Tennessee football: 16-team playoff proposal Vols’ best chance to rise again

The Tennessee football team runs through the T during a NCAA football game against Tennessee Tech at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021.Kns Tennessee Tenn Tech Football
The Tennessee football team runs through the T during a NCAA football game against Tennessee Tech at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021.Kns Tennessee Tenn Tech Football /

If you feel a certain type of way about college football traditions suffering when the College Football Playoff expands but you’re also a Tennessee football fan, you need to get over it. History is not on your side, and we’re not just talking recent history.

Rocky Top has never been in contention for the College Football Playoff since it rolled around in 2014, and even if the current format had existed the whole time, the last time they would have been in contention in November was 2003, nearly 20 years ago. They wouldn’t have made it then either, though.

As a result, Tennessee football should welcome the 16-team playoff expansion proposal floated by the Big Ten. According to Pete Thamel of ESPN, Ohio State Buckeyes Athletic Director Gene Smith said the proposal is out there. Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren says it’s “heavy” on his “radar,” so this talk is serious.

All of this comes six months after it was reported that Warren was one of the leaders in killing the proposed 12-team format, which would have had the top six conference champions as automatic qualifiers and then six at-large teams. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey proposed that.

What would come of a 16-team playoff remains to be seen, but given the expansion of the Big Ten and SEC, it’s pretty obvious the playoff would be at-large heavy, which Sankey was always preferential to anyway. An at-large heavy playoff favors UT.

It’s time to face facts Vol Nation. If you applied the current College Football Playoff format back 50 years, only three times would they have made the event: 1995, 1997 and 1998. Only nine times would getting in have even been on the table when the first rankings come out during that period.

Very few proposed expansion formats would have favored the Vols. The eight-team playoff idea with the Power Five champions as automatic qualifiers (had there been a Power Five the whole time) would have probably only gotten the Vols in three other times: 1993, 1999 and then their two outright SEC Championship seasons, 1985 and 1990.

They may have had a case in 1989, but they split the SEC title with the Alabama Crimson Tide and Auburn Tigers, and Alabama was ahead of them in both polls at the end of the season. Neither was highly ranked enough for an at-large bid. It would’ve been close in 2001 too.

Still, we’re talking a maximum of nine times they would have made a playoff with that format. Two of those are in question. The other two, 1985 and 1990, saw them win the SEC Championship by default because Florida was on probation. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have made it those years.

Even in a 12-team format, 2007 would have been the last time the Vols would have been in contention for that when November rolled around, and they wouldn’t have made it then. Simply put, they aren’t in a position to ask for a select field when it comes to postseason play anymore given their recent history.

A 16-team playoff, though, would’ve had UT getting in there at least 13 times the past 50 years, so once every four years. Also, when you expand the playoff like that, you don’t have to be the best team to win. You just have to be the hottest. Look at the NFL Playoffs. All of that favors programs without Alabama talent.

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With the new-look SEC, winning a championship will be harder and harder, and Tennessee football already hasn’t won one in 24 years. As a result, Vol fans should root for whatever brings in the most at-large bids. This is the best format to do that, and for once, if Heupel restores the program, it’ll make November games relevant on Rocky Top once again.