Where is this going? - 2008 Edition
The 3-5 Vols play in what's still considered the toughest conference in college football, but that may change at season's end. The Big 12 at least gives the appearance of having more good teams, and they've played more enjoyable football, which makes a real difference in fan perception. The SEC's biggest games have been blowouts - Florida over Tennessee, Alabama over Georgia, Florida and Georgia over LSU - while the Big 12's marquee matchups have turned in some of the best performances of this season between OU/Texas and Texas/Oklahoma State. The showdown matchups in both conferences this week should both be entertaining.
But we say all that to say this: the SEC is top-heavy with four good teams, but from there the dropoff is significant. So when the bowl bids get handed out a month from now...it's going to be more interesting than you think.
Let's say Alabama goes on and wins the SEC West - which they'd do at this point even if they lost to LSU and didn't lose again - and plays the winner of the Cocktail Party in the SEC Championship Game. The winner in Atlanta goes to the Sugar Bowl, the loser goes to the Capital One Bowl. The loser in Jacksonville plays in either the Cotton or Outback Bowl, and LSU plays in the other.
Now...where is everybody else going?
Among the other eight teams in the SEC, here's how things currently shake down:
5-3: Kentucky, South Carolina, Vanderbilt
4-4: Auburn, Ole Miss
3-5: Arkansas, Mississippi State, Tennessee
As you can see, this presents the blessing and the curse. The good news is, there's no one team out of this field of eight that jumps out at you, meaning that any of them still have a shot at playing in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl (which for all of these teams at this point would be a major accomplishment).
The bad news is, there's eight teams in the field.
The SEC has non-January 1 bowl tie-ins with the Chick-Fil-A, Music City, Independence, and the coveted PapaJohns.com Bowls. So you've got eight teams playing for five spots, all of whom must get to 6-6 to be eligible.
Now, let's take a look at the remaining schedules, and factor in "almost certain losses", where teams from this lower eight are playing teams from the upper four:
Arkansas: vs. LSU
Auburn: vs. Georgia, at Alabama
Kentucky: vs. Georgia
Ole Miss: at LSU
Mississippi State: at Alabama
South Carolina: at Florida
Vanderbilt: vs. Florida
You'll notice, of course, that the only team here that doesn't have a game remaining against the upper echelon is Tennessee.
So...if Tennessee wins out and finishes 7-5, the bowl destination is probably going to be better than you think.
Now...our apathetic fan base certainly hurts us. Our television draw (and potentially the Fulmer situation) helps us. If I was a betting man and the Vols get eligible, I'd pencil in the Music City Bowl, especially considering it's in state and the Vols have never played in it. But the Chick-Fil-A Bowl isn't totally out of the question.
This is an even more interesting conversation if the SEC gets an at-large team into the BCS. That would bump all the other SEC teams up one bowl essentially, meaning that if that happens, one of these lower eight is going to play on January 1.
And it's not too farfetched - the rule that each conference can only have two teams in the BCS looks to screw the Big 12 this year the way it's done the SEC in the past. That means you can guarantee that two of the three between Oklahoma/Texas/Texas Tech are in, because they all play in the same division. It means you can put Ohio State there too as an at-large.
If Utah and Boise State both finish undefeated, then you might have an issue. But if not, the other spot would almost certainly go to either the loser of the SEC Championship Game, or the loser of the Cocktail Party if they won out from there.
If you just played the odds - and currently, the Vols are six point dogs at South Carolina - you'd have a projected bowl slate that I think looks like this:
BCS: Alabama (SEC Champion)
BCS: Georgia (at-large)
Capital One: Florida
Outback: South Carolina
Music City: Tennessee
Independence: Ole Miss
So we're not playing for championships or a good season or any of that stuff...but we are still playing this week, and aside from building for the future (which is important), the Vols are playing for some real bowl positioning this week...even if it's among the lower tier.
Where is this going? - 2009 Edition
No matter who the head coach is next year, the Vols don't lose much. They've currently got the #7 recruiting class in the nation according to rivals.com. If all of this really is a talent deficiency issue, then bringing all these guys back isn't that much of a positive. But if it's not - and I still don't know what percentage to put on 2007 between "we were good!" and "we were lucky!", which would play into this argument - well, either way, here's what we'll be playing with next season:
QB Nick Stephens/Tajh Boyd
RB Montario Hardesty/Lennon Creer
FB Kevin Cooper
WR Gerald Jones/Quintin Hancock/Ahmad Paige
WR Denarius Moore/Austin Rogers/Je'Ron Stokes
TE Luke Stocker/Jeff Cottam/Brandon Warren
OT Chris Scott
OT Ramone Johnson/Jarrod Shaw
OG Vladimir Richard
OG Jacques McClendon
C Josh McNeil
DE Wes Brown
DE Ben Martin/Chris Walker/Gerald Williams
DT Dan Williams
DT Chase Nelson/Andre Mathis/Donald Langley
LB Rico McCoy
LB Nick Reveiz
LB LaMarcus Thompson/Savion Frazier/Jerod Askew/Marlon Walls
CB Dennis Rogan/Marsalous Johnson
CB Brent Vinson
FS Demetrice Morley
SS Eric Berry
K Daniel Lincoln
P Chad Cunningham
RB Arian Foster
WR Lucas Taylor
WR Josh Briscoe
OG Anthony Parker
OT Ramon Foster
DE Robert Ayers
DT Demonte Bolden
LB Ellix Wilson
LB Adam Myers-White
LB Nevin McKenzie
CB DeAngelo Willingham
P Britton Colquitt
You're weaker at offensive line and have a huge need at linebacker (which has been recruited to fill)...but otherwise, the Vols have most of the pieces back and should be competitive no matter who the head coach is. Now, competitive by definition should be 6-6 every year, so take that for what you will. But the cupboard won't be bare. Could Tennessee still be good next year?
The sun will come out...
(Eat it up, Vol-Colts fans. We'll keep the bandwagon warm for you when you all come running as soon as #18 retires.)
Bet your bottom dollar...