It was a chore getting these Tennessee Volunteers to bowl eligibility this season, but first year head coach, Derek Dooley has done just that. Once a mere formality in an otherwise hugely successful season, Tennessee has struggled of late to even make a bowl.
Tennessee went 5-6 in 2005 and missed its first bowl since 1988. Just three seasons later in 2008, the Vols went 5-7 and longtime head coach, Phillip Fulmer was fired. Tennessee went 7-5 last season under Lane Kiffin, but the Vols really had to sweat it out by winning their final four games in a row to finish 6-6 under Dooley.
While the Vols next opponent will not be officially known until Sunday, speculation has centered around the possibility of three different bowl destinations and numerous potential opponents.
Tennessee will likely not slip past the Music City Bowl. The Nashville bowl has wanted the Vols for many years, but Tennessee football is usually much more sought after as one of the top teams in the SEC.
There is also a possibility, however small, that Tennessee could wind up in Memphis at the Liberty Bowl.
As of late, however, the possibility has been raised by Austin Ward of the Knoxville News Sentinel that, should the Outback Bowl continue its unique team picking methods of the past few seasons, the Vols could actually wind up in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida as well.
Over the next few pages we will attempt to cover every base and profile each potential Vols opponent.
Music City Bowl
SEC No. 7 vs. ACC No. 6
The Music City Bowl gets the sixth selection of ACC teams after the BCS bowl, Chick-Fil-A Bowl, Champs Sports Bowl, Sun Bowl, Meineke Car Care Bowl, Music City Bowl.
Chick-Fil-A Bowl officials have stated they will take the loser of the ACC title game with the winner headed a BCS Bowl.
Clemson has reportedly been tabbed to play in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
That leaves the Champs Sports and Sun Bowls to choose from among some of the teams featured in the following pages before the Music City gets its pick.
The SEC usually gets two BCS bids followed by the Capital One Bowl, Cotton, Outback, Gator and then Music City.
Auburn and Arkansas are currently projected to get the two BCS slots. Things will get a little dicey should South Carolina pull off the upset of top ranked Auburn in the SEC title game.
This projection is beginning to gain steam among prognosticators/rumorists of late. While still a stretch that the Vols could land in the Jacksonville bowl, it is certainly not out of the question.
The Gator Bowl gets the No. 6 SEC selection and will face the No. 4 or No. 5 Big Ten selection.
The Big Ten will have two BCS teams as well this season. Ohio State and Wisconsin are virtual locks for those prestigious bowl games. Penn State, Michigan, and/or Iowa are the best guesses to wind up in Jacksonville after the Capital One selects Michigan State, and the Outback takes one of the three mentioned here.
I list this one last because it's probably the least likely scenario at this point.
It is highly unlikely that Tennessee would drop past the Music City Bowl, but the Liberty Bowl still cannot be completely counted out. It would get the SEC No. 8 selection.
The Conference USA champion will play in this bowl. Central Florida and SMU will battle for that conference crown on Saturday as well.
Current projections have Kentucky or Georgia playing here.
Now, on to breaking down the potential Vols opponents.
The Tarheels began this season in the crosshairs of the NCAA. North Carolina finished with a 7-5 overall record despite having as many as 13 players suspended at various times this season. Among those suspended for most, if not all season, was defensive stars Marvin Austin and Robert Quinn—two NFL draft prospects.
Standout wide receiver Greg Little was one of seven players who have not played a down this season and has since been ruled permanently ineligible by the NCAA.
To finish the season 7-5 despite all the suspensions and off-field issues is actually quite remarkable. If head coach Butch Davis had all of his players at his disposal this season, the Tar Heels would likely be getting ready to play in the ACC Championship game this weekend.
This matchup would be quite intriguing as Tennessee athletic director, Mike Hamilton paid $750,000 in August to get the Vols out of a two-year series with the Tar Heels that was scheduled to begin next season.
Odds that the Vols play the Tar Heels: 1 in 5
How attractive can a coach-less team really be? Miami stumbled past the finish line this season, dropping three of its final five games.
