Vols finally join Bulldogs, Crimson Tide on big postseason stage

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel celebrates with his team after the Vols' victory over Florida on Sept. 24 at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.

DANIA BEACH, Fla. -- The final few hours of 2022 are sure to pack a lot of college football fun for fans in Chattanooga and the tri-state area.

Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee have each won at least 10 regular-season games in the same year for the first time ever, and they have been rewarded with prestigious postseason invitations. The Volunteers will face Clemson in the Orange Bowl on Friday night, the Crimson Tide will play Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl on Saturday afternoon and the Bulldogs qualified for the College Football Playoff and will vie with Ohio State in the Peach Bowl on New Year's Eve night.

Quality bowl appearances have been nothing new for Alabama and Georgia in recent years, but this is Tennessee's first trip to the big boy table since losing to Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl following the 1999 season.

"This was what I was hoping for at my signing day back at Knox Catholic," Vols junior edge rusher Tyler Baron said this week. "It's great to see this come to life. It was something I envisioned a long time ago, and I'm happy it's actually happening. Being able to give the people of Tennessee and all the fans the joy and the pride in our team and university has been awesome."

Tennessee entered this season mired in the longest stretch of mediocrity in program history, which was reflected by an 85-88 record from 2008 through 2021. Head coach Josh Heupel provided hope for better days ahead with last season's 7-6 debut performance, but the Vols exceeded all expectations this autumn with a 10-2 record that included a thrilling 52-49 upset of Alabama.

The Vols climbed to the top spot in the CFP rankings after their 8-0 start, but losses down the stretch at Georgia and at South Carolina knocked them out of the playoff picture.

"We've been through so much together since I've been here," said Vols sixth-year defensive tackle LaTrell Bumphus, who was part of a 4-8 team that didn't win a Southeastern Conference contest in 2017. "We haven't played in that many big games, and this year has just been a blessing to stick it out another year and see the bright side of things."

While Tennessee is seeking its first 11-win season since 2001, Kirby Smart's Bulldogs are 13-0 for the first time and have a chance to win more Associated Press national championships in 364 days than in the previous 85 years. Georgia earned its first national championship since the 1980 season this past January with a 33-18 topping of Alabama in Indianapolis, and the Bulldogs are favored to claim another despite losing 15 players to the NFL draft, including five defenders who were picked in the first round.

Georgia's defensive coordinator last season, Dan Lanning, just finished his first season as Oregon's head coach, but the Bulldogs haven't blinked, winning 12 of their 13 games by double digits.

"It's just our culture, and that's not going to change," Smart said this week at a news conference. "What we do is not going to change. It doesn't matter if one coach leaves or another coach leaves. That doesn't impact our defense. We rep a lot of players at practice. We have a system set up to get our twos and threes ready, so the next cast of defensive players is getting ready right now just like they were last year. If you've got a good formula for getting guys ready, it prevents large gaps in seasons."

Should Georgia defeat Ohio State, the Bulldogs would face the winner of the New Year's Eve afternoon Fiesta Bowl pairing of Michigan and TCU for the title.

The Bulldogs are seeking to become college football's first repeat national champions since Alabama in 2011-12. Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban has served as the sport's gold standard, claiming six national titles in Tuscaloosa to go along with his 2003 crown at LSU, and this is just the second time Alabama has missed the four-team playoff since its implementation in the 2014 season.

Alabama has already set a college football record with a 15th consecutive 10-win season, losing only to Tennessee and LSU on the final play of those games, and the Crimson Tide will be looking to extend their streak with a 12th straight year of 11 or more triumphs.

"We're playing for each other," Alabama senior safety DeMarcco Hellams told reporters this week. "We're not worried about what game we're playing in or what team we're playing. We're focused on giving everything we have to the guys we have in this locker room."

Although it's always playoff-or-bust under Saban, the New Orleans cuisine has apparently softened the blow of Alabama missing out this year.

"The food here has been lovely, and I like the culture here," Tide sophomore linebacker Dallas Turner said. "I've about tried everything, but there is still room in my stomach for some more."

Tennessee didn't even play in a bowl seven times in the 13-year stretch until Heupel's arrival, which was tough enough for players to stomach before having to watch Alabama and Georgia compete on grand stages. Now the Vols have the Orange Bowl in which to shine, and the years ahead will reveal whether this is a one-time accomplishment or a first step to even greater moments.

"The Orange Bowl is technically not where we want to be, but it's a good start as far as getting this program back where it's supposed to be," Vols senior receiver Ramel Keyton said. "Next year, I feel like we'll be overlooking the Orange Bowl and will be trying to play for the national championship. This bowl here will set us up for that."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.