played in Tampa seven of the last eight years. If Florida is in the Citrus Bowl, Auburn should be the choice here; the Tigers haven’t been to the Outback Bowl since 2014.
But if the league gets four teams in the NY6/CFP and Auburn goes to the Citrus Bowl, the pool of available teams changes:
- Tennessee (7-5 if they beat Vanderbilt)
- Texas A&M (7-5 if they lose to LSU)
- Kentucky (6-5 playing Louisville)
- Missouri (6-6 if they beat Arkansas, but ineligible at the moment)
- Mississippi State (6-6 if they beat Ole Miss)
You already don’t have enough teams to fill the allotment. You’re two short if Missouri remains ineligible. You’re three short if Ole Miss beats Mississippi State.
Given all of the above, Tennessee and Texas A&M are clearly the cream of this crop. Which brings me to the most important point: Texas A&M played in the Gator Bowl last year.
That being the case, if Auburn is in the Citrus Bowl and the league office is deciding between these five teams, it seems obvious to send A&M to Tampa. From there, the Gator Bowl is traditionally the next-highest in the pecking order; Jacksonville hosted ranked SEC teams three of the last six years and Tennessee and Georgia in two of the other three. By contrast, the Music City Bowl has hosted a ranked SEC team once since 2002. The Belk Bowl has hosted a ranked SEC team once since its agreement with the league in 2014. Last year #24 Missouri became the first ranked SEC team to play in the Liberty Bowl since the arrangement was renewed in 2006. And the Texas Bowl has hosted a ranked SEC team once since its arrangement with the league in 2015.
You can argue about the pecking order of Music City, Liberty, Belk, and Texas. But let’s not pretend the Group of Six doesn’t start with January in Florida.
And that being the case, Tennessee is going to Jacksonville.
If Auburn is in the Citrus Bowl, A&M goes to Tampa because they were in Jacksonville last year and the Vols go to Jacksonville. If Florida is in the Citrus Bowl, Auburn goes to Tampa for the first time since 2014, and the Vols go to Jacksonville because A&M was there last year.
Jason Kirk at Banner Society, who has done my favorite bowl projections for years, currently disputes this theory by sending A&M back to Jacksonville, Auburn to Tampa, and the Vols to Charlotte. The last time the Gator Bowl took the same team in consecutive years was West Virginia in 2004-05. The Outback Bowl took the Vols back-to-back in 2006-07. But it has not happened for either bowl in the last 12 years.
What could disrupt this scenario, besides a loss to Vanderbilt? Outside of total chaos like Georgia Tech beating Georgia, here’s the only scenario I can come up with:
- Auburn beats Alabama, Florida State beats Florida, and Oregon beats Utah in the Pac-12 title game
- CFP: LSU, Ohio State, Clemson, Oklahoma
- Sugar: Georgia vs Baylor
- Rose: Minnesota vs Oregon
- Orange: Penn State vs VT/UVA
- Cotton: Group of Five vs Utah
If there were only two SEC teams in the CFP/NY6, then in this scenario let’s say Auburn goes to the Citrus Bowl, but the Outback and Gator could choose Florida AND Alabama. It’s quite a longshot, but I’d imagine it would send Tennessee elsewhere. Given that Alabama is -4 and Florida is -17.5 right now, I think we’ll be alright here.
One other wrinkle, on the positive side. ESPN’s Mark Schlabach puts four SEC teams in the CFP/NY6, then sends Auburn to the Citrus Bowl. But instead of sending Texas A&M to Tampa, he sends them to Houston…to face Texas. Would the Aggies rather see their old rivals or play on January 1? Good question, but I’m sure the other powers that be would love it. If that happened, the Vols could get to the Outback Bowl, where Schlabach has them facing Penn State. Stay tuned.
Who Would We Play in Jacksonville?
Let’s assume it is in fact the Gator Bowl for Tennessee. Who are we likely to face there?
