Vanderbilt’s second Music City Bowl in five years is there for the taking.
Leaving town is still a possibility for the Commodores — and could end up being their choice.
Music City Bowl president Scott Ramsey said his Southeastern Conference choice is down to Vanderbilt (8-4), Mississippi State (8-4) or Ole Miss (6-6). Ramsey expects one of the eight-win teams to be off the table by the time he makes his SEC selection, which is the sixth (excluding BCS bids), next Sunday.
The Commodores, who ended the season on a six-game winning streak and thumped Wake Forest 55-21 on Saturday, have a slim chance at landing in the Chick-fil-A Bowl or Gator Bowl. Both pick in front of the Music City Bowl. Over the next three days, Ramsey plans to talk to prospective schools’ athletic directors, the SEC office and other bowl presidents.
“We’ll definitely visit with [Vanderbilt athletics director] David Williams and the folks at Vanderbilt and get their input,” Ramsey said. “‘If you’re on our decision plate would you like to stay at home or go out of town?’ I’ll take that input to our committee. ... Since we lived here I can’t think of any other time when the Vanderbilt football program had this much energy and excitement around it. So I’m excited about our options.”
Though Ole Miss is an attractive candidate that will bring a lot of out-of-town visitors, the Rebels might be the last choice. Ramsey said the “rule of thumb” is teams with two more wins than another prospective team gets the nod. In this case, both Mississippi State and Vanderbilt have the edge over Ole Miss. Plus, the Bulldogs were just in the Music City Bowl last year.
The Commodores haven’t played out of Tennessee since the 1982 Hall of Fame Bowl in Birmingham. Vanderbilt played in the Music City Bowl in 2008, defeating Boston College 16-14. Last year, they lost to Cincinnati in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis.
Vanderbilt could end up back in Alabama at the Compass Bowl in Birmingham on Jan. 5. The bowl picks directly after the Music City Bowl and seems an unlikely destination for the Commodores, unless they prefer to leave town.
“I love Nashville. I’m excited about the Music City Bowl,” coach James Franklin said. “We try to spend our time focused on the things we can control. Wherever they tell us we’re going we’ll be unbelievably excited. There are no bad bowls. All the bowls are great. We would be very, very proud to go any bowl that is offered to us that we think is a great fit for Vanderbilt.”
Two weeks ago, Chick-fil-A Bowl president Gary Stokan called Vanderbilt an attractive team and said the Commodores would be heavily considered if they won the rest of their games. They did and finished with their most wins since 1982.
Clemson is believed to be the ACC frontrunner for the bowl. But Vanderbilt is a possibility — along with Mississippi State — to represent the SEC if Stokan wants to avoid a South Carolina-Clemson rematch. The teams played last weekend with South Carolina (10-2) pulling out a 27-17 win.
Another possibility for Vanderbilt is the Gator Bowl, which picks directly before the Music City Bowl. With Mississippi State losing to Ole Miss last weekend, bowl president Rick Catlett will have two eight-win teams to choose from if South Carolina isn’t available. The bowl will played on New Year’s Day.
Vanderbilt has never played a football game in January.
“We have a wider range of options,” Catlett told the Florida Times-Union on Sunday. “We really believe we’re in a no-lose situation now.”
Ramsey feels the same way.
Though he is uncertain about who will play in the Music City Bowl on New Year’s Eve, he is happy with his choices.
“I really feel that way this year,” Ramsey said. “I know it sounds cliché to say every year is different but, man, there are some years where you have teams really bunched together. They’re usually bunched together in the middle, kind of where we pick. This year they’re all bunched together at the top. So it is a very different year. We’re going to have a choice of two but we’re only really kind of thinking there is three possibilities at the most. So I think from that standpoint we’ll have a good discussion this week and be prepared for Sunday when we kind of make something formal.”
Along with the trio of SEC candidates, Ramsey has a trifecta to pick from on the ACC side — Duke (6-6), North Carolina State (7-5) or Virginia Tech (6-6). Ramsey said he’ll wait to Sunday to make a formal decision.
That’s very good news considering two days he wasn’t sure if the conference would have enough bowl eligible teams. The league has eight teams with at least six wins but Miami self-imposed a bowl sanction and North Carolina is ineligible.
The Music City Bowls get the fifth ACC pick after the BCS selection. It appears the conference will receive just one BCS bowl berth. Ramsey hopes that is the case. If Florida State loses to Georgia Tech in the ACC title game and Clemson does receive an at-large bid, he would have to raid another league.
“I feel confident,” Ramsey said. “It is always an uneasy week because three or four weird things happen in championship games and it is a trickle down. I say that as we sit here today but there is always that asterisk that two or three upsets [this] Saturday and everybody’s scrambling.”