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Tennessee Bowl Projections - Where Will The Vols Go?

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A look at the SEC bowl picture and where Tennessee might find itself for the holidays.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

How I've missed this week of trying to figure out who's going where and what teams might be waiting on us when we get there.  In the old days you could also count on some bowls to do screwy things in passing up better teams for bigger paydays; the SEC now places teams, so hopefully we get lesser shenanigans instead of just different shenanigans.

In breaking down Tennessee's bowl possibilities there are a number of factors still at play:

Ole Miss Makes the New Year's Six AND/OR Missouri beats Alabama

While the Tigers winning the SEC Championship would probably be bad for the league, almost guaranteeing none of its teams would make the playoffs, it would almost certainly put three SEC teams in the January 1 bowls.  The Tigers would qualify automatically as league champs, Mississippi State shouldn't fall too far from the top, nor would a two-loss formerly number one Alabama team.

If Missouri winning in Atlanta is a little too much for you, a far more likely scenario for the SEC to get three teams in the Playoffs/New Year's Six is for Ole Miss to be ranked in the Top 10 by the selection committee.  The Rebels took a nose dive to #19 in last week's rankings, but could bounce all the way back after winning the Egg Bowl.  With an expected Top 6 of Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, TCU, Baylor, and Ohio State, there are still four spots left for the New Year's Six playoff-rotation bowls (after Group of Five and ACC/Orange Bowl auto-bids) and the SEC needs the state of Mississippi to grab two of them.  Michigan State will almost certainly take one in the clubhouse at 10-2, and I would assume the same about Mississippi State.  Barring upsets, which never ever happen, I think it will come down to whether the selection committee values 9-3 Ole Miss, with wins over a pair of Top 5 teams at the time, over one or both of the presumed losers of the Big 10 and Pac 12 Championship Games in would-be 10-3 Arizona and Wisconsin.

The league getting three in the Playoff/New Year's Six helps clear traffic for the other nine bowl-eligible teams in the SEC.

The Citrus Bowl

Tennessee sent out priority bowl ticket applications to season ticket holders and included every possible option.  So while I'm still crossing my fingers for Orlando, my understanding is the Citrus Bowl (goodbye what's in your wallet, hello Buffalo Wild Wings) has to take the teams with the best records from the SEC and Big 10 OR a team no more than one loss behind them.  Where I am unclear is how they will treat what we will assume to be 10-3 Missouri.  If they treat the Tigers as "better" than 9-3 Georgia (or 9-3 Ole Miss if the Rebels don't get in the New Year's Six), then their choices are limited.  If they treat 10-3 Missouri as the same as Georgia/Ole Miss, then the rules would also allow them to select 8-4 Auburn or LSU.

Once the Citrus Bowl makes their selection, then it gets crowded.

The SEC Six

This year the SEC has grouped six bowls together and will assign teams in this tier, at least in theory, with less concern to pecking order.  The Outback, Music City, Taxslayer (former Gator), Liberty, Belk, and Texas Bowls are now all grouped together and the league will have the final word on which teams go where.  There is, of course, still some sense of pecking order because not all the payouts are equal (ranging from $3.5 mil for the Outback/Taxslayer to $1.4 mil for the Liberty according to wikipedia).

UPDATE: Wikipedia is incorrect on the Liberty Bowl payout, which is now $2.4 million according to this story from The Commercial Appeal.  Thanks to memphispete in the comments for the heads up.

The Belk and Texas Bowls are also new to the SEC party.

And there still has to be some sense of pecking order among the teams themselves.  Auburn deserves a better bowl game than Tennessee.  It's up to the league now to determine its definition of "better" for each team, which I'm sure they will try to sell as "best possible fit" to at least every team in this tier.

If Ole Miss doesn't make January 1, it will clog up this tier.  But for the sake of argument, let's assume the Rebels get in and 10-3 Missouri goes to the Citrus Bowl.  From that point you'll have the SEC trying to decide which of these teams should make this group of six:

  • 9-3 Georgia
  • 8-4 Auburn
  • 8-4 LSU
  • 7-5 Texas A&M
  • 6-5 Florida
  • 6-6 Arkansas
  • 6-6 South Carolina
  • 6-6 Tennessee
There are a couple of things that seem to make obvious sense from here.  Either Georgia, Auburn, or LSU is going to the Outback Bowl, which regardless of tiers still holds the January 1 prestige and has the biggest remaining payout.  One of those three deserves it.  Likewise I think one of these three will end up in the Taxslayer Bowl for the same reasons.

