The current logic appears to be that the best the Vols can hope for is 6-6, which would include a pair of wins against over-matched opponents MTSU and Kentucky, a loss at #7 Arkansas, and a win in what's shaping up to be an interesting home date with Vanderbilt. From there, most assume Tennessee would return to Nashville for the Music City Bowl on December 30. And if you're thinking, "They wouldn't take us two years in a row," I can assure you the decision makers in Nashville remember quite fondly the orange-tinted sell out from last year that would almost certainly be duplicated simply because of the game's location.
It's early November, and bowl projections are tricky business in early December. However, this year at least looks like it's shaping up nicely for the SEC, with clear distinctions between the great, good, and average teams in this league.
Here's how things should play out - after the jump, you'll find our thoughts on why it looks this way and what could change for Tennessee and others:
- BCS SEC Champion: Alabama OR LSU
- BCS At-Large Bid: Alabama OR LSU
- Cotton Bowl: Arkansas
- Capital One Bowl: SEC East Champion (Georgia OR South Carolina)
- Outback Bowl: SEC East Runner-Up (Georgia OR South Carolina) OR Auburn
- Chick-Fil-A Bowl: SEC East Runner-Up OR Auburn
- Gator Bowl: Florida
- Music City Bowl: Tennessee
- Liberty Bowl: Mississippi State
- BBVA Compass Bowl: Vanderbilt (if eligible)
A few observations:
- It's always best for everyone if the SEC gets two teams in the BCS, which appears almost certain at this point. We know the league's champion will be there. And even if Georgia or South Carolina were to upset an undefeated Alabama or LSU in Atlanta, the loser would still get an at-large bid. If Alabama beats LSU and the Tigers then fall to Arkansas, the Hogs would move into the at-large picture once more. Barring a massive upset, it appears the only way the SEC could miss out on two to the BCS would be for LSU to beat Alabama and Alabama to then lose to Auburn (which Tide fans may qualify as a "massive upset"). Boise State is going to take one of the at-large bids, leaving three on the table. The Pac-12 (Oregon/Stanford) and Big 12 (Oklahoma/Oklahoma State) appear to be the front-runners to grab two of them. The Big Ten has a large group of teams still in play for its championship, but right now after Nebraska at #10, they're all ranked between 16-20. In short, the SEC should easily get two in, and the rest of the league moves up one spot. If the SEC gets only one in, there's a chance the Vols could be headed to Memphis.
- Our projections send Arkansas to the Cotton Bowl simply for geography & history. The Pigs were in New Orleans last year but did play Texas A&M there earlier this year. Still, Arkansas fans could drive to the Jerry Dome as opposed to flying to Orlando, even though Arkansas certainly appears to be the third best team in the league.
- Georgia and South Carolina are clearly above the rest of the SEC East. Even if Florida manages to beat Carolina in Columbia next week, I'm not sure that would change. But all three of those teams have the ACC rivalry game in the final week that could mess with the pecking order a bit. Still, even if all three lost to Georgia Tech, Clemson, and Florida State, I don't see any way the Vols could move past any of them in the order without beating Arkansas. And even if you threw out head-to-head and all that other stuff, given the choice between a 7-5 Tennessee and a 6-6 Florida, the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville and the Music City Bowl in Nashville are almost certainly going to keep it in-state.
- There's really only one way the Vols could move up: Florida goes 5-7. Auburn already has six wins and will get seven when they play Samford, they're already in. If they beat Georgia, it will probably make the most sense to send Auburn to Tampa and Georgia to Atlanta. But then there's Florida. The Gators still have South Carolina and Florida State and will be underdogs in both, which could get them to six losses. That's why Saturday's game in Gainesville with Vanderbilt is important - if the Gators lose to the Commodores, missing a bowl is very much on the table. If that happens (and the Vols beat Vanderbilt), you should see Tennessee in Jacksonville and Vanderbilt in Nashville. Mississippi State could cause trouble by upsetting Alabama or Arkansas, but Memphis makes an awful lot of sense for them. Could the Vols go even higher? No way the Chick-Fil-A Bowl would take UT over UGA if they're in play. Is there any way, with Florida at 5-7, the Chick-Fil-A Bowl would take 6-6 (or even 7-5) Tennessee over 7-5 Auburn, with both coming back to Atlanta the following September? Auburn hasn't been there since 2007 and is geographically closer, but how well would Auburn sell tickets if they'd lost three of their last five and were going from the National Championship to the Chick-Fil-A Bowl?
It's all, of course, subject to change. The Vols need to win the games they're supposed to win - do that, and it doesn't look like it's going to get any worse than Nashville. But just in case, here are some possible opponents for all of UT's current scenarios:
- Music City Bowl (ACC #6): Florida State, Miami, North Carolina, NC State, Virginia, Wake Forest
- Gator Bowl (Big Ten #4): Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State
- Chick-Fil-A Bowl (ACC #2): Clemson, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech
- Liberty Bowl (C-USA #1): Houston, Southern Miss
With Tyler Bray, there are a number of potential matchups in any of those games (and yes, I'm counting Houston) that could be great momentum builders if the Vols could win them. While there's also a chance Tennessee could draw Wake or UVA in Nashville or the Zooker in Jacksonville, if the Vols could beat Florida State or Miami (or earn revenge against Carolina), a traditional Big Ten power in Jacksonville, or really anyone they'd see in Atlanta, it could do great things for Derek Dooley. That's something very real that's still out there, and for that reason the rest of this season still very much matters.
But for any of this to come true, the Vols have to win, and that has to start on Saturday.