Tennessee's bowl destination is still very uncertain
Tennessee will be a desirable bowl team. However, the destination may not be as desirable to the Vols’ fan base.
With the days of bowl committees having input into the matter long gone, the SEC determines what team goes to which bowl. That could help the Vols as they have an energized fan base that will surely buy up more than their allotment of tickets. Tennessee should also benefit from having a racecar-type of offense that casual television viewers love.
However, there aren’t backroom deals any longer that Tennessee could use to ratchet up their postseason standing and land in a sunny destination. Auburn perfected that maneuver in the bowl committee days. Tennessee wasn’t very far behind thanks to their rabid fan base that always travelled well.
The consensus among media types has the Vols landing in a lower-tier bowl game, which is fine considering the Vols are rebuilding. The Vols are 6-5 and 3-4 in the SEC. They’ll likely win their 7th game against Vanderbilt this week. There’s certainly no shame in a 7-win season in Josh Heupel’s first year. However, it’s hard not to look at the past. The Vols could be a 9-win team and headed to a higher level bowl if they had gone with quarterback Hendon Hooker earlier in the season. His play since becoming the starter would make one tend to think that the Vols could have beaten Pittsburgh in September. Had Hooker not have gotten hurt, maybe the Vols would have beaten Ole Miss in the final seconds instead of every fan leaving Neyland Stadium wondering why backup quarterback Joe Milton ran out of bounds with no time left on the clock. Well, at least he got the first down.
Sports betting in Tennessee officially launched on November 1, 2020, and many of the largest sportsbooks are live and operating in the volunteer state. Tennessee is only one of a handful of SEC football states with legalized sports betting.
All of that is nitpicking. Every team in the nation could look back and dream of wins that could have been. Well, except for Georgia.
The most important thing about Tennessee being in a bowl game is that they get 2 more weeks of practice that should help lay the foundation for next season. The bowl destination is secondary at this point. However, every fan who is planning on following the Vols after the regular season would like some insight as to when they’ll be leaving and what kinds of clothes to pack. Let’s start there. The Vols won’t likely be playing on Jan. 1, so your New Year’s plans should be intact. They also won’t likely be playing Florida, so pack a sweater.
The Music City Bowl in Nashville on Dec. 30 against a Big Ten team like Penn State probably offers the best matchup and makes a lot of sense. Bowl committee members don’t love Tennessee as a participant because fans usually make it a day-trip game or just stay for a night in Nashville. Bowl committees would like to see fans stay longer than a day or just a few hours. Hotel revenue will be a factor in the SEC’s decision, but it won’t loom as large as it used to. The SEC cares about the overall appeal of the matchup. If the Vols played the Nittany Lions, that would be a television draw even for those with no interest in either team. Minnesota has also been mentioned as the Big Ten participant in the Music City Bowl. That doesn’t have the same luster as Penn State.
The Duke’s Mayo Bowl in Charlotte, NC, is probably the most popular prediction among media members. Nothing says bowl fever like a big, heaping serving of mayonnaise. All joking aside, this bowl destination lacks much sizzle, especially when NC State has been projected as the likely opponent. Also, like the Music City Bowl, this is a game in which both teams’ fan bases won’t be spending nearly as much money as the bowl organizers would like. Both are likely to make the trip a short one.
The Liberty Bowl in Memphis on Dec. 28 has also been bantered about. The Liberty Bowl always wants Tennessee. However, it rarely is rewarded with the Vols. Fans would be more likely to stay a bit longer if the Vols go to Memphis. Remember, there’s a casino nearby in Tunica, Miss. The opponent in this bowl game wouldn’t be very appealing. Iowa State and Kansas State are thought to be the most likely candidates from the Big 12.
The most intriguing of all the bowls that have been mentioned is the Texas Bowl. First, it’s a bit of a standalone game since it will be held on Jan. 4 after most bowls and before the College Football Playoff. In general, it would make more sense for the SEC to place a West Division team in the Texas Bowl, since it is held in Houston. But don’t discount the possibility that the Vols could be sent to that bowl game even though they’re in the SEC East. Tennessee is desirable enough to be selected for that bowl since its fans will travel to Texas. As for the opponent, Kansas State is a possible matchup.
The Texas Bowl is probably the most desirable bowl for Tennessee from a recruiting standpoint. It would give the Vols exposure in the talent-rich state and it wouldn’t be crowded among other bowls. That would give Tennessee a chance to showcase their offense in front of a strong television audience. Sticking with the recruiting theme, playing a bowl game in Charlotte would have advantages as the Vols continue to grow in that area under Heupel. Playing in the Music City Bowl or the Liberty Bowl doesn’t have much of a recruiting advantage. Prospects in Nashville and Memphis already know who the Vols are.
There’s still a chance to make a Florida bowl, but the Vols will likely need some help. For those hoping for some time in the Sunshine State, this weekend would be a good time to root against several teams, such as Auburn, Florida, Mississippi State, Arkansas and Kentucky. A Florida bowl looks unlikely, but it’s not out of the discussion since Tennessee is on the rise.