Two things were made clear on Saturday: first, while Florida and Alabama may not be juggernauts that dominate every SEC foe they face, they're still the two best teams in this league by far. And second, the whole league is still vulnerable to its entire roster, as witnessed by Kentucky taking a brand new quarterback into Auburn and walking out winners 21-14.
With the exception of 2-5 Vanderbilt, the entire league is still thinking about bowl eligibility, and if Florida and Alabama hold serve and both qualify for the BCS, the league can get 10 teams into postseason play, which has never happened before.
Tennessee finds itself in the middle of the January 1 conversation at the moment, but they're joined there by more than half the league. With half the season left to play, obviously a lot can and will change...but here's a look at some of Tennessee's postseason possibilities:
Putting Florida and Alabama at the top and Vanderbilt and Mississippi State at the bottom, here's a look at what's ahead for the crowded middle of the SEC pack:
- LSU (5-1): Auburn, Tulane, at Alabama, Louisiana Tech, at Ole Miss, Arkansas
- Auburn (5-2): at LSU, Ole Miss, Furman, at Georgia, Alabama
- South Carolina (5-2): Vandy, at Tennessee, at Arkansas, Florida, Clemson
- Ole Miss (4-2): Arkansas, at Auburn, Northern Arizona, Tennessee, LSU, at Miss State
- Georgia (4-3): at Florida, Tennessee Tech, Auburn, Kentucky, at Georgia Tech
- Arkansas (3-3): at Ole Miss, Eastern Michigan, South Carolina, Troy, Miss State, at LSU
- Kentucky (3-3): LA-Monroe, Miss State, E. Kentucky, at Vandy, at Georgia, Tennessee
- Tennessee (3-3): at Alabama, South Carolina, Memphis, at Ole Miss, Vandy, at Kentucky
You can chase down all kinds of rabbit holes here with projected wins and losses, though I will say that it's very possible to have around five of those teams finish 7-5. But taking a look at all of those numbers, here are the halfway-educated scenarios for Tennessee this postseason:
Best Case Scenario: Capital One Bowl
Three things need to happen for Tennessee to get to Orlando: Florida and Alabama both make the BCS, LSU loses at least one more game, and the Vols win out. There's the fantasy, I'll let you spend time indulging it.
8-4 Scenarios: Cotton, Outback, Chick-Fil-A
While there's plenty of conversation about who the third best team in the SEC is right now, if we agree to give it to LSU by default (or somehow the SEC only gets one team in the BCS, which seems like an impossibility given all the factors at this point), you've got a crowded field of six (or seven if you include Kentucky) teams competing for these three prime spots.
SEC postseason stipulations (which are from last year at the official site, so I'm going to assume they haven't changed) state that the Capital One Bowl has to take the best available team OR a team within one game of that team's record - so if LSU goes 10-2 and the next best team is 8-4, the Tigers have to go to Orlando. From there, the Cotton gets first choice of SEC West teams, and the Outback first choice of SEC East teams.
This scenario makes it almost impossible for Tennessee to get to Dallas - the Outback Bowl would have to have a team from the East they wanted more than the Vols, and once that team was off the table the Vols would have to be more attractive than every other SEC West team. Which is disappointing, because I think most UT fans would rather play the second best Big 12 team than the third best Big 10 team.
Tennessee is a great draw for just about any bowl this year, between the Kiffin factor and the Vols missing a bowl game last year with what should be an eager fan base. If the season ended today, I think Tennessee would wind up in either Tampa or Atlanta. Ultimately I think the Cotton Bowl will take Arkansas if at all possible to do so, and then it would simply be a question of whether the Outback wanted Auburn or Tennessee if the Vols beat South Carolina. If the Vols finish 8-4, they should be able to be at the front of the conversation for these three bowls, and depending on what happens in the West will probably still be looking at the same Tampa/Atlanta scenario.
(There's also a rule that takes care of the loser of the SEC Championship Game by stating that the Capital One, Cotton and Outback have to take them if they're available on a three-year cycle. However, if the Florida-Alabama thing holds up, the loser of the SEC Championship Game is still going to the BCS.)
7-5 Scenarios: Outback, Chick-Fil-A, Liberty, Music City
If the Vols finish 7-5, their placement depends on the rest of the conference. Last year a 7-5 South Carolina team made the Outback Bowl, so you never know. If Arkansas and Ole Miss fall apart in the second half and the Capital One and Cotton Bowls take LSU and Auburn, a 7-5 Tennessee team that embarrassed Georgia could sneak into Tampa. If one of those losses happens to be to South Carolina and the Gamecocks go to Tampa, the Vols could still fall to Atlanta.
But if the Vols finish 7-5 behind a host of 8-4 teams, the two in-state bowls would both love to have the Vols for sure. The Liberty Bowl and Music City Bowl get the next picks after the Chick-Fil-A, with no stipulation on division. However, according to the rules each bowl submits its pick to the conference office, and if the two bowls both want the same team - a real possibility with the Vols - then the team gets to pick where they want to go. The Liberty Bowl draws the Conference USA Champion (most likely Houston), the Music City Bowl draws ACC #5.
6-6 Scenarios: Liberty, Music City, Independence, PapaJohns.com
Again, depending on the rest of the league, the two in-state bowls could still be available. The Independence Bowl in Shreveport, in the final year of their SEC contract, gets the first pick after the Liberty/Music City, and the always exciting PapaJohns.com Bowl in Birmingham gets the final choice if there's a 9th/10th SEC team eligible.
While 6-6 would be a disappointment against the schedule the Vols have left, especially after the Georgia win, keep in mind that any bowl game would be an improvement on last year.
Worst Case Scenario: 5-7 or worse
If Kentucky continues to play well with their new quarterback, that season-ending trip to Lexington can't be taken for granted, and could feature two teams playing for bowl eligibility. The Vols aren't good enough to take anything for granted against a schedule that will send them to Tuscaloosa, Oxford and Lexington, plus send South Carolina to Knoxville. If the Vols fail to win one of those games, they won't be going anywhere.
A January 1 destination is still on the table. But so is this outcome. Stay tuned.