KNOXVILLE — The Neyland Stadium press-box seating chart almost always includes multiple bowl representatives, especially in late November.
But the AutoZone Liberty Bowl was the only postseason game to make an appearance at Saturday night's Vanderbilt-Tennessee game.
"The big thing for us is that we're going to have an SEC team," said Harold Graeter, the Liberty Bowl's associate executive director, knowing Vanderbilt already was bowl-eligible and Tennessee still had a chance to be. "Other than that, we're going to let them play and see where they stand when the dust settles in a couple of weeks."
When the dust settled a year ago, the Liberty Bowl was without an SEC team due to five league members -- Auburn, Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Ole Miss and Tennessee -- failing to post the minimum six wins needed for bowl eligibility.
So the bowl was forced to make do with Tulsa versus Iowa State, a game that produced a 31-17 Tulsa win and more than 53,000 in attendance.
"Iowa State brought more than 25,000 fans," Graeter said. "It was a great atmosphere and a good game."
With nine SEC teams already bowl-eligible going into the game at Neyland Stadium, Graeter's group is guaranteed an SEC team this New Year's Eve at 4 p.m. EST against an opponent from either the American Conference or Conference USA.
A year from now, that pairing improves with the SEC and Big 12 conferences entering into an agreement with the Liberty Bowl.
"Conceivably the two top conferences in college football," Graeter noted.
And they might be. But not statistically. In terms of sheer volume, the SEC stands alone, with more appearances (73) and wins (42) than any other conference since 2006. Both the Big East (23-10, .697) and Mountain West (20-9, .690) actually have better winning percentages than the SEC's .656, but no other conference has as many as 30 wins in that span.
A more impressive stat, given that January bowl games tend to produce better competition: The SEC is 21-8 (.724) against nonconference opponents since 2008.
The SEC's recent Liberty Bowl results have closely mirrored those statistics. Though the league has dropped its last two decisions in Memphis, UT coach Butch Jones guiding former employer Cincinnati to a 2011 win over Vanderbilt a year after Central Florida shocked Georgia, the SEC had won four straight Liberty Bowls before that Georgia loss.
So which SEC team would Graeter prefer, given that Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Mississippi State were all possible candidates when the Vandy-UT game began, though only the Commodores were guaranteed a bowl trip?
"We're going to let them play," he smiled. "We're going to let it play out."
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...