A Look at Tennessee’s Potential Path to the Sugar Bowl

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    Tennessee’s win over Missouri on Saturday certainly had a bittersweet feel to it due to Florida’s victory over LSU that went final during the second quarter of the UT game.

    That eliminated the Vols from SEC East contention, ending their chances to meet what was a pretty common expectation heading into the season.

    And while the Vols won’t be able to win the SEC East or the SEC this year, there’s a silver lining in terms of Tennessee’s postseason possibilities. Losing the East might actually have helped Tennessee’s chances of making it to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl – one of the prestigious New Year’s Six Bowls.

    In order to do that, the Vols must be the highest-ranked SEC team in the final College Football Rankings that is not in the playoffs.

    There are a couple things that need to happen to even make this a possibility: Tennessee must beat Vanderbilt, and Alabama needs to win out and claim the SEC title and a spot in the playoffs.

    If those things happen, it’ll set up an interesting five-team race between Tennessee, Florida, Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M to be the highest ranked SEC squad in the final poll.

    Here’s what last week’s CFP ranking looked like for those teams (this week’s ranking comes out on Tuesday night):

    15. Auburn
    16. LSU
    19. Tennessee
    23. Florida
    25. Texas A&M

    Here’s a look at what we know about each team since that point:

    Auburn (8-3, 5-2 SEC): 

    The Tigers had an easy 55-0 victory over FCS foe Alabama A&M on Saturday. Next up is Alabama in the Iron Bowl. If the Tigers win that, they will shoot up the rankings and would almost be guaranteed a trip to the Sugar Bowl. Remember, Alabama winning out was one of the assumptions I had that even gave Tennessee a chance. If Auburn loses to Alabama, but the Tigers play well, will they drop very much, if at all, in the polls? That remains to be seen.

    LSU (6-4, 4-3 SEC):

    LSU might have played itself out of the conversation on Saturday after its 16-10 loss to Florida. The Tigers can claw back into the conversation with a road win at Texas A&M on Thanksgiving, but that still might not be enough.

    Tennessee (8-3, 4-3 SEC):

    The Vols, despite a slow start and an atrocious performance on defense, still ended up posting a decent 63-37 win over Missouri that will look ok to the committee. A win at Vanderbilt on Saturday wouldn’t exactly be an eye-opener, but with the Commodores blasting Ole Miss last week, there would be some respect given to UT for that road victory.

    Florida (8-2, 6-2 SEC):

    Florida played itself to Atlanta and likely up the rankings with that win at LSU on Saturday. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Gators leap over Tennessee, LSU and maybe Auburn too in the new rankings that come out Tuesday night. But now the schedule turns brutal for the Gators. Already banged up, Florida has to wrap up the season at Florida State and then in Atlanta against Alabama. If the Gators can beat FSU, the question again comes in about how the committee would judge a loss to Alabama. The Gators might have enough of a lead in the poll at that point to be able to fall a bit and still go to the Sugar Bowl. All that to say, these other teams should be FSU fans this weekend.

    Texas A&M (8-3, 4-3 SEC)

    Playing without quarterback Trevor Knight, the Aggies struggled a bit in a 23-10 victory over UT-San Antonio this weekend. The Thursday game against LSU is a must-win for the Aggies to be in the Sugar Bowl conversation, but even then, the committee, which does use the eye test to an extent, probably isn’t going to launch the Aggies up the rankings without a proven quarterback.


    So what should Tennessee fans be cheering for if they want to go to the Sugar Bowl?

    Definitely a win against Vanderbilt, definitely for Alabama to win out – and for the Tide to win big over Auburn and Florida. A convincing win by Florida State over Florida would be helpful as well. An LSU win at Texas A&M is probably best for the Vols too. That would pin both the Aggies and the Tigers with four losses, making it tougher for the committee to put either one over UT.

    The biggest unknown is how the committee will treat any loss to Alabama. In theory, a loss should move a team back, but is it possible that Alabama’s level of dominance this year will make a loss to the Tide almost a non-factor for the committee? Should the committee punish Florida for making the SEC title game and losing to the Tide? Is it possible that a close loss to Alabama could actually be viewed as a small win?

    Those are things we just don’t know how the committee will interpret until the final rankings come out.

    But while the loss of the East will certainly sting for many Vol fans, the knowledge that Tennessee at least has a shot at its best bowl destination since 1998 should bring some comfort over the next couple of weeks.