Tennessee had the luxury of wrapping up a bowl berth with two games left to play in the 2015 season. Unlike last year, the Vols didn't need a furious rally at the end of the year to earn a postseason bid. Butch Jones' program did that Nov. 14 against North Texas with two games to spare, so Tennessee's final two matchups against Missouri and Vanderbilt allowed the program to jockey for a better bowl position within the SEC hierarchy.
Winning out in those last two games to complement a five-game win streak heading into bowl season is an important accomplishment for SEC bowl committees to factor in as they collaborate with the SEC, and it will surely give Tennessee a lot of "style points" as bowl committees prepare for their selections.
"It was monumental," Jones said after Saturday's 53-28 win over Vanderbilt. "It was big, first and foremost, for our players to finish strong. They have worked so hard and have been through so much this year."
So let's take a look at where Tennessee now sits in the bowl selection process after finishing the year at 8-4. The Vols currently fall in the range between the Citrus Bowl and Music City Bowl in the SEC selection process. There was a Citrus Bowl representative at Tennessee's tilt with Vanderbilt Saturday, and it would be the highest payout of the available bowl slots at 4.25 million. The Vols would play a high-profile Big 10 or ACC team like Jim Harbaugh's Michigan squad if they are given a berth, and it's undoubtedly the most prestigious of the remaining bowl slots after the Sugar Bowl.
But Florida's recent loss to Florida State coupled with a potential loss in the SEC Championship Game to Alabama could push the Gators out of the Sugar Bowl, inserting Ole Miss into their place and allowing Jim McElwain's team to slide into the Citrus Bowl. The Orlando-based bowl gets the first choice of SEC teams not in the College Football Playoff after the Sugar Bowl takes the team with the highest ranking in the official College Football Playoff poll.
After the Citrus Bowl makes its selection, six SEC bowl tie-ins work in consultation with with the SEC offices and the remaining bowl eligible schools to sort out which teams play where. The Outback Bowl ($3.5 million payout), TaxSlayer Bowl ($2.5 million), Music City Bowl ($2.75 million), Belk Bowl ($1.7 million), Texas Bowl ($3 million) and Liberty Bowl ($1.4 million) all have the next choice and work in unison with the schools and the league.
This is where the process gets convoluted, and it's hard to tell much about these working parts at the moment with the bowl picture still muddied by conference championship games yet to be played. The realistic options for Tennessee in that group seem to be the Outback (vs. Big 10), Music City (vs. ACC/Big 10) and Belk Bowls (vs. ACC), especially since the Vols played in the TaxSlayer Bowl just last season.
There are obvious reasons why each one of these bowls would want Tennessee, mainly due to how well Vols fans travel and Knoxville's close proximity to both Nashville, where the Music City Bowl is played, and Charlotte, where the Belk Bowl calls home. The postseason picture will clear itself up in the coming days as representatives discuss their options and information is released, but right now it appears Tennessee could go anywhere from Charlotte to Tampa.
As for the players' preference?
“Any bowl," sophomore defensive end Derek Barnett said. "Just let us know where the field is at and we are ready to play. We are just excited to go to a bowl, you know, and we have got a chance to finish on a strong note, so that's what we are all really excited about.”