This is always a guessing game; for proof, in the archives you can find us sending the Vols to the Liberty Bowl to face West Virginia last year seconds before a curveball sent Tennessee to Jacksonville. But in the first week of November it is at least an educated guessing game.
If the Vols win out to get to 8-4, they will be a very attractive option for almost every bowl in the SEC's group of six. I don't know how the Taxslayer Bowl might feel about taking the Vols in consecutive years, and I don't know how Tennessee fans would feel about spending their dollars in Jacksonville again (would depend largely on opponent). But I would expect most of the other bowls in the group to have their eyes on the Vols.
As a reminder, here's how the selection process works: the Citrus Bowl has their choice of the best non-playoff/New Year's Six SEC team. From there, the group of six bowls (Belk, Liberty, Music City, Outback, Taxslayer, Texas) work with the conference office to place the SEC's next six best teams. Each school can send their top three choices to the conference office; I would imagine the Vols might continue to value the Liberty and Music City options, and I would imagine most of the conference (and its fans) still believe the Outback Bowl is still the most prestigious option here no matter what the SEC office says.
What about the Citrus Bowl?
For Tennessee to get to Orlando you might need four SEC teams to make the playoff/New Year's Six, which is difficult to see happening. There are still four weeks left, but it's almost impossible to see Tennessee being a more attractive option than Alabama, LSU, or Florida if one of them fails to make the New Year's Six. You've also got Ole Miss still in play to win the SEC West; the Rebels could also still reasonably finish 8-4, but if that happens you could be talking about Mississippi State at 9-3 and being rightfully considered before the Vols. And Texas A&M is still 6-2 and beat Mississippi State, and other than LSU has only Auburn, Western Carolina, and Vanderbilt left. It's hard to see them finishing worse than 9-3. One or more of these teams can also be the reason the Vols don't go to the Outback Bowl.
The best scenario for UT here: Florida wins out (including Florida State), Alabama beats LSU then LSU beats Ole Miss. This would leave all three teams at 11-1 and, no matter what happened in the SEC title game, all three are going to at least the New Year's Six. LSU beating Ole Miss would give them three losses, Alabama beating Mississippi State would give them three losses, and the Egg Bowl would give someone four. If whoever wins the Egg Bowl were to lose to Arkansas (or Mississippi State at Missouri this week), both Mississippi schools would be 8-4 and trending down heading to bowl season. Texas A&M loses to LSU and either Auburn or Vanderbilt. If all of that happens, an 8-4 Tennessee might be the pick of the Citrus Bowl over 8-4 Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Texas A&M. Maybe.
For the more realistic group of six, here are the current Vol projections from around the internets:
- SB Nation: Outback vs Northwestern
- Phil Steele: Belk vs Pittsburgh
- ESPN (Schlabach): Belk vs North Carolina
- ESPN (McMurphy): Music City vs Indiana
- Jerry Palm: Belk vs NC State
- Bleacher Report: Music City vs Penn State
|SB Nation||North Carolina||Kansas State||Florida State||Northwestern||Minnesota||Texas Tech|
|Phil Steele||Pittsburgh||Texas||Minnesota||Michigan||Clemson||Texas Tech|
|Mark Schlabach||North Carolina||West Virginia||Duke||Penn State||Northwestern||Texas Tech|
|Brett McMurphy||NC State||Kansas State||Indiana||Michigan||North Carolina||West Virginia|
|Jerry Palm||NC State||Kansas State||Penn State||Northwestern||North Carolina||West Virginia|
|Bleacher Report||Florida State||West Virginia||Penn State||Michigan||Pittsburgh||Texas Tech|
(Wow, Phil Steele really hates Clemson.)
As you can see, there are some dual ACC/Big 10 options for a number of these bowls depending on what happens above them in the pecking order. There's a strong chance Tennessee's eventual opponent is somewhere in that grid. There are the usual suspects to be excited about, starting with James Franklin and Penn State but also including traditional powers we beat the last time we saw them (Florida State, Michigan) and David Cutcliffe. If the Vols don't make their way to the Outback, we may like our options in the Music City better than what we find in Charlotte.
Of these options, what would you most look forward to?