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Analyzing What a Path to the Playoffs Could Look Like for Tennessee Football

Tennessee Football
ORLANDO, FL – January 01, 2024 – Quarterback Nico Iamaleava #8 and Head Coach Josh Heupel of the Tennessee Volunteers during the 2023 Cheez-It Citrus Bowl between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Tennessee Volunteers at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, FL. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics.

While the start of every college football season gives new hopes to teams around the league, it’s often been the same handful of teams over the last decade in the four-team college football playoff era.

Only 15 teams have been selected for the 40 total spots of the last 10 years of the college football playoffs, with eight of the 15 teams having more than one appearance.

Evolution invites opportunity, though, and that is especially true heading into the 2024 college football season.

The Pac-12 fell apart, the SEC and Big Ten loaded up with some of the nation’s top programs, and the college football playoffs officially approved the 5+7 model for this season’s inaugural expanded 12-team playoff format. The playoffs will include the five highest-ranked conference champions with the next seven highest-ranked teams filling the rest of the spots.

While only a handful of teams previously had legitimate playoff hopes over the last decade, teams are chomping at the bit to make a splash in one of the eight additional playoff spots to be filled next winter.

So, what about Tennessee? Is there a path to the college football playoffs? Yes, it’s on the table, but the road is obviously going to be challenging in Josh Heupel’s fourth year on Rocky Top.

The easiest way for Tennessee to make the playoffs is to win the SEC outright, thus automatically qualifying for the playoffs with an extremely high chance of getting a first-round bye. For context’s sake, though, that’s not a likely option. With the SEC’s eastern and western divisions falling to the wayside this offseason, the SEC championship will simply feature the conference’s top two teams.

According to BetMGM, Tennessee has the 18th-best national championship odds next season, which would slot the Vols at the ninth position among SEC teams. While it’s not a perfect one-to-one comparison, it does show that Tennessee wouldn’t be near the top of the charts when it comes to SEC futures odds.

So the most accessible route for Tennessee would be to make it in as an at-large bid.

Ole Miss and Oklahoma finished the 2023 season at the No. 11 and No. 12 spots in the final College Football Playoff rankings, with both teams going 10-2 in the regular season. LSU and Arizona make up No. 13 and No. 14 in the rankings with a 9-3 record for both. That gives a good estimate for a 10-2 season to be in the playoff conversation, even if it is at the very back.

So how does Tennessee get there? “With a winning record against Oklahoma, Georgia and Alabama — and a perfect 4-0 nonconference record that includes a Sept. 7 win against NC State,” ESPN’s Heather Dinich answered in an article on Monday morning.

More from RTI: Playing With Pressure? Detailing Nico Iamaleava’s First Big Season at Tennessee

Tennessee’s path to 10-2 falls into two distinct categories: the non-conference slate and the games against former playoff teams.

As a disclaimer, all of this is also being written under the impression that Tennessee can handle the rest of its season foes, such as Arkansas, Kentucky, and Florida, the latter two opponents having to play in Neyland Stadium:

The Vols’ non-con games this season will be against Chattanooga, NC State, Kent State, and UTEP. The best way for Tennessee to set themselves up well for SEC play is to go undefeated. The NC State game, played in a neutral location as the second game of the season, will be a huge contest. If Tennessee wins, it gives Josh Heupel’s unit more wiggle room later in the season. With a loss, though, Tennessee will need a winning record against some of the SEC’s top teams.

While the Vols are used to playing Missouri yearly with the SEC East formatting, Tennessee will not square off with the Tigers this season. As much as some fans want a chance at getting revenge on Eli Drinkwitz, this is a scheduling win for Tennessee as Missouri projects to be a contender next season.

That leaves a three-headed monster of Georgia, Alabama, and Oklahoma to get through… but it is a three-headed monster with a few key questions. Alabama still has loads of talent but questions naturally rise during the transition out of the Nick Saban era. Oklahoma, a stout team heading into the season, is breaking in a new quarterback and is also heading into the SEC for the first time ever.

With a win over NC State, Tennessee can lose two of three to Alabama, Georgia, and Oklahoma and still be in a position to be 10-2, likely the minimum it will take to at least be in the playoff conversation. With a loss to NC State, Tennessee will need a winning record over those three teams.

An 11-1 season would put Tennessee in a great position for that conversation, though, no matter how it’s achieved.

“With a winning record against Oklahoma, Georgia and Alabama — and a perfect 4-0 nonconference record that includes a Sept. 7 win against NC State,” Dinich wrote about how Tennessee can impress the selection committee. “If the Vols are a playoff team, they shouldn’t lose to Chattanooga, NC State, Kent State or UTEP. And if they do lose to NC State, which should be a respectable top-25 team (see No. 18 below), they can’t afford to go 1-2 against OU, Georgia and Bama. Tennessee only has four true road games this year, including OU and Georgia. If the Vols are going to earn an at-large bid, those are the kind of road wins that will help them do it.”

More from RTI: Set the Quarterback Conversation Aside… What About the Vols’ Secondary?

September is going to be a critical month for Tennessee with a neutral site game against NC State in Week 2 and a true road contest against Oklahoma in Week 4. But the month of September will give a good road map into how Tennessee needs to approach the season, assuming the Vols take care of business against Chattanooga and Kent State in between.

Coming off of an open week to close out September, Tennessee will travel to Arkansas before back-to-back home games against Florida and Alabama on Oct. 12 and Oct. 19, respectively. Another open week then separates Tennessee from a five-game stretch to close the season including vs Kentucky, vs Mississippi State, at Georgia, vs UTEP, and at Vanderbilt. Tennessee needs to handle business against the rest if you will in order for this scenario to mean anything.

All in all, Tennessee’s four biggest games next season will be NC State, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Georgia. That’s true in February and it’ll be true in August.

While it is a road to the 12-team expanded College Football Playoffs, it’s sort of like a road from the latter movies in the Fast and Furious franchise. Tennessee might need a rocket car or a tank to help clear a few potholes ahead.

187 days until Josh Heupel and Nico Iamaleava’s best Dom Toretto impression begins.

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