When it was bad in Miami this season, it was really bad. The 'Canes lost by 28 to rival Florida State. It was down 24-0 in the fourth quarter to 3-4 Virginia before a too-little-too-late comeback made the 24-19 loss look respectable. The 'Canes lost by two touchdowns to Virginia Tech at home.
Still, it is Miami. Maybe it's not the same Miami that I grew up watching, but "The U" still could carry some weight.
Odds that the Vols play the 'Canes: 1 in 10
Speaking of limping to the finish, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets lost four out of five to finish the season at 6-6. That bad Miami team that we just profiled beat this Georgia Tech team 35-10 just three weeks ago.
The Music City Bowl will have an opportunity to pick the Jackets here, but unless bowl officials are just dying to see two original members of the SEC battle it out, the Jackets will likely fall further than the ACC's No. 6 selection.
Odds the Vols play the Jackets: 1 in 20
North Carolina State had the ACC's Atlantic division wrapped up until Maryland defeated the Wolfpack allowing Florida State to win the division last weekend.
Junior quarterback, Russell Wilson has had a stellar year throwing for more than 3,200 yards and accounting for 35 touchdowns through the air and on the ground. The two-sport star, who began his minor league baseball career in the Colorado Rockies farm system last April, has more than lived up to the football expectations bestowed upon him since he was named first team All-ACC quarterback in his freshman season.
As good as the Wolfpack have played this season, there's probably little chance they slip to Nashville.
Odds that the Vols play the Wolfpack: 1 in 25
For a program whose coach was on the hot seat coming in to the 2010 season, the Maryland Terrapins sure didn't live up to the anti-hype surrounding the team during the offseason.
While the Terps certainly didn't play a rough-and-tough schedule, defeating NC State to claim second in the ACC Atlantic last weekend was huge for embattled coach Ralph Freidgen.
Still, the Terrapins lost by 14 to both West Virginia and Florida State this season.
If Maryland's 8-4 record and second place division standing carry any clout, the Terps will be picked before the Music City bowl as well. The team isn't a "sexy" bowl pick, but it is basically the third best team in the conference. That should be too hard for the Champs Sports or Sun Bowl to pass up.
Odds that the Vols play the Terps: 1 in 25
The Florida bowls love them some Penn State. Tennessee just played these guys in the Outback Bowl following the 2006 season, a 20-10 Tennessee loss. The Vols played the Nittany Lions in the 1994 Citrus Bowl when Paterno's boys beat the Vols 31-13. Penn State also defeated the Vols in the 1992 Fiesta Bowl 42-17 as well.
Bowl games against these guys doesn't end well for the Vols.
Odds the Vols play Penn State if Tennessee goes to the Gator Bowl: 1 in 8
Iowa ended the season on a three-game losing streak in which its largest margin of defeat was four points. Suffice to say, this Hawkeyes team could either be ready to just get it over with or come out ready to take someone's head off in the bowl game.
Iowa is always attractive because of its loyal fanbase who travels very well.
The problem here is, the Hawkeyes likely won't make it past the Outback Bowl for that very reason. But, as we've mentioned previously, the Outback Bowl representatives have a mind of their own.
Chances the Vols play the Hawkeyes if Tennessee goes to the Gator Bowl: 1 in 12
Again, I'm not certain how attractive this 7-5 Michigan squad is coming off another humiliation at the hands of Ohio State—not to mention the current uneasiness surrounding head coach Rich Rodriguez and the athletic department.
But, as with Miami's biggest asset, this is still Michigan. The helmet alone is worth the price of admission.
Odds the Vols play Michigan if Tennessee goes to the Gator Bowl: 1 in 15
Music City Bowl
vs. Boston College
Likelihood: Probably not very high. Word on the street has the Music City folks coveting UNC. Sure, Boston College could be available here, but if North Carolina hasn't been chosen, odds are the 'Heels will get the nod.
Likelihood: Highly unlikely. The Wildcats are reeling.
vs. Winner of Conference USA title game (Central Florida vs. SMU)
Likelihood: It would truly be a shocker if the Vols fall below the Music City Bowl. I cannot envision a scenario where the folks in Nashville would allow to happen, but I've been shocked before—thanks again to the folks at the Outback Bowl.