Orange Bowl rep: Vols would ‘generate a lot of excitement’

Nebraska Athletics photo / Tennessee could be closing in on its first trip to the Orange Bowl since the 1997 season, when Peyton Manning’s final game with the Volunteers resulted in a 42-17 loss to Grant Wistrom and Nebraska.

ATLANTA — The Tennessee Volunteers will receive their first invitation to a New Year's Six bowl game in nearly two decades Sunday afternoon, and the destination could be balmy.

Tennessee, which completed a 10-2 regular season with last weekend's 56-0 thrashing of Vanderbilt in Nashville, has been linked in recent days to the Cotton, Orange and Sugar bowls, with the Orange Bowl on Dec. 30 in Miami Gardens, Florida, having emerged as the most likely location. The Orange Bowl, when it isn't hosting a College Football Playoff national semifinal, will pair the highest-ranked team out of the Southeastern Conference or the Big Ten or Notre Dame with the winner of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.

The Vols have not played in the Orange Bowl since the 1997 season, when they fell to Nebraska 42-17 in Peyton Manning's final game.

"We always enjoy having an SEC team in the Orange Bowl," Matt Morrall of the Orange Bowl selection committee said Saturday afternoon. "They always travel well, and if Tennessee comes, it will be a fun crowd. Because it's been so long, we expect it would generate a lot of excitement with Tennessee's fan base, and they get to play somebody they're familiar with.

"Tennessee has played Clemson in the past, and North Carolina fits that bill as well if it's North Carolina. We expect it to generate a lot of excitement not only with the competing fan bases but our local fan base, so that's good for college football."

When asked specifically about all the orange in a potential Clemson-Tennessee pairing, Morrall said: "Nobody will know who's on what side, but it will certainly be loud, because both teams bring lots of fans and lots of good people."

The final CFP rankings will be released Sunday afternoon before bowl announcements are made, with the Vols having been seventh last week behind Georgia, Michigan, TCU, Southern California, Ohio State and Alabama. USC lost to Utah in Friday night's Pac-12 championship game and TCU lost to Kansas State in Saturday afternoon's Big 12 title contest before Georgia defeated LSU 50-30 Saturday evening to win the SEC championship.

Tennessee will not have the services of SEC player of the year candidate Hendon Hooker in its bowl game, with the sixth-year senior quarterback having torn his left anterior cruciate ligament in the fourth quarter of the 63-38 loss at South Carolina on Nov. 19.

"That doesn't have anything to do with us," Morrall said. "We take whoever comes according to our contract. He had a great season, but it's next man up."

This season's 10-2 surge snapped the Vols out of their lengthiest stretch of mediocrity in program history, as they were just 85-88 from the 2008-21 seasons and missed out on a bowl in seven of those 14 years.

"For us, wherever we end up is wherever we end up," Vols second-year coach Josh Heupel said after the win at Vandy. "I look forward to competing with these guys again, and I obviously feel like we will be in a special bowl and that I expect our fan base to travel well and us to be ready to go play well. Bowl prep is extremely important.

"You get a chance to kind of reset and get into fundamentals in the early part of it. Your vets continue to grow as you get closer to the bowl game, and your young guys get so many valuable opportunities to grow and compete. The urgency of bowl preparation will be important."

Golesh leaving?

Tennessee second-year offensive coordinator Alex Golesh will be leaving to become the new head coach at South Florida, according to a report Saturday night from Brett McMurphy of the Action Network.

The Vols lead the nation with 538.1 yards and 47.3 points per game.

McConkey's mixed day

Mercedes-Benz Stadium has become a home away from home for Georgia redshirt sophomore receiver and former North Murray High School standout Ladd McConkey, who had five receptions for 69 yards in Saturday's defeat of LSU, including a 22-yard touchdown early in the second quarter.

McConkey now has four touchdowns in three career appearances at Mercedes-Benz, scoring on a 32-yard catch in last December's loss to Alabama and on a 9-yard run and a 4-yard catch in this season's 49-3 opening rout of Oregon. The 6-foot, 185-pounder almost had another score in the final minute of the first half Saturday, when his 22-yard catch set the Bulldogs up with first-and-goal at the LSU 2, but McConkey was injured on the play and did not return.

"Ladd had a continuation of what he's been having," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. "His knees have been bothering him, and he has some tendinitis in there. It didn't so much hurt him on that play. It just started aggravating him more, and he didn't feel like he could go."

Smart also said that junior right tackle Warren McClendon suffered a "light MCL" injury during the first half and didn't know how long he would be out.

Mitchell's moment

Georgia sophomore receiver Adonai Mitchell, who has battled a nagging ankle injury all season, experienced his most extensive action since the Oregon opener. Mitchell didn't have any receptions, but he did throw a pass to tight end Darnell Washington on a 2-point conversion that put the Bulldogs up 50-23 with 13:13 remaining.

"I sprinted left and tossed it to him, and he actually threw a spiral," quarterback Stetson Bennett said. "I don't think he's thrown one of those in practice."

Bulldogs bites

Georgia's senior class improved to 47-5. ... The Bulldogs improved to 4-6 in SEC championship games, which includes a 2-3 mark against LSU.

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