KNOXVILLE -- A wild weekend full of rumors, albeit most of them legitimate, ended Sunday night where it started.
The University of Tennessee football team will end its season with a Dec. 30 Music City Bowl game against border-foe North Carolina.
But that almost didn't happen, thanks to a seemingly-annual weekend full of surprising twists and turns in the Southeastern Conference's bowl selection process.
"There was a little bit of a curveball that kind of came up this week," UT men's athletic director Mike Hamilton said.
And it came from a familiar source: The Outback Bowl.
The Outback, which had the chance to take SEC Eastern Division champion and conference title game loser South Carolina, again ignored the pecking order -- which is allowed but not encouraged -- and selected East runner-up Florida. The Gator Bowl, which wanted Florida, then had the option to take UT or Mississippi State, assuming South Carolina accepted its bid to the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Several Gator Bowl representatives were enticed by the notion of a UT-Michigan game to draw big TV numbers on New Year's Day, where it competes directly against the Capital One and Outback. UT's administration was potentially in a bind, because it's bad business to turn down a New Year's Day bowl game but made much more sense on many levels to stay with the Music City.
The curveball ultimately straightened. UT stayed in-state after Mississippi State accepted an invitation to the Gator.
"We [like] the opportunity to close out this season being back in Nashville again," Hamilton said. "I know it's a neutral site, but I think we can all assume that stadium will be full of a lot of orange, and to play a bowl game in front of that setting will be special to our team."
Music City Bowl president and CEO Scott Ramsey couldn't have sounded more satisfied with the result, and he said his city's feelings mirrored his own.
"We were certainly hopeful that Tennessee would be available at the time we selected, but there are bowls that pick ahead of us, and I'm sure Tennessee was very attractive to a lot of people, especially with the way they finished the year, and the momentum they had," Ramsey said. "We kind of had to play a little bit of a waiting game, which is not unusual in other years. It was maybe a little bit more nerve-wracking this year, just because we really felt like over the last week that a lot of the fans had already made that assumption and had been moving in this direction as far as buying tickets and making plans to come, and that was real exciting to us.
"Had [UT] been selected ahead of us, it'd have been challenging to kind of undo some of those things. We're thankful it worked out, and we're really looking forward to it. We hadn't had Tennessee before, and I think our whole city is energized and has been the last several days in the anticipation of today."
Those feelings will ultimately be better, at least for UT, if the in-state team defeats North Carolina.
UT (6-6, 3-5 Southeastern Conference) and the Tar Heels (7-5, 4-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) played 17 consecutive years before stopping the series in 1961. The programs were scheduled to start a home-and-home next season in Chapel Hill, N.C., but the Vols bought out the contract after UNC refused to move the 2011 game to a neutral site or delay the start of the series.
Hamilton described that decision as one specifically made for "the 2011 season only," and that he would have bought out "Arizona, Michigan State, Georgia Tech, whomever."
This bowl game is a different situation, Hamilton said.
"Carolina would be our first choice to play, and for a variety of reasons," Hamilton added. "One of those is obviously our fan base's expressed interest in playing Carolina after the announcement of the cancellation of the series. We thought that would be a nice opportunity.
"We're excited about playing UNC. They've got a great program. I know there will be a lot of Carolina Blue in the stadium, and we think it'll be a great ball game."
First-year Vols head coach Derek Dooley dismissed subplots of UT buying out a future series with UNC as "fodder for the fans" and said he was excited about the Music City matchup.
The Tar Heels opened the season with a surprisingly-depleted roster, especially defensively, after an NCAA investigation into alleged rules violations by several of their players. They lost close games to LSU and Georgia Tech to start the season and responded with four consecutive wins before splitting the next six.
UNC had an up-and-down November. It started with a close win over Florida State and finished with a close win over rival Duke but also featured mid-month losses to Virginia Tech and North Carolina State.
"I've never been one to get some kind of motivation for a game that's other than just the thrill of competition," Dooley said. "I have a lot of respect for North Carolina. I always have. I have friends on their staff. They do a great job of coaching. I think it's just a great opportunity for our team to go out there and play somebody in another conference and play a good program and hopefully keep the momentum going.
"All that other stuff to me is just fodder for the fans. We don't really motivate ourselves on those kind of things, and I think when you do, it really detracts you from focusing on what it takes to be successful on gameday."
Contact Wes Rucker at firstname.lastname@example.org or 865-851-9739.
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