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Conference championship mayhem means Tennessee is likely headed to the Orange Bowl or Sugar Bowl

Tennessee’s bowl destination remained uncertain Saturday evening, but the outcomes of conference championship games played so far means a New Year’s 6 bowl game is all but guaranteed for the Vols, with the Sugar Bowl and the Orange Bowl the likeliest of destinations.

Entering the final week of the season, it looked like the Cotton Bowl was a serious bet for Tennessee, with the Rose Bowl poised to pass on Ohio State, which would have pushed the Buckeyes to the Orange Bowl, and Alabama set to go to the Sugar Bowl due to being ranked just above the Vols in the controversial College Football Playoff rankings.

However, two of the top five teams have already lost their conference championship games, shaking things up.

In the Pac-12, Utah rolled over No. 4 Southern Cal Friday night, winning 47-24. And in the Big 12, Kansas State defeated No. 3 TCU in overtime Saturday, 31-28.

In the SEC, No. 1 Georgia was up 35-10 on LSU at halftime, well on its way to securing a playoff berth and assuring that the Tigers will not spring an upset and push their way into the Sugar Bowl.

Southern Cal’s loss likely means that Ohio State, which entered the weekend ranked No. 5, will very likely push into the Top 4 and receive a playoff berth. That makes Tennessee a likely candidate for the Orange Bowl. The biggest remaining question is whether TCU will drop out of the Top 4 after its loss to Kansas State. If so, Alabama will probably receive a playoff berth, which would send Tennessee to the Sugar Bowl.

Most analysts agreed that TCU would likely remain in the Top 4, barring a blowout loss in the Big 12 Championship Game. However, the playoff standings are determined by a committee, and one question that will have to be answered: Will the committee want Ohio State and Michigan to rematch in the playoff semifinals? If not, the playoff committee will have to make a decision: Not drop TCU a single spot even though the Horned Frogs lost to Kansas State and are viewed as the weakest of the teams in the playoff hunt, or drop them all the way to No. 5 and move Alabama into the playoffs.

Should the latter scenario play out, Tennessee will go to the Sugar Bowl, facing Kansas State. The Sugar Bowl gets the first pick of SEC schools that don’t make the playoffs. If the conference champion is in the playoffs, the Sugar Bowl traditionally takes the highest-ranked team — which will be Alabama if the Crimson Tide do not make the playoffs, or Tennessee if the Tide squeaks into the four-team playoff field.

If Alabama does not make the playoffs and winds up in the Sugar Bowl, the Orange Bowl gets next pick. Unlike the Sugar Bowl, the Orange Bowl is not contractually obligated to take an SEC team; it can also select a Big Ten team or Notre Dame. However, Tennessee will be the highest-ranked team that the Orange Bowl could choose. 

Tennessee’s opponent in the Orange Bowl would be the winner of Clemson and North Carolina, which are set to meet in the ACC Championship Game Saturday night.

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