For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been saying that the Music City/Liberty pairing was as far down the SEC bowl ladder as Auburn could reasonably slip. After all, to avoid Shreveport or Birmingham Auburn only had to finish in front of two teams in the Music City/Liberty pecking order … and since the Kentucky/Tennessee loser was all but a lock (since the Vols would have been 6-6 and the ‘Cats have played both those bowls frequently in recent years) and a loss from either South Carolina or Georgia in their finales–against the two teams gearing up to meet in the ACC title game–would drop them below Auburn too, I didn’t think it was worth worrying over.
Um … yeah. I was wrong about that. Because lo, verily, the SEC bowlpocalypse hath come to pass: not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not seven, but six different SEC teams have finished the regular season with 7-5 overall records and within a game of each other in the conference standings … and a seventh, Ole Miss, might as well be 7-5 what with their 4-4 SEC record, cheese puff nonconference schedule, and disastrous season-ending loss to their archrival potentially torpedoing a good number of Rebel fans’ bowl travel plans.
All of which means: the only sure things in the SEC bowl-selection processare that Florida and Alabama are BCS bound and that LSU is now off to the Cap One Bowl. After that, the bowls can choose any of the seven remaining teams they like. “They like,” of course, translating to “whichever team they’re convinced will sell the most tickets and draw the highest ratings.”
So I see it breaking down like this:
Tennessee to the Cotton, Ole Miss to the Outback. As I’ve said for weeks: between their sizable fan base, Kiffin-created media frenzy, and absence from the 2008 postseason, the Vols have to look like a terrific draw. And despite the hang-ups listed above, I think the Rebels’ eighth win overall (who sez cupcake scheduling doesn’t pay?) and leftover preseason “buzz” push them into one of the New Year’s slots as well. With the Rebels having been in Dallas just last year, I suspec the SEC will arrange the West-East swap and send the Rebels to Tampa and the Vols to the JerryDome.
However: the Cotton could wind up inviting just about any damn body, especially if the SEC decides to stick to the traditional West/Cotton East/Outback alignment.
Georgia to the Chick-Fil-A. If Clemson can’t win the rematch against the Yellow Jackets, the folks in Atlanta would have to be nuts to pair up the Tigers and Dawgs in the dome. Every UGA fan I’ve read/spoken to has loved the idea, and I’m sure Clemson would be chomping at the bit to get a shot at redressing some past wrongs against this year’s edition of the Dawgs.
It maybe gets dicier if Clemson isn’t available–a similar “rivalry renewed” game could conceivably be arranged between Auburn and Ga. Tech, or least it could be if Tech didn’t play there just last year–but in any case, having the hometown Dawgs seems to make too much sense for the Chick-Fil-A here.
Arkansas to the Liberty. Again, it’s all about geography–it’s only two hours from Little Rock to Memphis. Kentucky’s just as close, of course, but the ‘Cats were in Memphis in 2008.
So … who goes to the Music City?
Nashville will have three choices: South Carolina, Kentucky, and Auburn. All three have their positives, all three have their drawbacks. Auburn’s positives are as follows:
1. We didn’t go to a bowl last year. Even after the two-game slide to end the season, the Auburn fans I know are still plenty satisfied with the way the season played out and are excited about seeing Auburn in a bowl game again. (Aren’t we?) While the same probably goes for both Kentucky and Carolina fans to some extent, the ‘Cocks did go to a bowl as nice as the Outback last year, and the ‘Cats are on the longest bowl streak in their history.
2. Our offense is a draw. Auburn’s been a little erratic, but on the year as a a whole the Tigers have been much, much more explosive than either the ‘Cocks or ‘Cats, who (it must be noted) both looked downright anemic in their 2008 bowl performances while Malzahn’s Tulsa team was Tulsa-ing it up. This is probably even more of a concern for the Music City than it might be for other bowls, after they hosted an emotional but hardly-compelling 16-14 snoozer between Vandy and B.C. last year.
3. Geography over South Carolina. Kentucky’s far and away the most local draw for the Music City, but Auburn’s got an easier drive than Carolina: 300 miles to Nashville, less than that for Auburn fans in Atlanta or Birmingham. From Columbia: nearly 450.
4. Unfamiliarity over Kentucky. The ‘Cats are far from strangers to the Music City, having played the bowl in both 2006 and 2007; three appearances in four years, as well as the ‘Cat fans have traveled to the bowl, might still be a little bit much.
Of course, Carolina and Kentucky will have their arguments to make: the ‘Cocks will say that after their big win over Clemson, their fans are primed to travel, and their support at home is as good as anyone’s in the SEC; Kentucky will point out their successful trips to Nashville before, the much shorter distance from Lexington than fro mthe Plains or Columbia, and add in that by beating Auburn head-to-head, they’re more deserving.
My official prediction, being an Auburn fan and an eternal optimist, is that the Music City balances travel distances and Kentucky’s previous trips and picks Auburn–sending Carolina to Birmingham and Kentucky to Shreveport–but that’s hardly a guarantee at this point.
So, if the Music City picks someone else? Lots of people seem to be in a tizzy about Auburn possibly going to the Independence to take on Iowa St. in the first and last annual Chizik Bowl … but, yeah, as much as fun as that would be for everyone who was not an Auburn fan, I don’t see it happening.
For starters, there’s no functional difference in prestige/payout between the Independence and the (shudder) papajohns.com. If one of these perpetually-in-need-of-actual-attendees bowls has the chance to host what’s basically a home game for one of the participants, there’s no way the SEC asks them to do otherwise–what sense does it make to send Kentucky to Birmingham and Auburn to Shreveport, making everyone unhappy, when the papajohns.com could draw the biggest crowd in their short and uneventful history and the Independence is just about as well off as they would be anyway?
On top of that … look, I have no doubt this would end up being spun by the rest of the college football world as Auburn being “scared,” but if Iowa St. is indeed the Big 12’s Independence representative, there’s just no positives in Auburn lining up against them down in Shreveport. An Auburn win would mean not a thing more than any other bowl win, one in the papajohns.com included; an Auburn loss would be a huge black eye for Chizik and the program, and would be substantially more likely given ISU’s obvious advantages in motivation. If Auburn has any say in the matter, it would be nothing short of pure bona fide stupid to accept a no-win situation like that over a situation with a ton of positives like the one in Birmingham.
So: the guess here is that if the Music City takes Carolina or Kentucky, Auburn will play Legion Field.
(And hey, Legion Field might not even be that bad: with Notre Dame a Big East team for bowl selection purposes and stuck around the very bottom of the bowl ladder at 6-6–remember, all 7-5 teams have to be placed before the 6-6 teams–the papajohns.com could extend the Irish an invite. ESPN has them going to Mobile to take on Central Michigan in the GMAC; if you’re Notre Dame, wouldn’t facing Auburn be a damn sight more appealing? Again, why take a no-win situation over one with something to gain? It’s more likely the papajohns.com ends up hosting UConn, Rutgers, or South Florida, but it’s a possibility. Root for the Bulls to drop the Huskies to 6-6 and give the Birmingham folks options.)