Strange as it may sound, we may have to watch the College Football Playoff rankings — and the conference championship games.
There are eleven bowl-eligible teams from the SEC this year; everybody but Tennessee, Arkansas, and Ole Miss finished with six or more wins. Vanderbilt is likely the last team in the bowl pecking order. Normally we’d complain about the unfairness of that, but Vanderbilt really has little room for complaint after sneaking in at 6-6 and 3-5 in the SEC; nine of the other ten teams are 7-5 or better, and South Carolina can get to 7-5 with a win over Akron on Saturday (a makeup game for a previously-cancelled game against Marshall.)
So what does that equate to? After the New Year’s Six selections, the Citrus Bowl has the next pick. Following that, a group of six bowls — the Outback, Gator, Liberty, Music City, Texas, and Belk Bowl — make their selections in coordination with the SEC offices. Following that, it’s the Birmingham Bowl and, last but not least, the Independence Bowl.
How far down Vanderbilt falls in that list, then, depends on what happens with the New Year’s Six selections. Alabama, ranked #1 in the most recent Playoff ranking, will play Georgia on Saturday for the SEC Championship; Georgia was ranked #5 last week and will almost certainly move up after Michigan’s loss. The winner of the SEC Championship game will be in the Playoff; the loser may well be in the Playoff as well and at worst would fall to the Sugar Bowl.
That opens up the question of how many other SEC teams get into New Year’s Six bowls. Last week, LSU ranked #7 in the Playoff ranking; Florida ranked #11 and Kentucky ranked 15th. LSU lost to Texas A&M in seven overtimes, while Florida and Kentucky won rivalry games. It seems very likely that at least one of those three will get into a New Year’s Six bowl game.
Whether the SEC gets a fourth team in the New Year’s Six, though, will depend on two things. First off, how far does LSU fall in the new Playoff rankings on Tuesday? Conversely, how far might Kentucky move up?
And second — well, does anyone outside the top 12 get into a New Year’s Six bowl game? Power 5 conference champions and the highest-ranked Group of 5 champ are guaranteed a New Year’s Six spot — regardless of where they’re ranked. #16 Washington and #17 Utah will meet in the Pac-12 Championship Game (though Washington may well be in the top 12 of the new Playoff ranking after beating Washington State on Friday night.) On the flipside, neither Northwestern nor Pitt is likely to finish in the top 12 even if they beat, respectively, Ohio State or Clemson. And Clemson is likely to remain in the top 12 even with a loss (Ohio State, I’m not sure... though they probably will.)
Should the SEC get three teams in the New Year’s Six, Vanderbilt is likely headed to Birmingham. Get a fourth team, though, and the Commodores will go to one of the Group of Six bowls. (Hopefully not the Music City, though.) In short, Vanderbilt would like for Ohio State and Clemson to win their conference championship games — and, perhaps, Oklahoma to lay waste to Texas in the Big 12 Championship. That’s the most likely way for the SEC to wind up with a fourth New Year’s Six team.