KNOXVILLE — Tennessee ended its regular season with a disappointing loss to Vanderbilt in Nashville.
The Volunteers may not have to wait long to return to the state's capital city for the bowl game to end a season that fell well short of expectations.
This week it's gone from a strong possibility to a near certainty Tennessee will land in the Music City Bowl against a Big Ten opponent when the SEC releases its bowl designations on Sunday.
"It's fair to say we have a lot of interest in Tennessee," Scott Ramsey, the president and CEO of the Nashville Sports Council, told the Times Free Press on Thursday, "and certainly if this turns out to be the year where we're lucky enough to have them, I think that would be great.
"You always have to look at a team coming off a win like Kentucky. We've had great success with them down the road. Then some teams we haven't had in 10 or 15 years like Georgia and Arkansas could fit into some nice matchups for us. I think the next day or two will shake out once we kind of know the other side.
"The (Big Ten team), we're waiting to see. The question there is does the loser of the Big Ten (championship) game fall out of the New Year's Six or stay in the New Year's Six? That sets off a series of dominoes with the Outback Bowl and Holiday Bowl and us. For the most part, you circle teams like Iowa, Nebraska and an outside chance of Wisconsin."
Tennessee made its only Music City Bowl appearance in 2010 at the end of Derek Dooley's first season as coach and lost in infamous fashion against North Carolina in double overtime.
The Vols threw away their chance at a potential Sugar Bowl bid by losing to the Commodores and now likely will fall into one of the six bowls slotted by the SEC after the New Year's Six games are filled based on the College Football Playoff rankings and the Citrus Bowl makes its pick.
The Citrus still could take the Vols, ranked 22nd in this week's CFP rankings, but it's more likely LSU ends up in Orlando, presuming Florida neither upsets Alabama in the SEC championship game nor plays the top-ranked Crimson Tide close enough to move ahead of Auburn in the final rankings and wind up in the Sugar Bowl.
Tennessee won't make a return trip to the Outback Bowl (Tampa, Fla.) or TaxSlayer Bowl (Jacksonville, Fla.) after playing there the past two seasons, and the Texas Bowl in Houston usually takes an SEC West team, leaving the Vols with the Music City, Belk (Charlotte, N.C.) and Liberty (Memphis) as their most likely destinations.
"The main goal when we started it was we're trying to put the matchups in the best cities in the right year and not get hung up on always trying to dissect who's better (with) 8-4 or 7-5 records and all that," Ramsey said. "What's the best matchup we can put in Nashville and all these other cities every year? From our perspective, that's really been a healthy change."
The new system yielded LSU-Notre Dame and Texas A&M-Louisville pairings for the Music City Bowl. Taking ACC teams the past two years while the TaxSlayer took Iowa and Penn State out of the Big Ten means those bowls will swap tie-ins this year. The bowls contractually are bound to take three from each league during the course of a six-year deal.
If Wisconsin loses the Big Ten title game to Penn State, the Badgers could wind up in Nashville. After the New Year's Six bowls, the Outback and Holiday get the next selection from the Big Ten, and Wisconsin played in those games the past two years. The Badgers still could land in a New Year's Six game depending on where they finish in the rankings.
Should the Badgers wind up in one of the four non-playoff bowls, then Minnesota could come into play.
"Every year is a little different, but I think in the new selection process, especially with the SEC, the pool that includes Nashville, Tampa, Jacksonville, Charlotte and Houston has a chance now to really step back after the regular season and look at matchups versus trying to always predict who's going to draft who and pick who ahead of you," Ramsey said.
"Any time you can put a matchup together with Tennessee and the brand and obviously the fan base that's already in Nashville and have a chance (at) a program like the University of Tennessee, which certainly is probably one of the top 10 or 12 historically great programs in college football, I think you've got to take a serious look at it.
"We've only had Tennessee one time in our 18-year history, and we're looking at the Big Ten this year, so there's a lot of matchups that are pretty intriguing for us."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.