Tennessee football: Bowl eligibility nothing to scoff at for 2021 Vols
Bowl games used to be reserved for very good and great college football teams.
That’s not the case anymore.
Counting the 2 national semifinals, there are 42 bowl games on the docket for the 2021-22 postseason. 42!
Whether you are stoked to watch the Tony the Tiger Bowl (El Paso!), the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (Boise!) or the LendingTree Bowl (Mobile!), there isn’t a lack of action following the regular season.
There are 130 teams in the FBS, so they need 82 teams to fill those spots (remember, the winning CFP semifinalists play twice). Mathematics tells us that nearly 65% of these student-athletes will get their complimentary gift cards to Best Buy and Chipotle while college administrators take advantage of the free rounds of golf at the local country club.
Heading in to the 2021 campaign I looked at Tennessee as a team with very long odds of making a bowl game. The Volunteers had a tumultuous off season which resulted in the firing of their coach, the retirement “wink wink” of their athletics director, a looming NCAA investigation into recruiting violations under Jeremy Pruitt and his coaching staff, plus the mass defections of 28 players from the 2020 team to the transfer portal.
Tennessee sports betting officially launched on November 1, 2020. Tennessee was the first SEC state to legalize sports betting.
No, these were not the best of times on Rocky Top.
In addition, they’d face what looked to be one of the toughest schedules in college football. Out of conference they played Pittsburgh, which went on to win the ACC Coastal Division. In conference, UT faced 3 teams currently ranked in the top 10 (Georgia, Alabama and Ole Miss) and 2 others that were nationally ranked at the time they played (Florida and Kentucky).
New head coach Josh Heupel had a big test ahead of him … and you’d be hard pressed to find an objective observer that think he and his staff haven’t been up to the challenge.
Thanks to their 60-14 blowout victory on Saturday over South Alabama, the Vols improved to 6-5. That 6th win ensured their bowl eligibility. It’s the 54th time in program history that they have reached that goal.
That accomplishment shouldn’t shouldn’t be dismissed just because so many squads earn a berth to a bowl game. Look no further than one of Tennessee’s biggest rivals. Florida played for an SEC title last year and they’ll need a win over Florida State to get to the postseason.
Even though Tennessee has only beaten Florida once since the start of the 2005 season, Vols fans have to feel better about the direction of their program than Florida fans do right now.
Of course, making a bowl in your first year doesn’t ensure that success will follow. Back in 2010 the Vols played in the Music City Bowl after Derek Dooley led them to a 6-6 regular season following Lane Kiffin’s midnight run to Southern California. Vols fans were optimistic about the future.
But over the next 2 seasons, the Vols went 10-14, missed the postseason each year, and Dooley is now remembered as one of the worst coaches in SEC history.
Dooley was a panic hire after the Kiffin debacle. And Heupel had the potential to be as well considering the mess left by the previous athletics administration and football staff. But athletics director Danny White seems to have known what he was doing in bringing Heupel with him from Central Florida.
Honestly? White also probably didn’t have many other quality options.
Counting the bowl game, the Vols have 2 contests left to play. They could end up with 8 wins overall, something that Tennessee has done just once since the 2016 season.
The early signing period is almost upon us. What Heupel and his staff can do with this momentum in the next few weeks will go a long way towards finding out if 2021 was an outlier.