The SEC makes the final call on which teams go to the Group of Six Bowls (TaxSlayer, Outback, Liberty, Music City, Belk, Texas). But teams and bowls get input in that process, and Tennessee head coach Butch Jones made one thing clear on Monday at his first full press conference since the Vols found out they will be heading to Tampa Bay for the Outback Bowl: Tennessee was a wanted program during this process.
“The University of Tennessee is back to being a commodity when it comes to bowl games,” Jones said. “And that’s a tribute to our players, to our entire football organization and to our entire athletic department, so obviously we’re excited.”
It’s a tribute to the fanbase as well. Tennessee, with a relatively small amount of help from Iowa’s fanbase in 2015, still managed to have the 10th-highest attended bowl game in the 2014-15 postseason with a total of 56,310 fans showing up to the TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville on Jan. 2 of last year.
Offseason chatter: Jones addressed several questions about potential offseason moves, including transfers, coaching attrition and other updates. The only direct information is that the status of fifth-year senior defensive end/linebacker Curt Maggitt, who has missed all but two games in 2015 with a hip injury, remains up in the air as he gets his health evaluated and begins to decide if he wants to pursue an appeal for a sixth year of eligibility.
Jones also said no players had expressed a desire to transfer as of now, but also reiterated the point he’s made multiple times this postseason that player movement is almost inevitable and part of the culture of college football in this day and age. Jones also was asked specifically about a report that Tennessee wide receivers coach/passing game coordinator Zach Azzanni is a candidate to be the offensive coordinator at Maryland.
“I speak to all our coaches all the time,” Jones said. “Everything if they can make themselves better in the profession and for their families, I’m very, very supportive. But again, there’s a lot of speculation out there and anybody can guess and be right. And that’s the thing: if there are reports, if there are tweets, you know, stand behind what you say. But you know Zach is a very, very gifted football coach, along with all of our coaches and I expect people to come after our coaches. That’s what we want. That means we’re doing great things, they want the Tennessee brand, they want the Tennessee product and all the great things that are going on here in building a football team and a football program.”
Jones not buying SEC speed narrative: The Vols certainly showed a speed and athleticism advantage over Iowa in last year’s 45-28 win in the TaxSlayer Bowl. But Jones isn’t buying into the common narrative that Tennessee has a speed edge over the Wildcats just because the Vols are in the SEC.
“I don’t,” Jones said when asked if he thought UT had a speed edge. “They’re 10-2 for a reason. They’ve won five games [in a row] for a reason. There’s a reason why they’re the 12th ranked team in the country. I think sometimes [the speed narrative] is blown way out of proportion…And again, this is a football team that knows how to win. You don’t just beat Stanford if you don’t have team speed. They have very, very good team speed. I think they’re a complete football team.”
The Wildcats are 3-7-1 all-time against the SEC, but have won three straight against the conference including a 2013 Gator Bowl victory over Mississippi State and consecutive regular-season games over Vanderbilt in 2010 and 2012.The Vols are 9-4 all-time against the Big 10 with wins in four of their last five games, including the aforementioned blowout win over the Hawkeyes.
Vols open as favorites. Despite Northwestern holding the No. 12 ranking in the country and a better record (10-2) than UT, Tennessee opened as nine-point favorites over the Wildcats, according to VegasInsider.com. As of early Monday afternoon, that line is down to eight points and figures to move throughout the next few weeks leading up to the game.