JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Tennessee Volunteers will tangle with the Iowa Hawkeyes on January 2 in EverBank Field, the TaxSlayer Bowl announced Sunday afternoon.
It was a matchup none of the prognosticators saw coming and almost didn't happen as the Liberty Bowl posted earlier in the day that Tennessee was going to play in Memphis, which was repeated on the NCAA's website and widely reported through the afternoon.
Iowa went 7-5 this season, finishing the year with losses in three of its last five games. Tennessee became bowl eligible by winning its final game, beating Vanderbilt to reach 6-6.
Unlike past years when bowl games extended invitations to teams, conference commissioners determined matchups among bowl games with tie-ins to their leagues. The TaxSlayer Bowl features an SEC and a Big 10 team, or Notre Dame.
The Vols and Hawkeyes haven't met on the football field since 1987.
"Traditionally, we have two of the best brands in college football and we're excited about that matchup," said Rick Cattlett, president and CEO of the TaxSlayer Bowl. "We also have two fanbases that have proven over and over again their support for their teams, not only during the regular season, but clearly in bowl time. I think that speaks for itself over the last 25 years."
Gator Bowl Sports, which manages the TaxSlayer Bowl, tweeted that the matchup appears to be immediately popular.
"If you need more proof that the #Volunteers and #Hawkeyes are the best fans in America, they've taken down our website," @taxslayerbowl posted at 5:50 p.m.
The Vols haven't been to a bowl game since 2010, Derek Dooley's debut season. and haven't won a bowl game since 2007, a 21-17 decision over Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl. The Volunteers were last in Jacksonville in 1994, beating Virginia Tech.
"The chance to return to a New Year's bowl game in Florida represents another significant step for our program, and we are excited to play against a quality opponent in Iowa," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said in a press release. "We are looking forward to the game, and I am sure that Vol Nation will be well-represented in Jacksonville on January 2."
It's been 31 years since the Hawkeyes played in Jacksonville. They lost 14-6 to Florida in the 1983 Gator Bowl.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz acknowledged they were coming off a disappointing season, but, The one great thing about sports is if you do have an opportunity to line up and play, you go back to work and focus on what's in front of you."
While Tennessee spending the New Year in Jacksonville may have come to a surprise to most people, it wasn't to Volunteers' athletic director Dave Hart or TaxSlayer Bowl's Catlett. They just needed the SEC to sign off on the destination.
"Dave and I are very good friends and had been for a long time," Catlett said Sunday night on a conference call. "We had been talking for several weeks now about the possibility of making this happen."