The rivalry couldn”t be any bigger between the Michigan and Tennessee football programs, and they have yet to play a game against each other.
The intensity on each side has been brewing since 1997 and will finally culminate on Jan. 1 in the Capital One Florida Citrus Bowl when the Wolverines square off against the Volunteers.
The first conflict arose in 1997 when Charles Woodson edged out Tennessee”s Peyton Manning for the Heisman Trophy, causing an outcry from all Tennessee fans, including the state”s governor.
Tennessee struck back with an expansion of its stadium in 1998, making it the nation”s largest for one year and attempting to stake the claim of being “the real” Big House.
The New Year”s Day game in Orlando will be a tie-breaker of sorts. Both coaches are looking forward to an on-field meeting, and it will be Michigan”s third trip to the Citrus Bowl in four years.
“It”s great to be going back to Orlando,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said after the Citrus Bowl selected Tennessee yesterday. “We”re looking forward to playing a great Tennessee team. Their tradition is like our own very proud with a long history of winning.”
Michigan and Tennessee will be playing in their 27th and 15th consecutive bowl game, respectively.
Michigan previously beat the University of Arkansas, 45-31, in the 1999 Citrus Bowl and Auburn University, 31-28, last year in Orlando.
Tennessee will be in its fifth Citrus Bowl, having compiled a 3-1 record in the game. Its most recent Citrus Bowl victory was a 48-28 win over Northwestern in 1997.
Though Tennessee played in the Southeastern Conference title game while Florida did not the Volunteers were passed over by the Bowl Championship Series. Instead, two BCS bids were given to LSU, the SEC Champion, and Florida, who lost to Tennessee last weekend.
“We are very pleased to represent the Southeastern Conference and the University of Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl,” said Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer. “Playing, obviously an outstanding University of Michigan team with all their great history, we”re excited about that. I”ve been an admirer of Lloyd Carr and the job he”s done there.”
The Volunteers will take a strong offensive team to Orlando, led by three players: senior running back Travis Stephens is 12th in the nation in rushing yards per game with 122, and quarterback Casey Clausen has put up Manning-like numbers with 22 touchdowns and a rating of 150 second only to Florida”s Rex Grossman in the SEC. Clausen”s main target is freshman Kelley Washington, who caught nine passes for 140 yards in the SEC title game.
On the other side of the ball, the Volunteers” defensive unit is solid with the nation”s third best rush defense and the 13th best overall.
“I don”t think it”s any question this is the best team we”ve faced this season,” Carr said. “They have a typical outstanding defense, a well-balanced offense and strong special teams.”
Carr later said John Navarre will still be leading the Wolverines” offense despite his recent struggles against Wisconsin and Ohio State.
With the game being the first in this new rivalry, many associated with the Citrus Bowl are sure that this bowl game will draw fans from all over the nation and high BCS-like ratings.
“We”re honored to have the University of Michigan and the University of Tennessee,” said Citrus Bowl Executive Director Chuck Rohe.
“I can”t imagine two more prestigious teams playing in this game. We”re going to have a game that ABC is going to love.”