For the first time since 2016, Tennessee will be playing in a bowl game. So, how do these things work again?
It’s been a little bit since Vol fans have had to worry about how the bowl selection process works in the postseason, and a few things have changed since the last time the Vols were bowl eligible. But we’re here to explain how all the SEC bowl tie-ins work and how the College Football Playoff rankings will affect things for Tennessee and their bowl destination.
First, here’s a look at how all the bowl tie-ins work for the SEC with some explanations afterwards:
SEC Bowl Tie-Ins
College Football Playoff Semifinal — If chosen
Sugar Bowl — Highest-ranked non-playoff SEC team (vs. Big 12)
Orange Bowl — Highest-ranked SEC or Big Ten non-champion (or Notre Dame)
Cotton Bowl — Highest-ranked Group of Five champion and top ranked at-large team
Citrus Bowl — Gets first selection of remaining available SEC teams (vs. ACC or Big Ten)
Pool of Six
Outback Bowl — vs. Big Ten
TaxSlayer Gator Bowl — vs. Big Ten/ACC
Music City Bowl — vs. Big Ten/ACC
Texas Bowl — vs. Big 12
Belk Bowl — vs. ACC
Liberty Bowl — vs. Big 12
Birmingham Bowl — vs. AAC
Independence Bowl — vs. ACC
The SEC is guaranteed a participant in the Sugar Bowl (when it’s not a playoff semifinal), and the Citrus Bowl gets the first selection of any SEC team that doesn’t make it into the College Football Playoff or Sugar Bowl. This year, the Sugar Bowl isn’t a semifinal game, so that bowl game will get the highest-ranked SEC team that didn’t make it into the playoffs. The Citrus Bowl will likely get the next highest-ranked, unless either the Orange or Cotton scoops them up.
For an SEC team to make it into the Orange Bowl, that team would have to have not won the SEC championship and be ranked higher than the next available highest-ranked Big Ten team that didn’t win their conference championship. Since both the SEC and Big Ten champions are likely to make the playoffs, this just means the next highest-rated SEC team after the playoff and Sugar Bowl would have to be ranked higher than the next highest-ranked Big Ten team. The odds of that happening are pretty good, so it’s possible.
The odds of an SEC team making it into the Cotton Bowl are smaller. The Cotton Bowl, just like the Sugar and Orange, is a New Year’s Six bowl, but it has a twist. The Cotton Bowl is between the highest-ranked Group of Five champion (if they aren’t in the playoffs) and the top-ranked at-large team after all the other New Year’s Six bowls are set. This year, a team like Auburn or Georgia could get into the Cotton Bowl, but it’s also plausible that a Wisconsin or Baylor makes it in, depending on how the conference championship games go.
After the New Year’s Six bowls and then the Citrus Bowl comes the “Pool of Six” for the SEC. There’s no specific order for which bowl chooses which team, but these six bowls will all get SEC teams as long as there are enough eligible teams. After that, the Birmingham Bowl gets the next choice, then the Independence Bowl gets last pick if any SEC teams are left.
So, what does this all mean for Tennessee?
Right now, LSU and Georgia still have to battle it out in the SEC Championship Game on Saturday, December 7th. If LSU wins, they’re guaranteed a spot in the playoffs. Even if they lose, they could still very likely make it in. If Georgia loses, they will likely end up in the Sugar Bowl unless the CFP committee drops them a lot and they fall below Florida (Georgia is currently 4th and Florida is currently 9th).
If Georgia, wins, however, then both LSU and UGA could end up in the playoffs, which would likely bump Florida up to the Sugar Bowl.
Right now, Auburn is ranked ahead of Alabama (11th and 12th, respectively), so the Tigers would be in line for the Orange or Cotton if the rankings work out that way. If Auburn doesn’t go to a New Year’s Six Bowl, then the Tigers will likely end up in the Citrus Bowl if Florida or Georgia don’t, meaning Alabama won’t even be in a New Year’s Six Bowl.
While that would certainly bring a smile to the faces of Vol fans everywhere, that scenario could mean Tennessee gets bumped to a non-Florida bowl.
In this situation, Alabama would likely take the Outback Bowl since it’s generally considered the most high-profile of the Pool of Six Bowls. That means Tennessee could end up in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl or potentially even the Music City Bowl if the Gator Bowl takes Kentucky or Texas A&M over the Vols.
As of right now, barring a Georgia upset in the SEC Championship Game, the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl seems like the most likely destination for the Vols if Alabama is bumped out of the Citrus Bowl. Unless an SEC team can sneak into both the Orange and Cotton Bowl, the SEC will probably have one playoff team, a team in the Sugar Bowl, a team in the Orange Bowl, and a team in the Citrus Bowl.
It seems somewhat likely that the SEC will have two teams either in the College Football Playoff or two teams in the New Year’s Six bowls, which would make things slightly easier for the Vols to get into the Outback Bowl. But if Auburn gets the Citrus Bowl and is ranked ahead of Alabama still, then the Vols may be out of luck for the Outback.
As it stands right now, though, it looks like Tennessee’s only hopes of going to a Florida bowl game rest in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl.