I'd like to take just a moment to pause and think about how depressing it would've been to have lost on Saturday. After everything we've been through, getting to a bowl game feels like a really big deal, especially when everything points to it being a short trip to an in-state destination, which should help put lots of orange in the stands.
The SEC is king, and that reign extends into the postseason, where our conference has a better deal than anyone else, by far. All you have to do is finish in the top half of the league, and you're playing on January 1. It's an even better deal when the league gets two teams in the BCS, which is why Vol fans should be pulling for LSU to win out. The Tigers can't win the SEC and won't play in the BCS Championship Game unless total insanity makes an appearance, but if they can handle Ole Miss and Arkansas, they'll almost certainly get an at-large bid. Unless Auburn beats Alabama and then loses to South Carolina, I'm not sure another SEC team (read: Alabama) would be ranked high enough to earn an at-large. But for those of us who won't be going to the BCS, the league getting two teams in means we all get bumped up a notch.
So, here's one man's rough guess at how things will finish in the SEC:
- BCS: Auburn
- BCS: LSU
- Capital One: South Carolina
- Cotton: Alabama
- Outback: Florida
- Chick-Fil-A: Winner of Mississippi State/Arkansas
- Gator: Georgia (if eligible)
- Music City: Tennessee
- Liberty: Loser of Mississippi State/Arkansas
- Compass: Kentucky
There's a very small chance the Vols could still play in the Gator Bowl, which would involve Georgia losing to Georgia Tech and Mississippi State losing to both Arkansas and Ole Miss. The Gator Bowl would then still have to select a 6-6 Tennessee team over a 7-5 MSU team. The Music City and Liberty Bowls are supposed to work with the conference office to determine their selections after the Gator, and logic dictates the loser of Mississippi State/Arkansas would go to Memphis simply because it's closer. Plus, the Vols have already played in the Liberty Bowl once this year, and have never been in the Music City Bowl. So while the Gator Bowl might take a 7-5 MSU over 6-6 Tennessee, the Music City Bowl definitely will not.
(Sidenote: You should never use words like "definitely" in bowl projections).
So, if the Music City Bowl is our most likely destination...whoyagot?
The Music City invites the #6 team from the ACC. Virginia Tech won't fall that far, and I don't see any way Florida State does either, even if they lose out. The winner of the season finale between NC State and Maryland will also be out of range, but since we don't know who that'll be they're both in the poll. I'm excluding Miami because they're Miami, and even if they lose to VT and then to South Florida in the finale, would the Chick-Fil-A, Champs Sports, Sun, and Meineke Bowls all pass on the Canes? I think not.
With Duke, Wake, and UVA ineligible, that leaves half the league in the mix, and they're all interesting possibilities. You've got the North Carolina team we just bought out and the NC State team we'll play in the first game of the 2012 season. You've got two teams in Clemson and Maryland who spanked us in Atlanta the last time we saw them. And you've got the deadly triple option at Georgia Tech. And also...Boston College!
Should the Vols sneak into the Gator Bowl, they would face the #4 or #5 team from the Big Ten, a conference that could also send two to the BCS. The Vols wouldn't see any of the frontrunners, but teams like Michigan and Penn State are definitely on the table.
And, should the Vols fall to the Liberty Bowl, they would see Central Florida barring a major upset in the world of Conference USA. The Compass Bowl in Birmingham features the #5 Big East team...I'll let you figure that one out.