Barring an epic collapse involving 2 losses to a couple of the worst teams in the conference, Tennessee will play in a bowl game for the first time since 2016. It would be quite an accomplishment for a team that started the season 1-4.

Be honest. You want a bowl trip because you need an excuse. You would rather have an actual reason for telling Aunt Ethel that you can’t come over for a slice of bunt cake. But what city might you be going to instead?

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Let’s get the obvious out of the way. The (at best) 7-5 Vols aren’t playing in a New Year’s 6 bowl, so unfortunately, the nearly 30-year Sugar Bowl drought continues. Everything else though is absolutely in play.

Sadly, the SEC isn’t locked with Bahamas Bowl, so your passport isn’t going to get stamped. No offense to the Independence Bowl in Shreveport or the Birmingham Bowl in … well, Birmingham, but Tennessee would prefer other destinations. That said, if the Vols are 6-6, it’s quite possible they could slip to those games. The Texas Bowl likely takes a team from the SEC West. The Citrus and Outback Bowls probably won’t take teams in that 7-5 range, even one with Tennessee’s tradition.

So to me, the destinations that are both the most realistic and preferred for the Vols (and their fans) are as follows:

  • Dec. 30: Music City Bowl (vs. ACC) in Nashville
  • Dec. 31: Liberty Bowl (vs. Big 12) in Memphis
  • Dec. 31: Belk Bowl (vs. ACC) in Charlotte
  • Jan. 2: Gator Bowl (vs. Big Ten) in Jacksonville

Let’s break them down:

Music City Bowl

Why it makes sense: The Vols would have the de facto home field advantage with so many of their supporters living in the Nashville area, while others across the state would have fairly quick drives to the state capital. Broadway features enough action for proper pregame revelry. This would be a boost for recruiting, with so many Tennessee targets for the classes of 2021 and 2022 in that area. However, the Vols just played in this bowl game 3 years ago, and Tennessee plays Vanderbilt in Nashville every other year, so their fans might wish for a different locale.

Liberty Bowl

Why it makes sense: Bowl officials would love to have the Vols make the trip west. Tennessee hasn’t played in that bowl game since December 1986, when they beat Minnesota 21-14. Despite Memphis’ recent football success, that area is still filled with Vols fans. They would jump at the opportunity to have the Vols in their backyard and not have to drive 5+ hours to see them play. Beale Street would be filled with orange, and Tennessee coaches are always trying get more of a foothold in a part of the state with so many quality high football recruits. This might be the best bowl game of the bunch for all of those reasons.

Belk Bowl

Why it makes sense: Charlotte, N.C., is an easy drive for Vols fans, just about 4 hours from Knoxville. However, the game has a noon kickoff, which will require an early departure from East Tennessee if fans don’t plan to stay in Charlotte the night before. Tennessee has never played in this bowl game, but they did open the 2018 season at Bank of America Stadium when they lost 40-14 to Will Grier and West Virginia. The Belk Bowl puts on a terrific show, with activities for fans leading up to the game. Tennessee’s coaches also target the Charlotte area for future Vols.

Gator Bowl

Why it makes sense: And finally, what about the Gator Bowl? Tennessee fans have fond memories of playing in this game. They showed up in massive numbers in January 2015, when this game was known as the TaxSlayer Bowl. The Vols’ 45-28 victory over Iowa wasn’t nearly as close as the final margin. The Jacksonville weather is typically sunny and in the mid-to-high 60s in January, so fans would really dig those conditions. And it never hurts for recruiting in Florida to be playing a postseason game in the Sunshine State.

A bowl trip would be a terrific reward for the Vols, especially for this Tennessee senior class. They have been through the highs and lows of the Butch Jones era, a controversial coaching search, and have been part of the opening stages of a massive rebuild. Daniel Bituli, Marquez Callaway, Jauan Jennings, Darrell Taylor and the rest of the seniors are likely going to get one final opportunity to play college football.