Assessing Tennessee’s postseason prospects after the college football playoffs are off the table

Tennessee’s loss to South Carolina last week was equal parts humiliating and devastating in its own right, but it was made worse by what was at stake for the Vols. Adding to the 25-point loss and giving up 606 yards and 63 points for a previously inept offense and observing the star quarterback’s brilliant two-year Tennessee career Hendon hooker Terminated early in the fourth quarter by a cruciate ligament tear, the Vols saw their college football playoff aspirations ended with the 63-38 loss at Columbia. Tennessee, with one loss and No. 5, was in good position going into their last two games, but now their goal of playing for a national championship is gone.

How did the loss in South Carolina not only knock out a top four finish, but also change Tennessee’s postseason prospects?

The best-case scenario for the Vols, who start the regular season 9-2 Saturday night in Vanderbilt, is probably a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl now. It’s a situation that makes Tuesday night’s release of the latest CFP rankings for Tennessee worth watching. The playoffs are over, but the CFP rankings are used to rank those high-profile postseason games that are a step below the semifinals but above the bowls the Vols have reached for most of the past 15 years.

“We are aware”, Vols defensive tackle Omari Thomas said Monday. “We know we still have a chance to play a New Year’s Six Bowl and that’s a big thing for this program. I don’t know exactly when we last played for a New Year’s Six Bowl, but I know this is still a big bowl game for us. We’re looking forward to that. All we have to do this week is get out here and do business with Vandy and just drop the chips where they fall and hopefully we get a chance to play a New Year’s Six Bowl.

Tyler Baron (Photo: Brianna Paciorka/Knoxville News Sentinel)

(The New Year’s Six are the CFP-era iteration of the old BCS bowls, and Tennessee last played one of those just two days this millennium when the Vols did 2 Season 1999. The Cotton and Peach Bowls are now part of the NY6 , and Tennessee have played twice in the former (2001 and 2005) and three times in the latter (2002, 2004 and 2009), but those games have gained notoriety since then.The Vols won only one of those games, a demolition of Texas A&M at the Cotton Bowl 2005.)

First things first – the New Year’s Six refers to the following six bowls: Rose (Pasadena), Sugar (New Orleans), Orange (Miami Gardens), Cotton (Arlington), Peach (Atlanta) and Fiesta (Glendale). Two of them host the CFP semi-finals on a rotating schedule. The other four are assigned based on the final playoff committee rankings, and there are specific ties to each for the entire Power 5 conference, as well as the highest-ranked Group of 5 champion.

This year, the Peach and Fiesta Bowls will host the semi-final games between the top four teams in the final CFP rankings, while the other four games will look like this: The Rose Bowl will host the top-ranked non-playoff teams (or conference champion) mate ) from the Big Ten and Pac-12. The Sugar Bowl will bring together the highest-ranking non-playoff teams (or conference champion) from the SEC and the Big 12. At the Orange Bowl, the highest-ranked non-playoff team (or conference champion) from the ACC will play against the highest-ranked SEC or Big Ten team (or Notre Dame) not at the Sugar or Rose. The Cotton Bowl will take on the highest-ranked Group of Five champion (likely from the American Athletic Conference this year) in the highest-ranked remaining team at large.

OK… so what does this mean for Tennessee? Well, it will be interesting to see how far the CFP committee drops the Vols in Tuesday night’s rankings. In particular, the teams to watch for Tennessee are Alabama, Penn State and Oregon – these teams could ultimately be the ones the Vols will compete with for NY6 spots should, of course, they beat upstart Vanderbilt.

We start with Oregon. As was the case when the playoffs were still out there, shaking off the Pac-12 will have implications for what happens to Tennessee. Southern California is likely to replace Tennessee at No. 5 behind the undefeated four (Georgia, Ohio State, Michigan and TCU) in the CFP rankings, and the Trojans have a good chance of making the top 4 if they beat Notre Dame and win this week Should the Ducks beat Oregon State in a Pac-12 Championship Game where their opponent could be Oregon.

The Vols would eventually benefit from a loss in Oregon (their third), but don’t want the Ducks to knock off a USC with a loss to win the conference. In this scenario, Oregon would go to the Rose Bowl and USC would be in the mix for a spot at large on NY6.

Now for Penn State — the Nittany Lions were No. 11 last week but will likely be leapfrogged by Oregon after their win over then-No. 11. 10 Utah. Penn State is likely to beat Michigan State this week to go 10-2, and it could be by and large depending on what happens with Ohio State and Michigan. The Buckeyes and Wolverines are playing Columbus this week and if they both finish in the top four then Penn State goes to the Rose Bowl and isn’t relevant to Tennessee, but if one drops out of the playoffs and goes to Pasadena then Penn State is a factor for orange and/or cotton.

Finally, it’s on to Alabama (and LSU, too). Tennessee beat those two teams, which is a pretty good case to be ahead of them in the final rankings, assuming LSU loses either at Texas A&M or to Georgia in the SEC championship game this week, but the game in South Carolina could raise an albatross for the vols. Alabama lost to both Tennessee and LSU and its best win is either an Ole Miss team just transported to Arkansas or Texas with four losses, but the CFP committee loves the Crimson Tide regardless of its resume .

If it’s behind Alabama Tuesday night — don’t be surprised if it happens — Tennessee’s chances of the Sugar Bowl would look bleak barring a selection Sunday switch, depending on what LSU does.

If the Tigers narrowly play Georgia, the CFP committee could determine they are the second-best team in the SEC — considering their win over Alabama while ignoring Tennessee’s 27-point win at Baton Rouge in October — and they ahead Classify Alabama and Tennessee. so LSU goes to Sugar, Alabama to Orange, and Tennessee in hopes of Cotton.

There’s also the scenario where LSU gets blown out in Atlanta and their third loss drops the Tigers behind Alabama and Tennessee, which would likely send the Vols to the Orange. Of course, if LSU upsets Georgia, both are likely to be in the playoffs, and Alabama and Tennessee share New Orleans and Miami. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where LSU ends up with three losses between Alabama with two losses and Tennessee with two losses, but with the CFP committee it shouldn’t go unmentioned.

What happens if Tennessee is ultimately ousted from the New Year’s Six or loses to Vanderbilt? Well, there are a lot more angry people in the second scenario, but the ground for Tennessee seems to be the Citrus Bowl in Orlando. They get first pick of the remaining SEC teams once the NY6 slots are filled based on the CFP rankings, and we doubt they would pass on Tennessee, who hasn’t played the Orlando Bowl in 21 years.

There’s still plenty of football left, and if last week’s Williams-Brice Stadium plus what happened earlier in the day in Ann Arbor and Waco are any indication, there could be a surprise or two that will change the equation for Tennessee could. First and foremost, the Vols must avoid a repeat of 2016, when the Sugar Bowl was on the table before a loss in Nashville sent them to the Music City Bowl, and beat the Commodores. That would give Tennessee a pretty good shot at a New Year’s Six game.