The SEC has twice sent 12 of its 14 teams to the postseason, a record that will be difficult to top.
This season, not so much.
The league has eight bowl-eligible teams with two weeks left, but a few remaining games involve .500 or sub-.500 teams facing each other so, at best, the SEC will have 11 teams with six wins or more.
Florida could wind up 5-6 with a game canceled by Hurricane Irma. Missouri, Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Arkansas are fighting to reach 6-6. Ole Miss is 5-5 but is not eligible for a bowl because of self-imposed sanctions.
There is another route to a bowl, the one Mississippi State took on its way to winning the St. Petersburg Bowl last season: Going 5-7 and having a strong enough Academic Progress Rate score to fill in a vacant bowl slot.
The NCAA uses APR scores, in order, to award bowl bids to teams with losing records in years when the Football Bowl Subdivision runs out of teams with .500 or better records. In 2015, three 5-7 teams went to bowls, and the same thing happened in 2016.
But there is one fewer bowl game this year.
For what it’s worth, I have projected every result from every remaining FBS game to come up with a complete bowl projection list, and I arrived at 78 teams with a 6-6 or better record. That is the exact number needed to fill out the spots in all 40 bowls (of course, the national title game is the 40th bowl and the two winning College Football Playoff semifinal winners will play two bowls each, hence 78 slots for 40 bowls).
Still, the question remains: What kind of odds is each SEC team facing in its quest to potentially reach a bowl at 5-7, and who outside of the conference could mess things up with a mediocre record but a strong APR score?
Here’s a breakdown:
Vanderbilt (4-6, APR score 992)
Among SEC teams needing to qualify based on APR, the Commodores are in the best shape for a bowl bid. They are tied for fourth overall in APR. Remember, there is no subjectivity in regards to APR. Teams are selected in the order of their score.
Air Force, which has the highest APR score, is 4-6 and could finish 5-7. It would get the first opening. Next are Northwestern and Michigan, which already are bowl eligible.
Vanderbilt is tied with Duke (also 4-6) and Minnesota (5-5), but it’s behind both in the tiebreaker (most recent score). So Vandy needs a few breaks.
Vandy might well take care of matters on the field anyway — it hosts Missouri and travels to Tennessee. It would be quite remarkable if that Vandy-UT game came down to two teams standing 0-7 in the SEC … and still fighting for a bowl berth.
The way the Vols have played lately, the Commodores seem much more likely to try like heck for that fifth win (if they don’t earn it this week) and a back door into a bowl bid.
Florida (3-6, APR score 980)
The Gators lost a pretty certain win when Hurricane Irma scuttled their Sept. 9 matchup against Northern Colorado. Now Florida finds itself three wins short of sure eligibility with two left to play. Florida State is 3-6 and, in its desperation to extend its record for bowl seasons, rescheduled its canceled game against Louisiana Monroe for Dec. 2.
Northern Colorado is 2-7 and pretty obviously not going to the FCS playoffs.
Florida is, of course, not going to the SEC title game so the Gators are free Dec. 2. Has anyone told the Gainesville gang that FSU managed to resched …. Ah, forget it. Florida, keep a little dignity and end your season on Nov. 25 against FSU. And if you beat the Seminoles, making them bowl ineligible anyway (with a 939 APR score, a 5-7 mark for FSU won’t cut it at all) you can sit back and laugh when FSU-LAMO draws about 10K to Doak Campbell.
Missouri (5-5, APR score 974)
The Tigers, who have won four in a row, top this list simply because they need one victory for bowl eligibility, not two. If Mizzou loses its last two, its bowl hopes are in big trouble, not least because those two games are against other teams on this list, Vanderbilt and Arkansas. At 5-7 Missouri would have to have a lot of help to get in in its APR score.
Tennessee (4-6, APR score 972)
The biggest problem for the Vols — other than the whole thing about being winless in the SEC and playing days after their coach got fired — is that they have maybe the toughest game of anybody on this list, namely Saturday’s matchup against LSU.
Should Tennessee pull off a major upset in Brady Hoke’s debut as its interim coach, replacing Butch Jones, it would be in position to finish 6-6 with a win at home over Vanderbilt. But the Vols have not scored more than 26 points in an SEC game this year, so beating LSU looks extremely unlikely. And while that APR score is OK, several teams in front of the Vols (more on that later) would be more likely to earn those last one or two bowl bids for five-win teams.
Arkansas (4-6, APR score 966)
Sports produces surprises all the time, but this one really would be stunning. To put it bluntly, Arkansas has 72 programs in front of it in the APR listings. Not all will finish 5-7, of course, but way too many will do so to give Razorbacks fans any hope. So they must sweep their final two, and that will be very difficult with Mississippi State coming to Fayetteville this week. Should the Hogs pull off the upset they would welcome Missouri to town in a winner-take-all … well, not all, exactly … a winner take .500 game.
Other teams to worry about
Air Force (4-6, APR score 995): The Falcons face a tough task with Boise State and likely need to beat 5-5 Utah State to get in this conversation.
Duke (4-6, 992): The Blue Devils have lost six in a row and need to defeat either Georgia Tech or Wake Forest to get that fifth win.
Minnesota (5-5, 992): The Golden Gophers crushed Nebraska on Saturday for their crucial fifth win and could repeat their 2015 path: A 5-7 finish followed by an APR-based bowl bid.
Maryland (4-6, 984): The remaining schedule (at Michigan State, Penn State) likely will knock the Terrapins out of the running.
Georgia Tech (5-4, 983): Like Florida, the Yellow Jackets lost a game to Irma. But a win Saturday over Duke would make them bowl eligible.
Middle Tennessee State (5-5, 983): How much would the Blue Raiders love knocking the Volunteers out of the bowl picture if MTSU finishes 5-7?
Utah (5-5, 983): The Utes have lost five of six to get into this predicament but could get to six wins in their finale against Colorado.
Indiana (4-6, 982): The last team in Florida’s way, should the Gators get to five wins. Two fellow mediocrities (Rutgers, Purdue) remain on the Hoosiers’ slate.
Our best guess
Missouri will get the split it needs to gain bowl eligibility. Vanderbilt will also at least split its final two and probably make a bowl with a 5-7 record. The others will have to wait until next year. We know Tennessee and Florida will do so under new coaching regimes; will that be true of Arkansas as well?