SB Nation's bowl projections were released yesterday, putting the Vols in Charlotte for the Belk Bowl vs Louisville. It's a popular choice for Tennessee, as Brett McMurphy and Jerry Palm also project the Vols to play in Charlotte this holiday season. In general the Vols project to be safely above the Independence and Birmingham Bowls, while not quite good or trendy enough to crack any New Year's Six projections. This leaves a handful of most likely destinations for Tennessee this postseason.
So we've ranked these bowls with some opponents that would be particularly appealing to Tennessee fans, using each bowl and each opponent just once. We've tried to be as realistic as possible; while I'm sure Vol fans would love a shot at Ohio State, we're probably not quite good enough to get one this year. And I've definitely got Wake Forest at the top of my personal revenge list, but don't expect to see the Demon Deacons in any of our postseason options this year either.
Here are our top five picks for realistic ways the Vols could end their season:
5. Belk Bowl vs Duke
This is actually Jerry Palm's projection. If Tennessee is in the SEC's group of six bowls (Belk, Liberty, Music City, Outback, Taxslayer, Texas), I think the Belk Bowl could actually end up making the most sense for the league. As both polls project right now, the league will get three teams in the College Football Playoff and/or New Year's Six, then the next best team in the Citrus Bowl. If you assume Georgia is one of those first four teams, you're probably also assuming the next six will include Tennessee, Missouri, and four schools from the SEC West. If that is, in fact, the makeup of the group of six participants, Tennessee makes the most sense for the Belk Bowl geographically by far. The Vols should sell tickets no matter where they land (as I can't fathom it being the Taxslayer again), but I'm not sure any of those other five would sell tickets in Charlotte. If the Vols are headed that way, it would be fun to finally catch up to David Cutcliffe.
4. Liberty Bowl vs Texas
The Vols haven't been to the Liberty Bowl since 1986 and were all but set to be there last year before a last minute move to Jacksonville. The Liberty Bowl still doesn't register quite as high in the minds of UT fans because of its previous slot catching the eighth or ninth best SEC team, but if all things are truly equal in the group of six, going to Memphis isn't nearly as bad as it used to be. The Vols and Longhorns haven't played since 1969, and there was plenty of desire for this match-up from Vol fans before Charlie Strong said yes to Texas one year after saying no to Tennessee at the last minute.
3. Music City Bowl vs Clemson
Nashville would be all about this one. The Music City gets the third ACC choice, which is about as far as you'd realistically project Clemson to fall. The Tigers are actually the closest non-SEC major conference team to Knoxville but have their hands full with like seven other SEC teams, so chances are you probably know some Clemson fans but never see them on Saturdays. It's been a dozen years since the Tigers beat the #6 Vols in the Peach Bowl, though The Blind Side has corrected all that.
2. Outback Bowl vs Nebraska
Robbed of a home-and-home scheduled back in the Phillip Fulmer/Mike Hamilton days, Tennessee and Nebraska have not met since the Cornhuskers embarrassed the Vols in the 1998 Orange Bowl, then beat another one of UT's most talented teams two years later in the 2000 Fiesta Bowl. The Outback Bowl would put the Vols back on January 1 and, even though it's in the group of six, still holds higher esteem with the fanbase after getting the second best non-BCS SEC team for so many years.
1. Citrus Bowl vs Penn State
This is my favorite realistic projection. The Citrus Bowl picks first after the New Year's Six and before the group of six, and if the Vols are 9-3 I think they'll be a strong candidate to return to Orlando. Writing Steve Spurrier's material, the Vols were in the Citrus Bowl following the 1993, 1995, and 1996 seasons, with an encore in 2001. And three of those four were good times: the wins over Ohio State and Michigan are still fondly remembered, and the Northwestern win in 1996 was one of Peyton Manning's greatest performances. The one we don't remember well: Penn State, who like Nebraska beat a pair of exceptional Vol squads following the 1991 and 1993 seasons, then put a sour aftertaste on what once had the makings of a memorable 2006 season in the Outback Bowl. But beyond just general revenge, spending the holidays in Orlando, and getting to an upper-level SEC bowl, there's good old fashioned specific revenge: James Franklin took two of three from Tennessee when the Vols were at their most vulnerable with Derek Dooley and Butch Jones' first year. Beating Vanderbilt offers little satisfaction. Getting another shot at Franklin in the Citrus Bowl is the best realistic outcome I can think of for this Tennessee team...and all inability to let go aside, getting to Orlando would mean without a doubt the Vols had the kind of season we would remember. This would simply be the best icing on the cake.