Why Is Getting Bowl Eligible So Important?
It all comes down to this, as we enter what is potentially the final game of this football season, the Vols have their post season hopes riding on the match up with in-state rival Vanderbilt. The Vols come in after a wildly inconsistent second half of the season that has seen them turn in alternating good and poor performances on a weekly basis since their upset win at Auburn. Vanderbilt enters the game asking what could have been, reaching the end of a season that has seen them have huge leads on multiple SEC opponents and being in position to beat likely College Football Playoff team Notre Dame, only to blow each of those opportunities. Still, the Commodores are coming off a big SEC win against Ole Miss, which has left them with the same record and in the same position as the Vols, win the last game and go bowling. Tennessee should expect to get the best shot that Vandy can give Saturday night, but we will preview that game a little later this week. Today, we want to focus on the implications of getting to a bowl game for Tennessee.
Many Vol fans may feel as if a five hundred season and a low to medium tier bowl game really doesn’t mean that much in the grand scheme of things for this team. Perhaps in some instances that would be the case, but earning their way into the post season, with this schedule, and the hurdles they have had to overcome, would be a huge accomplishment for this team. Last season’s edition of the Vols was the worst team in the one hundred and twenty two year history of the program. There is not a more gentle way to put that, and it showed in the perception of the program nationally, regionally, and even internally. Jeremy Pruitt didn’t just have to come into Knoxville and put new offensive and defensive schemes in place, he had to install a new culture from the top of the program down. As the season went on, he was able to overcome the initial push back from some of the veterans on the team and find the players on the roster that would play his kind of football. A win on the Plains against a top twenty five Auburn team and an upset of then number eleven Kentucky have been the high points of this season for Pruitt and his Vols. Managing wins against two ranked SEC opponents after going winless in SEC play last season is big for this team. These Vols also know that they let one get away from them in Columbia, South Carolina, but have a chance to come into Nashville to win their third SEC game and get bowl eligible. Getting to the post season would be a supreme endorsement of what Pruitt is trying to build at Tennessee, proof to his current players and the rest of the nation that there is a quality football coach in Knoxville again, with the results on the field to prove it. The Vols have missed the post season as often as they have been there through the last decade, and to get back there in his first season would be a statement by Pruitt, but gives the program credibility, especially nationally, after the kicking it took last season.
The Vols would benefit from having national eyes on them again during the bowl season, as any analyst that understands where this team has come from can appreciate what Pruitt has managed. That positive press and momentum not only applies to casual football fans, but also to recruits that are certainly watching. Make no mistake, the Vols have already built a solid class of the type of players that Pruitt wants with their current 2019 recruiting class, but they are far from done. In fact, at this point, Tennessee is fighting to flip or land high caliber, highly rated players, almost exclusively from now to National Signing Day. Tennessee needs to have all the momentum they can for this stretch push, and making a bowl game gives them one more bullet in the gun on the recruiting trail. Getting bowl eligible also takes away one of the biggest pitches opposing programs could use against the Vols. Recruits can see quality coaching, and getting to the post season for this team is a real selling point for Pruitt and Company. The location of the bowl game could also be interesting for the Vols on the recruiting trail. Tennessee would be a strong candidate for the Liberty Bowl, the Music City Bowl, and possibly the Belk Bowl, among a few others. The reason for highlighting these three games is they are all in cities that Tennessee has highlighted on the recruiting trail since Pruitt arrived, and where the Vols have huge targets in both the ’19 and ’20 classes. You can bet Tennessee will ensure those local targets have an opportunity to watch a Tennessee Bowl game live and in person.
Possibly more important than the momentum this could build on the recruiting trail, this is an opportunity for the Vols on the roster to build momentum on the field going into the off season, as well as getting more practices and another game under Pruitt and his staff. This Tennessee team is young. All of the offensive starters have at least one year of eligibility remaining, while outside of the defensive line, the majority of the Vols’ starters return on that side of the ball as well. That means that the players on the team now would get another game week as well as two weeks of practice to spend in the system Jeremy Pruitt is trying to develop them for. Beyond they starters, this Tennessee team has quite a few players that will be playing a bigger role on this team next season that get to experience the post season, develop, and be a little further along going into the 2019 season. If anyone questions the value of these additional practices, go back to the beginning of this season and listen to West Virginia Head Coach Dana Holgorsen lament being a few practices short of what Tennessee had entering the season’s first game. These practices, under quality coaches, are meaningful, and this also allows Pruitt to develop his protocol of handling bowl and post season preparation. Having that in place already, for the coaches and players, removes a source of uncertainty and a first for the staff when the stakes for Tennessee could be higher in the coming seasons.
Apart from a clear sign the program is on the right course and trending up, validation for the coaches, momentum in recruiting, another game week for young Vols, and prep for future bowl games, getting bowl eligible this week has one more benefit for Tennessee. It means that Tennessee would have stopped the losing streak to Vanderbilt. The Vols haven’t lost three games in a row to the Commodores since a statement about Robert Neyland in Knoxville would have returned a question of, “Who?” Yes, it has been that long. No, it is not acceptable. Two years ago, Vanderbilt dashed the hopes that Tennessee had to return to the Sugar Bowl after an abysmal effort by Butch Jones and company as the Vols, with multiple current NFL stars on the roster, blew another lead and lost in Nashville. Last season, the Commodores came into Neyland Stadium and gave the Vols a kicking in their own back yard. These Vols are playing for a bowl, they are playing for pride, but they are also playing to take control of this state on the football field again. Vanderbilt Stadium is likely to be, “Baby Neyland West,” again on Saturday night, and though the Commodores have a solid team, this is a game that Tennessee expects to win. And that it should expect to win. For Pruitt, establishing and carrying out these expectations is a significant part of his rebuild at Tennessee. This is a meaningful game in November for Tennessee, a game against a rival, and an opportunity to put in place what the expectation is going forward. These Vols have been up and down all season long, so the challenge is there for Pruitt to get a team that should win this game ready to play, and to actually then go out and do it on the road.
It should be noted, that even with a loss, the Vols could potentially go to a bowl as a 5-7 team thanks to their improved Academic Progress Rating (APR). While this would still allow Tennessee the benefits of an additional game and practices, it feels a bit like backing into the reward of the post season. Make no mistake, the Vols would take an invitation based on APR, but they don’t want it to come down to that. Tennessee wants to earn their way into a bowl game by winning on the field on Saturday. It may not be the biggest name bowl and it may not be what most fans talk about before the season starts, but getting into a bowl game for these Vols is a real accomplishment. It builds a foundation for what Pruitt wants to build in his time in Knoxville, and can be a big push for Tennessee to come much stronger into the 2019.