There is also an obviously growing sentiment to put Texas and Texas A&M against each other in, you guessed it, the Texas Bowl.  This makes sense and would ensure the Aggies a place in the group of six.

Tennessee has gone to the Music City Bowl at 6-6 before, but its slightly larger payout ($1.8 mil) helps continue to make it a more prestigious destination than the Liberty Bowl.  I think the remaining choice of Georgia, Auburn, and LSU is going to end up here.

That leaves the Liberty and Belk Bowls as remaining choices from this group of six, to which the league would have to send two six win teams (or just one if Ole Miss doesn't make January 1).  Of the four six win teams, I think Tennessee has by far the best selling points. This is UT's first trip to the postseason since 2010.  The Vols will sell more tickets than anyone, with the possible exception of South Carolina in Charlotte.  The Vols are trending upward and with Florida playing its bowl game sans head coach, I think Tennessee carries the most buzz and the greatest potential television audience.

Arkansas is the other team among these four that will be happy to be anywhere and will sell accordingly, so I could buy a scenario where Tennessee goes to the Belk Bowl and Arkansas makes the drive over to Memphis.  But there have been no rumblings of Tennessee in Charlotte over the last week; the Belk Bowl sent no representatives to the Vanderbilt game.

To me, all of this adds up to Memphis being Tennessee's most likely destination.  It isn't rocket science:  the Vols haven't played in the Liberty Bowl since 1986 and would draw an easy crowd.  All parties involved would be happy to be there.

Plan B

If everything gets screwy - especially if Ole Miss doesn't make January 1 - the Independence and Birmingham Bowls are waiting in the bottom tier.  Birmingham is a date with an AAC opponent, the only non-power five conference opportunity for an SEC team (good job by the league stepping up the competition).  Shreveport is what it is.

There is always a chance the Vols could fall to one of these two options; Birmingham is an easy drive from East Tennessee and neither bowl has ever had the Vols.  This would be disappointing, but hey, you're still playing after November.

Who Would We Face?

The Texas Bowl appears to have sucked the life out of the big dream:  Tennessee vs Texas in the Liberty Bowl.  Memphis gets the fourth selection from the Big 12; if it's not Texas, it would almost certainly be West Virginia.  The Vols and Mountaineers are scheduled to face each other to open the 2018 season in Charlotte.  The 2014 edition of our Appalachian brethren is probably the most challenging of any of Tennessee's potential bowl foes, which has its blessings and curses.

If Tennessee does still find its way to Nashville, you're talking about the sixth selection from either the ACC or the Big Ten.  Current options include Louisville, Maryland, NC State, Rutgers, or Iowa.  I'd be intrigued by Louisville and anyone with 2002 Peach Bowl memories might like another crack at Maryland, but the others don't really move the needle.

In Charlotte, Louisville and NC State would again be options, as would Notre Dame in a more prestigious selection spot for the ACC.  There's also the possibility of a Tennessee/Duke match-up which I'm sure many would be excited about.  But again, there just doesn't seem to be much smoke around the Vols in Charlotte right now.

Louisville in Nashville or West Virginia in Memphis would give the Vols and Butch Jones two big opportunities to get a statement win to carry momentum into the future. I think the opportunity is worth the risk and hope the Vols land in either in-state destination with a chance for a win that would truly mean something.

One Man's Guess for the SEC

College Football Playoff - Alabama
January 1 - Mississippi State
January 1 - Ole Miss
Citrus - Missouri
Outback - Georgia
Taxslayer - LSU
Music City - Auburn
Texas - Texas A&M
Liberty - Tennessee
Belk - South Carolina
Independence - Florida
Birmingham - Arkansas

For more, check out SB Nation's updated bowl projections

UPDATED 1:59 PM - Jimmy Hyams tweets the Vols have turned in their preferences to the conference office, which is what you would expect: