By this time Sunday, we’ll know exactly where Tennessee is headed for the postseason. In the meantime, it’s fun to speculate.
Before we even delve into this, it’s important to remember that everyone was shocked last year when the Vols wound up in Jacksonville for the Gator Bowl. Everyone expected Tennessee to wind up in Memphis or Nashville or, if they dared dream, Charlotte. But Dave Hart lobbied hard, and Tennessee found good favor with both the SEC front office and the bowls because of its energized fan base that was guaranteed to snatch up lots of tickets.
So there’s no real way of knowing exactly where the Vols will wind up on Selection Sunday. Remember, the relatively new format means that the conference itself plays the biggest role — with input from the bowls, of course — on which teams will be placed in which bowls.
With all of that in mind, Tennessee enters conference championship week as the fifth-best team in the SEC, if you go by the latest college football playoff rankings, which sneak the Vols into the rankings in the No. 25 spot. Ahead of them are LSU at No. 21, Florida at No. 18, Ole Miss at No. 13 and Alabama at No. 2. Georgia and Mississippi State trail behind.
Things will be simplified if Alabama beats Florida in the SEC Championship Game, which is expected. The Tide are a whopping 17-point favorite, which would make a win by the Gators the biggest upset in SEC Championship Game history.
If Alabama wins, the Tide is headed to the College Football Playoffs. Ole Miss will be the SEC’s representative in the Sugar Bowl, and Tennessee will be left competing with Florida and LSU for the top remaining bowl bids.
After the Sugar Bowl, there’s one other bowl that gets exclusive say in which SEC team it gets — the Citrus Bowl. Some Tennessee fans are holding out hope for a trip to Orlando, and that probably isn’t an impossibility, but it seems pretty unlikely.
If, on the other hand, Florida upsets Alabama, the Gators will go to the Sugar Bowl as the SEC champion, and there is no way the Citrus Bowl would pass up Alabama.
Let’s assume, just for the sake of conversation, that Alabama goes to the playoffs and Ole Miss goes to the Sugar Bowl. Tennessee would sell a lot of tickets, which has to factor into the equation for the Citrus Bowl, but the bowl has indicated that it wants LSU. The possibility of an LSU-Michigan matchup would be so intriguing that it would be hard for the Citrus Bowl to pass that up. Remember, many people figured Les Miles would leave LSU to go to Michigan a few years ago, and it didn’t happen. There’s history with those two programs.
If the Citrus Bowl takes LSU, that leaves Tennessee and Florida vying for the next spot. Theoretically, the SEC’s next six bowl tie-ins are toss-ups, with none ranked above the rest. Those six are the Outback Bowl, the Belk Bowl, the Gator Bowl (Taxslayer Bowl), the Music City Bowl, the Liberty Bowl and the Texas Bowl.
Now, here’s how it works: The SEC actually chooses which team goes where. But they do take input from the bowls into consideration. After those six spots are filled, the Birmingham Bowl and the Independence Bowl get to choose from remaining bowl-eligible SEC teams, but there’s no way Tennessee will still be in play at that point.
While the group of six bowls are theoretically none above the other, there is a difference in the bowl payouts, location and potential opponent, which means that some are preferable to others. That means the Outback Bowl — played in Tampa, with the highest payout of the bunch — is definitely preferable to going to Charlotte for the Belk Bowl, or to Nashville for the Music City Bowl, or to Memphis for the Liberty Bowl.
Tennessee fans are lobbying hard for the Outback Bowl, and none other than Jon Gruden has made calls to the Outback Bowl on Tennessee’s behalf. It is likely that Tennessee would face a marquee opponent in the Outback Bowl — perhaps either Iowa (currently undefeated and ranked No. 4 in the country but facing Michigan State as underdogs this weekend) or nationally-ranked Northwestern, assuming that Michigan State wins the Big 10 championship and Ohio State goes to the Rose Bowl. Either matchup would be intriguing, especially Tennessee-Iowa, since it would be a rematch of last year’s Gator Bowl.
But to get to the Outback Bowl, Tennessee has to be able to outbid a higher-ranked (conceivably) Florida team. And there are persistent rumors that the SEC has promised Tennessee to the Belk Bowl to make up for what the Belk Bowl perceived as a snub last year. The Belk Bowl has lobbied hard for Tennessee. That means Tennessee’s most likely destination is probably the Belk Bowl, against an ACC opponent — potentially NC State. That, obviously, is a far cry from the Outback Bowl, but it will be what it will be.
There also remains the chance that Mississippi State or Georgia could factor ahead of Tennessee, causing the Vols to slide to either the Music City Bowl or the Liberty Bowl. But that seems highly unlikely. Worst case scenario is probably a return trip to Jacksonville for the Gator Bowl.