Music City Bowl president Scott Ramsey announced at 5:30 EST today that this year's matchup will feature the Vols (6-6) and Tar Heels (7-5). The game will be played at 6:40 Central Time on Dec. 30 at LP Field (67,000 capacity) in Nashville, with ESPN televising.
Irony No. 1: As Vol fans are acutely aware, Tennessee was scheduled to face UNC next fall but chose to buy its way out of the game, essentially because the 2011 schedule appeared too taxing for a young Big Orange team.
Irony No. 2: When Phillip Fulmer was forced to resign as UT's head man at the conclusion of the 2008 season, the in-state media immediately pegged Tar Heel head man Butch Davis as the odds-on favorite to fill the vacancy. Whether or not that speculation had any validity remains a matter of considerable debate.
Irony No. 3: North Carolina locked up its spot in the Music City Bowl with a 24-19 win in the regular-season finale at Duke, coached by David Cutcliffe, who spent 19 years as a Tennessee assistant.
Coincidences aside, the Vols and Tar Heels will clash later this month for the first time since 1961, when Carolina prevailed 22-21 in Chapel Hill. The teams met every year from 1945-61, with Tennessee winning 13 of the 16 outings. The Vols lead the all-time series 20-10-1.
The Big Orange had been projected to play in the Music City Bowl ever since it became apparent in mid-November that the Vols might get to 6-6 and qualify for a bowl bid. However, the Gator Bowl reportedly gave strong consideration to taking Tennessee ahead of an 8-4 Mississippi State team. Supposedly, pressure from MSU officials and fans convinced Gator Bowl brass to vote at 4 o'clock today to extend an invitation to Dan Mullen's Bulldogs. That allowed Tennessee to fall to the Music City Bowl.
Without confirming any of the above scenario, Ramsey said the bowl-selection process resembles the NFL Draft in terms of intrigue.
"You do your best homework and hope the matchup you want is available," the bowl president said. "The forecast of the guys ahead of you is always fluid. There are bowls that pick ahead of us, and I'm sure Tennessee was very attractive to them. We really felt like over the last week that a lot of fans had made that assumption, started buying tickets and making plans to come."
Hamilton described the late interest from the Gator Bowl as a "curve ball," adding: "We were notified on Friday that we might be picked one slot ahead (of the Music City Bowl) because of the tradition of our program. That's a testament to Tennessee and our following.
"We're very excited about how it ended up because this is what we've kind of focused on the past two or three weeks. I think we can all assume that the stadium will be full of a lot of orange. That setting will be special for our team."
Between seven home games at Neyland Stadium, plus road games at Dudley Field in Nashville (vs. Vanderbilt) and Liberty Bowl Stadium in Memphis (vs. Memphis), Tennessee played nine of its 12 regular-season games this fall within the state's boundaries. Accepting the Music Bowl bid means the Vols will play 10 of 13 games in-state.
Based on the number of orange-clad fans who showed up for the regular-season games in Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley said he is convinced UT supporters will show up "in full force" for the Music City Bowl, adding: "It's amazing to me that we can go into other people's stadiums and it looks like a home game for us."
Dooley had little to say regarding the irony of drawing North Carolina as a bowl foe, noting: "I've never been one to get motivation for a game other than from the thrill of competition. I have a lot of respect for North Carolina ... always have.
"It's a great opportunity for our team to go out there and play somebody from another conference, hopefully keep the momentum going. All of that other stuff is just fodder for the fans. We don't pay attention to that stuff. When you do it just keeps you from focusing on what it takes to be successful."
Hamilton also downplayed the angle that Tennessee finds itself facing a team this year that it paid to avoid facing next year.
"When we talked about potential matchups, we told (Music City Bowl officials) that North Carolina would be our first choice," the Vol AD said. "We thought that would be a nice opportunity.
"The decision we made (regarding cancellation) was about the 2011 season only. It could've been Arizona State or someone else. We're excited about playing UNC. They're a great program and we think it will be a great ball game."
TICKETS: Vol season-ticket holders and donors have until midnight to order Music City Bowl tickets. Reportedly, Tennessee's allotment of 16,000 was nearly gone as of 6:30 p.m. EST. Any tickets that are unsold as of midnight will be available through TicketMaster.