Butch Jones wants his team to live in the moment in a week-to-week season, which is probably good advice. As fans, however, we can allow ourselves the indulgence of a conversation Tennessee hasn’t been able to have in mid-October in a decade: if the Vols were to win the SEC East and then win in Atlanta, could an 11-2 SEC Champion Tennessee make the playoff?
Obviously, the conversation hits a stiff wall via Alabama’s dominance last Saturday; the Vols being able to beat the Tide is both the most important and most difficult piece of this puzzle. Tennessee would like a shot at Alabama at something far closer to full strength, but that shot would still be defined as “long”. So if it helps, let’s just make this an argument about Tennessee’s ability to get to Atlanta with a trip to the playoff on the line - the biggest realistic preseason goal for Team 120 - and consider the opportunity to worry about that final detail a luxury.
The first CFP rankings will be released on November 1. They tend to look different than the AP poll, where the Vols are currently 18th. Last year they valued Tennessee earlier, as the Vols slid in at #25 the week of the conference championship games and went to #23 on selection Sunday.
If the committee doesn’t value Tennessee early, it will be difficult for the Vols to be valued late: Tennessee’s first seven opponents included four ranked foes plus Virginia Tech, while these last five foes have a combined record of 10-15 plus a 2-5 FCS school. The only opportunity for a big win left for Tennessee is in Atlanta.
But we could also see the committee consider Tennessee’s injury situation and reward them for performance if not outcome against Texas A&M. Scott Hall at Inside Tennessee points out the listed criteria for the selection committee, starting with championships won and strength of schedule. If this year’s committee leans hard in that direction, it could significantly favor Tennessee: Jerry Palm put the Vols at #8 in this week’s projection of the committee rankings. If Tennessee is anywhere close to that when the real thing is released on November 1, we’re in business.
Regardless of initial placement, here’s what it would take to stay in business, starting with the obvious:
- Tennessee wins out. And, importantly, looks good doing it. A string of close games against the bottom of the SEC East do not a playoff contender make. The Vols need to come out at South Carolina with domination in mind.
- Florida loses one of Georgia, South Carolina, at Arkansas, at LSU. This conversation is a non-starter if the Gators are in Atlanta instead of the Vols, where Florida would find itself a playoff contender instead.
- Tennessee wins the SEC Championship Game. Again, we’ll cross this bridge or die trying if and when the opportunity presents itself.
So far the selection committee has rewarded only conference champions. Last year the highest a two-loss team made it was #6 Stanford, passed over by the other four conference champions and, of potential importance, 12-1 Iowa at #5 having just lost in the Big Ten Championship Game. In 2014 the highest two-loss team was Mississippi State at #7, with four conference champions and the Baylor/TCU pairing at 11-1 above them.
So right away we see the obvious: for a two-loss conference champion to get in, you probably need the other four conference champions to not be undefeated or have only one loss. Would the committee entertain something different for a two-loss SEC Champion vs a one-loss champion from, say, the Big 12? Perhaps.
Either way, as Tennessee fans our goal is clear for the next six weeks: we want chaos (clap clap clapclapclap).
Four teams get in this thing. Who might the committee consider over an 11-2 Tennessee?
- ACC: Clemson as champion at 13-0 or 12-1, Louisville at 11-1
- Big Ten: Ohio State/Michigan winner as champion, Ohio State/Michigan loser at 11-1, Nebraska as champion at 12-1 or 13-0 (plays at Ohio State November 5), Wisconsin as champion at 11-2?
- Big 12: Baylor/West Virginia winner as undefeated champion/possibly 11-1
- Pac 12: Washington as champion at 13-0 or 12-1, Utah as champion at 12-1 (hosts Washington on October 29)
- SEC: Alabama or Texas A&M as loser of SEC Championship Game at 12-1
- Others: undefeated Boise State or Western Michigan?
Remember, you don’t need all of these scenarios out of the way, just enough of them for the Vols to slip in at #4.
Using ESPN’s FPI win out percentages, here are the most dangerous scenarios remaining for Tennessee:
- Louisville finishes 11-1. Other than Western Michigan the Cardinals are the only team FPI currently gives a better-than-50% chance to win the rest of their games this season. That includes a Thursday night trip to Houston on November 17, plus better-than-usual Wake and NC State teams. But if the Cardinals get to 11-1 with wins over Florida State and Houston plus a close loss to Clemson, it would be hard to leave them out in favor of a team with two losses, conference champion or not. If Clemson were to lose twice in ACC play this situation resolves itself, and a trip to Tallahassee on their docket could help.
- Michigan & Ohio State meet at 11-0. Ten years after their last undefeated showdown, if the Wolverines and Buckeyes come to November 26 undefeated, it would be big trouble for any Tennessee playoff hopes still alive. Michigan has trips to Michigan State and Iowa, Ohio State is at Penn State this week, at Michigan State the week before hosing the Wolverines, and hosts undefeated Nebraska on November 5. The most simple scenario here is for one of the two to lose, then lose in this game.
- Alabama or Texas A&M reaches Atlanta at 12-0. Especially if it’s Alabama. It would be a fascinating scenario for the selection committee if the healthy Vols did manage to upend the Tide in Atlanta, but it would be an easy argument to make that with a split head-to-head record, you take the team with one fewer loss or, in Bama’s case, the team with the more dominant victory.
Any one of those scenarios would produce a one-loss non-conference-champion team that could pass an 11-2 Tennessee team before we even get to the other conference champions.
On the other hand, there are plenty of chaotic scenarios that would clear a way for Tennessee. For instance, if Louisville loses at Houston, Michigan loses at Iowa, and Alabama loses at LSU? That could be enough if chaos rules the Big 12 to lead to a playoff of Clemson, Ohio State, Washington, and Tennessee by way of Atlanta.
It’s a long shot, but a fun one to still be able to consider. Who doesn’t love rooting for chaos?
And more than anything, for Team 120 it’s important to believe that the biggest goal of all is still on the table until it absolutely isn’t. We’re a long way from certainty either way. But right now, Tennessee can still believe it has everything to play for.
Along those lines (and with Joel out of town this week), here’s a look at what to hope for this week. We’ll keep track of this as long as the Vols are still in the conversation.
OCTOBER 22 CHAOS WATCH
- Miami at Virginia Tech (Thursday) - The better Virginia Tech looks this year, the better Tennessee looks.
- BYU at Boise State (Thursday) - Could be Boise State’s best shot to lose
- #6 Texas A&M at #1 Alabama - It’s simple and natural to just pull against Alabama every week; the Aggies still have to face Ole Miss and have more opportunities to lose after this than Bama does.
- #2 Ohio State at Penn State - James Franklin, we’ve always loved you!
- NC State at #7 Louisville - The Wolfpack just missed against Clemson
- #10 Wisconsin at Iowa - The Badgers are having a different version of this same conversation
- TCU at #12 West Virginia - West Virginia is just getting warmed up in Big 12 play