Why Tennessee football deserved Liberty Bowl invite to face West Virginia

Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt leads his team onto the field for the game against Vanderbilt at Vanderbilt Stadium Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020 in Nashville, Tenn.Gw42724
Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt leads his team onto the field for the game against Vanderbilt at Vanderbilt Stadium Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020 in Nashville, Tenn.Gw42724 /

The Tennessee football Volunteers will face the WVU Mountaineers in Memphis.

It may seem embarrassing on the surface. Tennessee football will face the West Virginia Mountaineers in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tenn. on New Year’s Eve at 4 p.m. ET despite having a 3-7 record while WVU went 5-4 thanks to the NCAA waiving the bowl eligibility requirements.

However, it’s not far off from what would have happened if this were a normal season. Consider that two of the Vols’ seven losses were against teams that were added to their schedule, the Auburn Tigers and Texas A&M Aggies. Had they played their regular SEC slate, they would have gone 3-5 on the year.

Meanwhile, Tennessee football’s non-conference schedule included the Charlotte 49ers, the Oklahoma Sooners on the road, the Furman Paladins and the Troy Trojans. Of those, only OU would have been a likely loss, meaning that had things gone as planned, UT would probably have gone 6-6 on the year.

This day in age, that would always be enough to get the Vols to a bowl game. You could maybe bring up last years Georgia State Panthers and BYU Cougars game to say those non-conference wins weren’t certain, but it’s still safe to say they were likely.

What makes everybody upset is that the NCAA getting rid of the eligibility requirements allowed for bowls to select schools like Rocky Top over more deserving schools. The Army Black Knights going 9-2 come to mind. They initially were going to the Independence Bowl, but that game was canceled. However, UT is not deserving of the scorn for that. Let’s break this down.

There are 15 teams who finished above .500 on the year who won’t go bowling. Eight of them made their own decisions to opt out: The Boise State Broncos, the Boston College Eagles, the Pittsburgh Panthers, the Stanford Cardinal, the UCLA Bruins, the USC Trojans the Utah Utes and the Washington Huskies. You can’t say those teams were robbed.

Two other teams, the Miami Redhawks and Ohio Bobcats, went 2-1 on the year, all in MAC play. Does anybody really believe that warranted a bowl over the Vols? The same holds true for the Kent State Golden Flashes, who went 3-1.

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Since the Western Michigan Broncos and Toledo Rockets won four games apiece, we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt with 4-2 records. Only two teams were truly robbed, though. Army was one, and the SMU Mustangs, who went 7-3 in AAC play and accepted a bid to the Frisco Bowl only to see that game canceled, were the other.

Are there four teams in bowl games less deserving of the Vols? Yes. One of them, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, played almost their full schedule in C-USA play and went 5-6. Would WKU have deserved a bid with that record over a 6-6 SEC team like UT had the schedule gone as planned? Of course not.

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What about SEC teams? Well, the South Carolina Gamecocks made a bowl, and they went 2-8. If they played their original schedule, one of their wins, over the Auburn Tigers, would be off the schedule, and they would’ve gone 1-7 in SEC play. Their non-conference schedule would’ve included one loss to the Clemson Tigers and maybe two to the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers.

Both Mississippi schools would fit this bill as well. Mike Leach’s Mississippi State Bulldogs went 3-7 but would’ve gone 2-6 in SEC play without their added games, one of which was against the Vanderbilt Commodores. They also would have faced the N.C. State Wolfpack in non-conference play, so 6-6 was their best-case scenario, and 5-7 was likely.

Lane Kiffin’s Ole Miss Rebels, who went 4-5, would have gone 2-6 in SEC play. They would have actually faced the Texas A&M Aggies and lost and would not have played South Carolina or the Kentucky Wildcats, two teams they beat. As a result, they would have gone 6-6. It Tennessee football, Ole Miss and MSU all went 6-6, the Vols would’ve gotten the nod easily.

So let’s break this all down. If the season goes as planned, Tennessee football would have almost certainly been bowl eligible and finished probably 10th among SEC teams, which is the number of teams usually making a bowl game. Only four teams have a case to be robbed from making a bowl. Looking at that, the Vols have every right to accept the bowl bid.

Now, to be fair, Phillip Fulmer and Jeremy Pruitt embarrassed themselves with the way they accepted it. You can read their full comments on this UTSports article, but Fulmer called it a “tremendous development opportunity” and a “primer for to spring practice.” Pruitt, meanwhile, touted “another chance to take the field.”

Beyond their comments, though, there is nothing unjust about them accepting this bid. They are also smart to accept the bid. The Vols can now have more practices with its returning players to develop more, and there is nothing that hurts from playing an extra game.

Next. Five takeaways from Vols' 34-13 loss to Aggies. dark

As a result, nobody should complain about Tennessee football going bowling. If the season had gone as originally scheduled, they almost certainly would have made a bowl like this, and given how it did go, they need the extra practices and game.