When trying to figure out a bowl system that has a lot of moving parts and ultimately falls in the hands of some bowl reps in some cases and the SEC itself in others, it’s difficult to make too many guarantees in this process.
But after studying all the projections and speaking to several people around the process, it does appear that the potential opponents for Tennessee can at least be narrowed down. If, indeed, Tennessee is headed to the Outback, Belk or Music Bowl, with the Citrus being a dark horse, that means all the potential tie-ins are with an ACC or Big 10 team.
Based on that, and a look at conference standings and where those teams might end up, we can give you a pretty confident statement that Tennessee’s opponent will be somebody we mention in this article.
Very realistic opponents:
• Northwestern (10-2, 6-2): A fairly natural fit for both teams in the Outback Bowl, Northwestern hasn’t been there since 2009, while UT hasn’t been since 2007.
• Penn State (7-5, 4-4): These teams could meet in either the Outback or Music City Bowl with the added storyline of Tennessee’s history against James Franklin.
• Duke (7-5, 4-4): Duke played in the Belk Bowl in 2012, but could be an enticing draw there with David Cutcliffe facing his former school. UT and Duke could also meet in the Music City Bowl.
• Pittsburgh (8-4, 6-2): A natural fit in the Music City or Belk with a couple storylines against UT with Nathan Peterman and Jim Chaney on the sideline for the Panthers.
• Miami (8-4, 5-3): A big-name program excited about its new head coach could be an interesting matchup for the Belk or Music City Bowl.
• NC State (7-5, 3-5): Nothing flashy here, but the Vols had a good performance against the Wolfpack in 2012 and might be a natural geographic fit against them, especially in the Belk.
• Louisville (7-5, 5-3): They played in the Belk Bowl last year, but with both schools being about three hours from Nashville, that could make sense in terms of selling a lot of tickets for that one.
• Michigan (9-3, 6-2): This one could happen in the Outback Bowl, and would be one of the better non-playoff matchups of the year, but we’re not sure if they’ll fall past the Citrus Bowl. We also think there’s at least a slight possibility that the Citrus Bowl, which gets its pick of SEC teams not in the playoffs or New Year’s Six Bowls, would think about picking UT to face the Wolverines.
• Florida State (10-2, 6-2): The President of the Music City Bowl said in an interview this week that the Seminoles could be a slight possibility for Nashville, but while this would be a fun matchup, it seems far-fetched.
• Wisconsin (9-3, 6-2): The Badgers makes a lot of sense as a potential Outback Bowl opponent until you remember they played there last year. A Music City Bowl matchup is possible there, though doesn’t feel extremely likely.
• Indiana (6-6, 2-6): Nobody really wants it, but the Hoosiers are bowl eligible and technically could make it to Nashville.
• Virginia Tech (6-6, 4-4): It technically could happen, but with the Battle at Bristol next year, everybody will do everything they can to avoid this one, you would think.
• North Carolina (11-1, 8-0): The Tar Heels’ loss to Clemson on Saturday night at least makes them a possibility in the Belk.