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What Does SEC Parity Say About Tennessee’s Season?

9-3 may not have been as high as some hoped in August, but it would be better than most of the SEC can accomplish this season.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Texas A&M Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Alabama sits on its throne, the defending champs and only undefeated power five team left standing. After the Tide at the top, you have to go all the way to #15 in the College Football Playoff rankings to find the next team in what has been the undisputed best conference for a decade. And guess who the #15 Auburn Tigers have to play next week.

Bama at number one is nothing new. But beneath the Tide, the SEC has turned on itself like never before. I used to wonder if a year like this was inevitable with so many good teams in the SEC. Instead this year we’ve seen the same great team and then everyone else in a mosh pit, a few teams hopeful to just get out alive to call themselves good.


  • The only non-Bama SEC team with less than three losses is Florida, a two-touchdown underdog tomorrow with Florida State on deck.
  • If LSU beats Florida then loses at Texas A&M on Thanksgiving night and Alabama beats Auburn, the best any non-Bama SEC team will do in conference play is 5-3.
  • If Ole Miss beats Vanderbilt or Mississippi State the league will finish with 11 bowl-eligible teams and still could have 12. Only Missouri at 3-7 is already eliminated from postseason play. By comparison the Big Ten already has four teams with seven losses; the Pac 12 has three.

The scenario we want, which also seems most likely, would leave the Vols at 9-3 and SEC East Champions. This is an especially dangerous year to say “if the favorites win out”, but if they do the only other non-Bama SEC team to finish the regular season 9-3 would be the winner of the LSU-Texas A&M game. And the Vols don’t have to apologize for their record against this schedule, regardless of which division they play in. If it’s the Aggies victorious on Thanksgiving, Tennessee will be tied for the second-best record in the SEC while once again playing the two best teams from the other division plus a non-conference schedule that will stand up against just about anyone’s.

This is why almost every bowl projection right now puts Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl: 9-3 with a loss in Atlanta should send that LSU/A&M winner to the Sugar Bowl but could still leave the Vols as the only nine-win team on Orlando’s list. You could even talk yourself into a scenario where #25 Texas A&M beats #16 LSU but doesn’t pass #19 Tennessee in the rankings, and then a competitive loss in Atlanta might leave the Vols above the Aggies in the CFP rankings and thus send Tennessee to the Sugar Bowl. This would be unfair - A&M has head-to-head and would have one fewer loss - but the Sugar Bowl’s choice is up to the committee’s rankings.

Whether we were talking Citrus or Sugar, how would we view a Tennessee team that is second-or-third best in a league that cannibalized itself? Comparing yourself to Alabama will drive you crazy, as every SEC West team and Tennessee should already know. 9-3 would not have been declared an outright success in August or early October. But 9-3 could turn into much more of a badge of honor this season.

Is the league down or simply more even? Either way, the Vols still have a chance to have a year all involved can feel good about, to claim a division title for the first time in nine years and play in their most prestigious bowl in 15 years, and to be one of the winningest non-Bama teams in the SEC. It might not look exactly like the year or the league we thought we’d see, but it would definitely be progress.