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Going bowling: A look at the possibilities for Tennessee as conference championship week begins

With Tennessee remaining behind Alabama in the latest and penultimate College Football Playoff rankings, it is all but a foregone conclusion that the Vols will not make the four-team playoff field.

So where will Tennessee go bowling? 

Here’s a look at the possibilities: 

Tennessee (10-2) remained No. 7 in the latest CFP rankings, which were released Tuesday. The top six teams are Georgia, Michigan, TCU, Southern Cal, Ohio State and Alabama, in that order. Ohio State (11-1) would have the best shot of slipping into the playoffs, a feat that would likely be accomplished if either TCU or Southern Cal lose their conference championship games this weekend. Should both lose, it’s likely that Alabama would slide in, as well. Tennessee’s only hope of making the playoffs would be for either Georgia or Michigan to also lose — but either of those teams will likely be ranked among the top four even if they lose their conference championship game.

It has been considered a foregone conclusion that Tennessee will make a New Year’s Six bowl game — the most prestigious bowls that aren’t a part of the College Football Playoff. 

However, that’s not necessarily the case. Here’s a look at the possibilities: 

Sugar Bowl

The Sugar Bowl, to be played Dec. 31 at noon on ESPN, is the most coveted bowl destination for SEC teams that do not make the playoffs. 

The Sugar Bowl’s first preference is the SEC champion, assuming the champion does not make the playoff. Georgia is heavily favored to beat LSU in Saturday’s SEC Championship Game. Should LSU spring an upset, the Tigers will play in the Sugar Bowl. 

If Georgia wins, however, the Sugar Bowl will take the highest-ranked SEC team remaining. That is Alabama, after the Crimson Tide were controversially ranked ahead of Tennessee in the CFP rankings. 

It appears that the only way for Tennessee to travel to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl is if TCU and USC lose on Saturday, allowing Alabama to sneak into the playoff.

The most likely opponent in the Sugar Bowl would be Kansas State, from the Big 12.

Orange Bowl

The next-highest bowl is the Orange Bowl, to be played in Miami on Dec. 30 at 7:30 p.m. or 8 p.m. on ESPN. 

The Orange Bowl is contractually obligated to select an ACC team, and can pit that team against a school from the SEC, Big Ten, or against Notre Dame.

The Orange Bowl’s current 10-year contract, which expires in 2025, calls for an SEC team to be selected at least three times, a Big Ten team to be selected at least three times, and Notre Dame to be selected no more than two times. 

Since the current contract has been in place, the Orange Bowl has selected an SEC team three times and a Big Ten team two times.

It had been considered a lock that the Orange Bowl would select Tennessee — the highest-ranked team among the potential selections — if Alabama goes to the Sugar Bowl. 

However, multiple reports indicate that there is some 11th-hour lobbying taking place by Ohio State to get out of a second straight trip to Los Angeles for the Rose Bowl, and into the Orange Bowl.

The Rose Bowl selects the highest-ranked Big Ten team that doesn’t make the playoff, which will likely be Ohio State. However, Ohio State doesn’t have to accept the invitation. And the Rose Bowl, apparently, doesn’t have to invite the Buckeyes. Instead, the Rose Bowl could select the next-highest Big Ten team, which is Penn State.

If reports are true, then Ohio State will go to the Orange Bowl, likely against Clemson, and Tennessee will slide to the next available bowl. However, that could change if either TCU or Southern Cal loses their conference championship game and Ohio State slides into the playoff. The flip-side is if Purdue defeats Michigan in the Big Ten championship game Saturday. The Wolverines would likely still make the playoff, while Purdue would be the automatic qualifier for the Rose Bowl, sliding Ohio State to the Orange Bowl.

Cotton Bowl

The other New Year’s Six bowl game that has a tie-in with the SEC is the Cotton Bowl, though it’s considered a step below the Orange and Sugar bowls. The Cotton Bowl is played in Dallas at 1 p.m. on Jan. 2, on ESPN.

The Cotton Bowl is one of three New Year’s Six bowls that does not have a conference tie-in. The other two are the Fiesta and Peach bowls; however, those two are the locations for this year’s CFP semifinal games. 

The Cotton Bowl’s contract requires it to take the highest-ranked champion of a Group of Five conference if that team does not qualify for the playoff. That will be Tulane or UCF, depending on which team wins the AAC Championship Game on Saturday. 

The Cotton Bowl last selected an SEC team in 2020, when No. 10 Florida played No. 8 Oklahoma. 

The Cotton Bowl is likely to take the highest-ranked team that’s still available when it comes time to make its selection. However, that is not guaranteed to be Tennessee. If USC loses the Pac-12 Championship Game, the Trojans could miss the playoffs and still be ranked ahead of Tennessee, which would bump the Vols from the New Year’s Six bowls entirely.

Citrus Bowl

Steve Spurrier once joked that you can’t spell Citrus without UT, because that was the Vols painful destination each year after losing to Florida in the 1990s. And it’s certainly not impossible for the Vols to fall all the way to the Citrus Bowl again this season.

The Citrus Bowl, which will be played in Orlando on Jan. 2 at 1 p.m. on ABC, gets the first pick from SEC teams after all of the New Year’s Six bowl games are in place. If Tennessee is still on the table at that point, the Vols will be headed to Orlando. 

The opponent would be whichever the highest-ranking Big Ten team is that is still on the table — likely to be Purdue. 

Other bowls

After all of the above bowls have made their selections, there are a group of other bowls that have SEC tie-ins. The SEC front office chooses which team will play where. The other bowls include the Liberty Bowl, Texas Bowl, ReliaQuest Bowl (formerly the Outback Bowl), the Las Vegas Bowl, the Gator Bowl, the Music City Bowl, the Birmingham Bowl and the Gasparilla Bowl. 

Tennessee will not fall into this tier of bowls.

The bottom line

Tennessee fans are hoping for a Sugar Bowl bid, but that only happens if Alabama somehow manages to get into the College Football Playoff (and LSU doesn’t beat Georgia) — which would require both USC and TCU losing, and still might not land the Tide in the playoff. The most likely opponent would be Kansas State.

A more marquee battle would be Tennessee vs. Clemson in the Orange Bowl. However, this will not happen if Purdue upsets Michigan in the Big Ten Championship Game, and it might not happen anyway, if reports are to be believed that Ohio State doesn’t want to go to the Rose Bowl and the Rose Bowl really doesn’t want Ohio State. 

The next most logical landing spot for Tennessee will be the Cotton Bowl, against the winner of Tulane and UCF. There would be some intrigue in a Tennessee vs. UCF matchup; Josh Heupel coached there, and Danny White was the athletics director, before both men came to UT. 

Should Southern Cal be upset in the Pac-12 Championship Game and miss the playoff, Tennessee could fall to the Citrus Bowl, likely to face Purdue.

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