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Tennessee Bowl Projections: Outback the favorite, but coaching drama leads to questions elsewhere

You can check airline prices for Tampa, but I wouldn't push that button just yet.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The favorite and best-case scenario we discussed last week has become the clear majority opinion, but is not yet unanimous:

Bleacher Report had the Vols and Northwestern in the Outback Bowl in their previous projection, but they are a prime example of how weirdness at Georgia and LSU could impact the final product.

(However, I will say their projection of Arkansas vs Penn State in the Music City just seems like a scenario to me that would never happen with Tennessee also in the Liberty; I don't see any way the Vols and Hogs would not flip flop there if neither is going to Tampa and the opponent in Nashville is James Franklin.  Arkansas/West Virginia in Memphis and Tennessee/Penn State in Nashville makes too much sense for all involved in that scenario.)

There still appears to be a clean scenario for the SEC at the top. Alabama should be in the College Football Playoff with a win.  The Sugar Bowl will take its choice of Florida or Ole Miss.  The one left out should be the choice of the Citrus Bowl.  The only thing to watch here is if Florida gets waxed in Atlanta and falls out of the Top 25, while LSU is still hanging on (currently ranked #23).

From there, the SEC's group of six should be Arkansas, Georgia, LSU, Mississippi State, Tennessee, and Texas A&M. 6-6 Auburn is the league's only other bowl eligible team, a happy coincidence for the Birmingham Bowl.

I think the key question becomes what do you do with Georgia.  Mark Richt says he is coaching the bowl game, and Mark Richt says he has been contacted by five different schools to coach next year.  Richt seems uncertain about whether he's going to coach next year or not, but if he decides to be at Maryland or Miami or Missouri or somewhere that doesn't start with an M, would he still stay with the Dawgs for a farewell in the bowl game?

Is Richt's victory lap more appealing from a television and ticket sales standpoint than Tennessee?  What about a ranked LSU team with its resilient head coach (who Bleacher Report projects to the Outback)?  These should be the questions facing the Outback Bowl.

Tampa remains the best option for Tennessee not just for January 1, but because of Northwestern.  The Wildcats have moved to #13 in the AP poll, and are in fact close enough to be in contention for a New Year's Six game.  Inside NU compared the Wildcats to other contenders for a New Year's Six game:

Northwestern would then have to finish in the top two of the following group of teams:

Notre Dame
Florida State
North Carolina

Solely based on résumé, the Wildcats might slot in at No. 2 on that list, behind Notre Dame and in front of Florida State. The issues is that the committee usually considers more than just wins and losses though, and that might put the Seminoles, even with an inferior résumé on paper, ahead of the Wildcats. The bottom line is that Northwestern might have one of the 10 best résumés in the country, but it also loses out on the eye test to all the teams on the above list, maybe excluding Florida.

I would expect bowls to do what bowls do, which hurts a team like Northwestern and helps a team like Tennessee, and send Florida State and Notre Dame to the New Year's Six.  UT fans building up talk about playing Michigan in Tampa are forgetting the Citrus Bowl has the next choice, and while Northwestern is 10-2 to the Wolverines' 9-3, Michigan thumped the Wildcats 38-0.  That and name recognition should be more than enough to put Michigan in Orlando and Northwestern in Tampa, as is reflected in every projection on our board.

Tennessee would bring far more momentum than Georgia or LSU to Tampa, and the Vols beat the Dawgs head-to-head.  I would also expect the Vols to sell at least as many tickets as Georgia and more than LSU.  Are the Vols more appealing to a television audience?  I think they're at least in the conversation, though right now that's one being won by Richt and Miles.  Regardless, the Vols would be a win for Tampa and vice versa.

If the Vols don't go to Tampa? It gets complicated for a number of reasons.  Georgia was in the Belk Bowl last year, so if the Outback chooses LSU the Vols might be more likely to go to Charlotte...but maybe not if Charlotte wants Frank Beamer's victory lap, with the Vols and Hokies set to meet in Bristol in the World's Largest Football Game in September.

The full grid for the SEC's group of six offers a little help:

Belk Liberty Music City Outback Taxslayer Texas
SB Nation Virginia Tech Kansas State Pittsburgh Northwestern Penn State Texas Tech
Phil Steele Miami Texas Tech Nebraska Northwestern Pittsburgh West Virginia
Mark Schlabach Virginia Tech Kansas State Miami Northwestern Penn State Texas Tech
Brett McMurphy Virginia Tech Texas Tech Nebraska Northwestern Louisville West Virginia
Jerry Palm Duke Kansas State Penn State Northwestern Miami Texas Tech
Bleacher Report Virginia Tech West Virginia Penn State Northwestern Louisville Texas Tech
A note on the ACC:  the Russell Athletic Bowl gets the first choice after the New Year's Six, which should easily be North Carolina.  From there the Taxslayer has the right of first refusal on the next best ACC team due to its deal with the Music City Bowl (who had it last year and took Notre Dame).  So the folks in Jacksonville will have to choose between the best ACC team on the board (Louisville, Miami, Pitt) or taking a Big Ten team (Penn State?).  The Taxslayer and Music City will each take an ACC team three times from 2014-19, so my understanding would be if they turn down the top ACC option now they still have to take an ACC team three of the next four years.

If it comes down to it, would the Belk Bowl rather have Frank Beamer's last game or take Tennessee? If it's the latter, Virginia Tech bounces elsewhere and the Vols could be in Charlotte, where the idea of playing Miami or Duke is certainly more appealing than the NC States and Pittsburghs of the world we saw projected here a few weeks ago.

And of course, there's always Nashville.  The revenge tour could be playing there with Penn State or Nebraska, both of which would have to feel like huge wins for the Music City Bowl if they can match them up with Tennessee.  Vol fans would be disappointed to not be playing on January 1, but I don't think anyone would hurt for ticket sales or excitement here.

Based on all of this, here's one man's opinion on what's most likely for Tennessee:
  1. Outback Bowl vs Northwestern - 1,000+ words to say, almost everyone is still projecting this.  It's a near-lock for Northwestern, and Tennessee checks all the boxes a bowl game is looking for.  The chance to play a Top 15 team on January 1 is a huge deal, outweighing any other opportunity regardless of Northwestern's name not being worth as much to Tennessee fans as the others on this list.  This continues to be both the most likely and best case scenario.
  2. Belk Bowl vs Duke or Miami - I just can't see a Tennessee vs Virginia Tech match-up here.  If the bowl in Charlotte is willing to forsake the Hokies for a chance at Tennessee and the Outback wants LSU or Georgia over UT, I think this becomes the most likely destination for the Vols.  If you're the Belk Bowl and you have the option, would you rather have Tennessee vs Duke/Miami or, say, Mississippi State vs Virginia Tech?  This is why I think the Vols are more likely to go to Charlotte than Nashville, especially because Georgia was just here last year.
  3. Music City Bowl vs Nebraska or Penn State - If the Outback wants LSU or Georgia and Virginia Tech does end up in Charlotte, Tennessee could find their way back to Nashville.  If this happens no bowl will have benefited more from the group of six format than the Music City, which would follow LSU vs Notre Dame with Tennessee vs Nebraska or Penn State.
The good here is you can find something to like about any of these match-ups.  The best news would be all the projections of Tampa coming true.  Stay tuned.