Although it won't be official for several days, it appears that Tennessee and Virginia Tech will square off in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta on New Year's Eve.
Multiple reports emerged on Tuesday placing the Vols in the bowl—which is played in the Georgia Dome and is televised on ESPN. The Chick-fil-A Bowl was the most logical bowling opportunity for Tennessee after the Vols were apparently snubbed by the Outback Bowl.
The bowl creates a matchup between the Vols and the Hokies that is sure to be highly anticipated. Separated only by a short drive along Interstates 40 and 81, talk of a Tennessee-Virginia Tech matchup has persisted since the Hokies surged onto the national scene under Frank Beamer. Bristol Motor Speedway owner Bruton Smith even tried to negotiate a deal that would have seen the two teams square off in the infield of "The World's Fastest Half-Mile."
It's the sort of matchup that will have both Chick-fil-A and ESPN salivating. The Georgia Dome attendance record was set at a Chick-fil-A Bowl: More than 75,000 attended the 2006 edition, which pitted the Hokies against Georgia. The bowl has also produced two of ESPN's highest-rated bowl broadcast ratings. Each of those accomplishments could be repeated this year.
But if the Vols are to ring in the new year in celebration rather than sorrow, they will need to overcome some misfortunes in both the game and the building in which it is played.
Since Tennessee staged a second half comeback against Mississippi State in 1998, winning the SEC championship and sewing up a berth in the first-ever BCS National Championship Game, the Vols have suffered a jinx in the Georgia Dome.
In three appearances in the SEC Championship Game since the back-to-back conference titles in 1997 and '98, Tennessee has come up empty. None were more heartbreaking than the 2001 debacle. Fresh off a stunning upset of Florida, the 2nd-ranked Vols were poised to play for their second BCS title, but were surprised by No. 21 LSU in the SEC Championship Game, 31-20. Losses to Auburn (38-28 in 2004) and again to LSU (21-14 in 2007) followed.
The Vols haven't fared much better on the Georgia Dome hardwood of late. In 2008, Tennessee entered the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament in Atlanta as the top overall seed after finishing the regular season with a 14-2 mark in conference play. The Vols were upset by Arkansas, 92-91, in the semifinals of the tournament.
In 2007, Tennessee was upset by SEC West cellar dweller LSU, 76-67, in the first round of the tournament at the Georgia Dome.
In five other conference tournaments at the Georgia Dome since 1998, the Vols have never advanced past the second day of play. In both 1999 and 2000, Tennessee entered as the No. 1 seed from the East, only to be upset in the first game.
Then there have been the Chick-fil-A Bowl appearances at the Dome. Tennessee has twice played in the bowl since it moved to the Georgia Dome in 1991. Both performances were forgettable.
But for back-to-back October losses to Georgia and Auburn, Tennessee would have been undefeated in 2003. Led by senior quarterback Casey Clausen, the Vols turned in a memorable season, one that included a win over Florida, a thrilling, five-overtime victory over Alabama, and an upset of Miami at the Orange Bowl. Then came the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Snubbed by the Outback Bowl, No. 6 Tennessee went to the chicken sandwich bowl as the highest-ranked team to ever play in the bowl. Some might argue that the Vols never got off the bus. An unranked Clemson team dominated Tennessee, winning 27-14 in a major upset.
But even that performance was better than the one the year before. In 2002, Tennessee struggled to an 8-4 regular season, and was happy to earn a trip to the Chick-fil-A Bowl. The Vols tangled with No. 15 Maryland in a game that was never close. Quarterback Scott McBrien put on a clinic, and the Terrapins defeated the Vols 30-3.
There haven't been many good things happen for the Vols in the Georgia Dome over the past decade. In fact, no one would blame Tennessee for celebrating if the Dome ceased to be a venue for post-season championships, tournaments, bowls and other sporting events.
But Tennessee's 21st Century misfortunes in the Georgia Dome match its misfortunes in the Chick-fil-A Bowl quite well. The Vols have made four appearances in the bowl (tied for 6th-most among all NCAA teams). Their only win came on Jan. 2, 1988—when the bowl was still known as the Peach Bowl and was played at Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium.
Tennessee entered that game fresh off a 9-2-1 regular season that included a 20-20 tie of No. 3 Auburn. Ranked No. 17 in the nation, the Vols defeated Indiana 27-22 to wrap up a 10-win season with a Top 15 ranking.
Tennessee's other appearance in the bowl came in 1982, also at Fulton County Stadium. Carrying a 6-4-1 record and unranked, the Vols lost 28-22 to Iowa.
But Virginia Tech hasn't exactly had Chick-fil-A Bowl success to write home about, either. In three appearances in the bowl, the Hokies have only won once: a 25-24 win over North Carolina in 1986. Miami defeated the Hokies, 20-10, in 1981, and Georgia knocked off Beamer's squad in 2006, 31-24.
Tennessee and Virginia Tech may be a combined 2-5 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, but that is hardly indicative of each program's success in the modern era of college football. And with that much tradition represented in the Georgia Dome this New Year's Eve, don't be surprised if the Chick-fil-A Bowl continues its recent success as one of the most-anticipated, most-watched non-BCS bowls.
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