Should Tennessee football want Orange Bowl over Sugar Bowl? It's not an easy call

Tennessee football may deserve to go to the Sugar Bowl, but the Orange Bowl could be a better outcome.

That’s the peculiar situation for Vols as they await their bowl bid.

The College Football Playoff rankings will be released on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET) and finalized on Sunday (noon ET) on ESPN. That will determine which teams go to the playoffs and New Year’s Six bowls.

Most projections have Tennessee playing Clemson in the Orange Bowl and Alabama playing Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl. Some projections swap Tennessee and Alabama in those matchups.

The Cotton Bowl is another possibility for the Vols, but the odds are lower.

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“I don’t have a preference,” UT coach Josh Heupel said. “I’ve learned that your preference typically doesn’t come true anyway. I feel like we’ll be in a special bowl. I expect our fan base to travel well and for us to get ready to play well.”

But what should Tennessee and its fans want? There’s not a consensus answer.

Why Tennessee would want the Sugar Bowl

If LSU upset Georgia in the SEC title game, it would get the automatic bid to the Sugar Bowl. Otherwise, the highest ranked SEC team not in the playoffs goes to the Sugar Bowl. That likely will be No. 7 Alabama (10-2) because No. 5 LSU lost to Texas A&M. But No. 10 Tennessee (10-2) can make a case to leap over the Crimson Tide.

Their strength of schedule and strength of record are similar. Tennessee beat Alabama 52-49. But losing quarterback Hendon Hooker to a torn ACL could lower the CFP committee's view of the Vols.

The Sugar Bowl has a traditional stature because it automatically got the SEC champion for decades before the Bowl Championship Series and College Football Playoff stirred up the postseason.

And getting a Sugar Bowl bid over Alabama combines bragging rights with a sense of justice. It would mean the Vols earned the bid by beating the Crimson Tide on the field.

The Sugar Bowl will be played at noon on Dec. 31 in New Orleans. The SEC team will face the Big 12 champion or the highest ranked Big 12 team not in the playoffs. For now, that’s Kansas State because TCU will go to the playoffs if it wins the Big 12 title.

Why Tennessee would want the Orange Bowl

After that, the Orange Bowl gets the highest ranked team among the SEC, Big Ten and Notre Dame. That would be Tennessee if it ranks behind Alabama and ahead of Penn State.

Tennessee tight end Princeton Fant (88) celebrates a touchdown with running back Jaylen Wright (20) during the second half of the team's NCAA college football game against South Carolina on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Artie Walker Jr.)
Tennessee tight end Princeton Fant (88) celebrates a touchdown with running back Jaylen Wright (20) during the second half of the team's NCAA college football game against South Carolina on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Artie Walker Jr.)

And the other slot will be filled by the highest ranked ACC team not in the playoff. That would be the winner of the ACC title game between Clemson and North Carolina.

Putting the bowls aside, wouldn’t Tennessee fans rather play Clemson than Kansas State?

There’s more regional appeal to that matchup. And don’t forget Clemson coach Dabo Swinney took shots at Tennessee when the Vols lost to South Carolina, and then Clemson lost to the same team.

Maybe the Sugar Bowl has a slightly greater allure. But the Orange Bowl may have the more attractive matchup. Of course, that could change if North Carolina wins the ACC title and an Orange Bowl bid.

The Orange Bowl will be played at 7:30 p.m. or 8 p.m. on Dec. 30 in Miami.

Why Tennessee would want the Cotton Bowl

The Cotton Bowl gets the final team among the New Year’s Six bowls, so it’s generally viewed below the Sugar Bowl and Orange Bowl.

The Cotton Bowl will be played at 1 p.m. on Jan. 2 in Arlington, Texas. It gets an at-large pick to play against a Group of Five team, likely the winner of the American Athletic Conference championship game between Tulane and UCF.

Tennessee could fall to the Cotton Bowl if Penn State leaped over the Vols in the College Football Playoff rankings and took the Orange Bowl slot or if LSU upset Georgia in the SEC title game and took the Sugar Bowl automatic bid.

The downside to the Cotton Bowl is the matchup. A bowl game against a mid-major team won’t excite Tennessee fans as much as an ACC or Big 12 opponent.

The upside is the chance at winning. The Vols lost the Music City Bowl to cap Heupel’s first season, so a bowl victory would be a nice way to end his second season. Tennessee hasn’t won 11 games since 2001.

The venue is also a plus if visiting AT&T Stadium, the palatial home of the Dallas Cowboys, is a sports bucket list item.

Reach Adam Sparks at adam.sparks@knoxnews.com and on Twitter @AdamSparks.

This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Should Tennessee football want Orange Bowl over Sugar Bowl?