When you start combing the college football scene for natural rivals that don’t play every year (or even semi-regularly), Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech would be right near the top of that list.
Their campuses are separated by 230 miles and an easy 3 1/2-hour drive up or down Interstate 81, and their fan bases have been clamoring for this game for years.
Take a stroll through upper East Tennessee and on into Southwest Virginia, and you’ll see Tennessee orange and Virginia Tech maroon splashed together just about everywhere. The battle lines are blurred in those parts.
Yet, the Hokies and Vols have played just seven times in more than 100 years of football.
Thanks to the Chick-fil-A Bowl, it’s a rivalry that will be rekindled on Thursday night (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET) in the Georgia Dome. The teams last played in 1994 in the Gator Bowl, with Tennessee winning 45-23 during Peyton Manning’s freshman season.
In the years following that contest, there were periodic conversations about starting up a series between the schools. And in 1998, NASCAR kingpin Bruton Smith proposed the idea of the Vols and Hokies meeting at Bristol Motor Speedway, which would essentially be the halfway point between the schools.
It never happened, mostly because nobody really believed Bristol Motor Speedway could be transformed to host a football game.
But in 2005, about a month before the season kicked off, Smith said he was prepared to pay each team $20 million to play at Bristol. Obviously, those kind of figures created a stir and got fans from both sides talking.
In the end, it was probably more of a publicity stunt than anything, as Smith never presented any formal offer to either Tennessee or Virginia Tech.
A little more than four years later, here we are.
The Chick-fil-A Bowl isn’t doling out $20 million per team, but maybe this game will finally be the tipping point that gets these two teams together on a semi-regular basis.
Tennessee’s nonconference schedule is pretty full for the next decade. The Vols have series lined up with Oregon, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Ohio State and North Carolina, but Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech makes too much sense not to work out some type of agreement sooner rather than later.