This is the final year of an arrangement between the Gator and Music City Bowls to each take three ACC and three Big Ten teams in a six-year period. Jacksonville took Iowa (and the Vols) in 2014, Penn State in 2015, then three ACC teams in a row. So they are contractually obligated to take a Big Ten team this year.
However, with bowls things like contracts and rules can be relaxed on college football’s selection Sunday. One scenario I’ve seen, including at Banner Society: the best available Big Ten team is Indiana, and the best available ACC team is the loser of Virginia/Virginia Tech. It’s only a four hour drive from Indiana to Nashville for the Music City Bowl, which sent a representative to see the Hoosiers last week. If it makes sense for all parties involved, those rules will be in theory only. Trading with the Music City would bring the #3 ACC team to Jacksonville, behind the Orange Bowl and the Camping World Bowl. Notre Dame can’t take the ACC spot in Miami, but can in the Camping World Bowl, so the theory is is VT/UVA winner to the Orange Bowl, Notre Dame to Camping World, VT/UVA loser to Jacksonville.
So while there’s an outside chance Tennessee might catch Virginia or Virginia Tech in Jacksonville, the more likely scenario is a Big Ten team. That conference also has rules in place to send its teams to as many different bowls as possible in a six year span. Iowa has been a popular pick for the Gator Bowl, but we remember seeing them there in 2014. The Athletic and the Des Moines Register have details on those contracts as they relate to the Hawkeyes.
Let’s look at the Big Ten picture as a whole. Ohio State seems bound for the CFP. The Rose Bowl takes the next highest-ranked Big Ten team, which will either be Penn State (10-2 post-Rutgers) or the Minnesota/Wisconsin winner. If another Big Ten team is ranked above the next-highest SEC team, they’d get the Orange Bowl but then forfeit their Citrus bowl slot to the ACC. This would not happen if a Big Ten team gets the Cotton Bowl.
Banner Society has Minnesota in the Rose and Penn State in the Cotton. Both ESPN projections leave Penn State out of the New Year’s Six, putting the Minnesota/Wisconsin winner in the Rose and SEC teams in the Orange and Cotton.
Once we get beyond there, the Big Ten’s rules about five different teams playing in bowls over six years come into play. Penn State, for example, played in the Citrus Bowl last year, so don’t look for them back in Orlando. If the Nittany Lions don’t earn a New Year’s Six spot, they’ll be in Tampa (not since 2011).
After the Citrus and the Outback, the Holiday Bowl interrupts the SEC/Big Ten love affair. Both Michigan and Iowa would come into play here: the Wolverines haven’t been to San Diego since 1994, the Hawkeyes since 1991. Then the Gator Bowl, which hasn’t had Michigan since 1991.
So the cleanest scenario would go something like this:
- CFP: Ohio State
- Rose: Minnesota/Wisconsin winner
- Citrus: Minnesota/Wisconsin loser
- Outback: Penn State
- Holiday: Iowa
- Gator: Michigan
If you like that look, watch the College Football Playoff poll this week and see where Penn State lands. If they’re behind Florida, that would be really good news for both the SEC and the chances to see Michigan in the Gator Bowl.
As we’ve noted, I still think the Vols will go to Jacksonville even if the Big Ten gets a third team in the CFP/NY6 and Florida goes to Orlando instead. But if that happens via the Cotton Bowl, Indiana (or an ACC team) becomes a possible alternative for the Gator Bowl.
So, to recap:
- Beat Vanderbilt, and the Vols should be in Jacksonville
- …unless Texas and Texas A&M want a piece of each other, which could send Tennessee to the Outback Bowl
- If Penn State ends up in the New Year’s Six, the Gator Bowl could get Indiana or an ACC team
- If Penn State isn’t in the New Year’s Six, Michigan seems most likely for the Gator Bowl
- It’s important for Penn State to be behind Florida in the new College Football Playoff poll if you want Michigan
First thing’s first: beat Vanderbilt.