The Vols officially completed their Appalachian tour with the announcement of the much-rumored Tennessee-West Virginia showdown in Charlotte to open the 2018 season. This puts Tennessee in Bristol against Virginia Tech in 2016 and against the Mountaineers in North Carolina two years later. Factor in a less-exciting game against UAB to open the 2015 season in Nashville (although the Vols do get Oklahoma in Knoxville next year as well), and it's clear to see Butch Jones and Dave Hart aren't playing around about these neutral site games.
When the Vols and Hokies announced the Battle at Bristol last year, we looked at five other neutral sites and nearby opponents fans of both schools could get excited about. The most popular idea by far was playing in Nashville against either Louisville or Notre Dame. Even though the Vols went to LP Field for the UAB game, I hope it won't keep them away from looking back toward Middle Tennessee for a future upscale opponent.
Atlanta continues to be popular and will have a brand new stadium in 2017, which is the only open date in the next four years on Tennessee's schedule for a major conference opponent. I wouldn't at all be surprised to hear the Vols paired with an ACC foe (which could include Notre Dame these days) in the new stadium to open that season.
With Tennessee and Oklahoma playing their home-and-home the next two years, the future has quickly become more about these neutral games than the traditional home-and-home model we've seen forever. Going back to the rise of the modern era of Tennessee Football, here are the home-and-homes the Vols have played in the last 30 years:
- UCLA (1985, 1989, 1991, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2008, 2009)
- Boston College (1987, 1988)
- Notre Dame (1990, 1991, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2005)
- Louisville (1991, 1993)
- Syracuse (1998, 2001)
- Miami (2002, 2003)
- California (2006, 2007)
- Oregon (2010, 2013)
- Oklahoma (2014, 2015)
Phillip Fulmer signed contracts with Nebraska and Ohio State for 2016-19 which have since been broken, as was a long-rumored arrangement for Tennessee and Southern Cal to play when Lane Kiffin was the coach in Knoxville. Other than Mike Hamilton's infamous walkaway from the North Carolina series, the Vols have signed up for anyone, anywhere, anytime far more than any other team in the SEC.
But now the tide appears to be turning to neutral venues, and while fans should be and are excited about playing nearby Virginia Tech and West Virginia in new cities that aren't far from here, I hope this doesn't exclusively rule out home-and-homes in the future. One of the things we discussed in that story last fall was the possibility of playing Ohio State in Cincinnati, but I think all of us would much more enjoy playing the Buckeyes in Knoxville and Columbus. The best teams in the SEC and Big Ten have long stayed away from each other in the regular season, in part due to a bowl arrangement that put schools from those conferences against each other in three January 1 games. But with Virginia Tech finally crossed off the list and the ACC getting into some of those January 1 opportunities, there remain four schools Tennessee would love to get its hands on, especially home-and-home: the Big Ten's holy trinity of Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State (James Franklin bonus!), and of course Texas. With Butch's good friend Charlie Strong now in Austin, who knows. The hope remains that Tennessee will be good enough to compete when these games potentially roll around instead of taking the beatings we received from Oregon.
I'm excited about the neutral fields and the new and unique opportunities. But as a fan living in East Tennessee and a season ticket holder, please don't walk away from all home-and-homes with elite opponents. Our tradition is too proud and our dollars too valuable to give exclusively to other cities when playing the now-mandatory major conference opponent each year. I hope Butch Jones and Dave Hart will keep chasing the games that make headlines. I just also hope they find a way for some of them to be in Knoxville.