Can a Sugar Bowl berth salvage not winning the East for Tennessee?
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — When the Florida and LSU game went final early Saturday afternoon, the CBS coverage of the Tennessee and Missouri game panned a visual of Vols fans in the stands. The reality and sting that the Vols were not going to the SEC Championship Game was all too apparent.
It was apparent on social media, too.
But the game had to go on against Missouri, along with the remainder of the season, which is now reduced to playing at Vanderbilt and then a bowl game.
“We’re disappointed about that, but we still have a lot to play for,” offensive lineman Brett Kendrick said of the Florida win. “We have a big game coming up next week versus Vanderbilt, which is a huge rival game. We’re playing for a good bowl game right now and a 10-win season.
“So, there’s still a lot left out there for us. We’re not going to hang our heads about it. I just actually found out what happened when I was sitting in there doing a radio interview, but I knew on the sideline that when they stopped showing the score up there something had gone wrong. We’re not going to hang our heads about it. We’ve had a great year. Coach (Butch) Jones was really forcing us to stay focused on our game and control what we can control.”
Jones, always the focused football coach, said the Vols were concerned only with beating Missouri.
“The only thing that matters is being 1-0 this week and controlling what we can control, and that’s winning the football game,” Jones said after the 63-37 win over Missouri. “We never addressed it (the Florida/LSU game) one single time, and I think when you look at it, our character was displayed once again with our players. But again, everything is about our team and working to be 1-0, and that’s all that matters.”
Running back John Kelly said had a similar reaction when he found out Florida won. “It is what it is,” he said.
This season didn’t go as hoped or planned. There’s a sense that 2016 will best be remembered as what could have been?
There were highlights: beating Florida to end the 11-game losing streak, Joshua Dobbs’ Hail Mary completion to beat Georgia in Athens, Dobbs’ sensational Senior Day. But there was even more disappointment: injuries, puzzling losses and player departures.
The Vols, preseason SEC East favorites, know they won’t be going to Atlanta in December. Where might they go bowling in late December or early January?
Most Week 12 projections sent the Vols to Florida, perhaps to the Citrus Bowl.
But they’re dreaming bigger. And they’re not alone.
For those asking, Sugar Bowl is obligated to take highest ranked non-playoff SEC team in final standings. Would likely be 9-3 Vols.
— Clay Travis (@ClayTravis) November 19, 2016
A Florida loss to Florida State and Alabama, and a Texas A&M loss to LSU could all put Tennessee into the Sugar Bowl.
It would be the first Sugar Bowl appearance for the Vols since the 1990 season and could help remove some of the sting that Vol Nation might be feeling by not making it back to Atlanta for the first time since 2007 to compete for the SEC championship.
Sometimes things happen for a reason, and after two consecutive good offensive outings against Kentucky and Missouri after Jalen Hurd’s departure, having the right players in place within the offense might be the spark that can guide the direction of the program that can end the season strong and a possible Sugar Bowl appearance.
All is left that remains to be seen in how the remainder of the season and offseason pans out for Jones’ program. But the question still lingers: What might have been and what lies ahead?