“I think that’s an important place to play because that’s an important part of our state,” Tennessee’s athletics director said Wednesday during an interview with Memphis radio station Sports 56 WHBQ.
As for the Vols actually playing against Memphis? Well, that’s a different story.
“We’d have to talk through actually playing the University of Memphis, I guess, with my coaches,” Fulmer said. “We really haven’t talked about it.”
Tennessee has won 22 of 23 all-time football games against Memphis. Several of UT’s victories came while Fulmer was the Vols’ coach.
The teams last played in 2010 as part of a home-and-home series. The Vols beat the Tigers 50-14 in Memphis after winning 56-28 the previous year at Neyland Stadium.
Of course, the dynamic has changed since then. Memphis went 1-11 in 2010 amid a four-year stretch when it totaled nine wins.
These days, Memphis is a program with Top 25 aspirations. It has had five straight seasons with at least eight victories and is one of the top teams in the American Athletic Conference.
Bottom line: There’s more risk for Tennessee in agreeing to play its instate adversary.
UT would have to ask itself whether there’s an upside to playing Memphis beyond having an appealing nonconference matchup for fans.
Beat Memphis, and the response would be something like: Well, Tennessee is supposed to beat Memphis. The Vols are in the mighty SEC. Memphis is in a conference that wants to be considered a “Power 6” league.
Lose to Memphis, and the Tigers could lord that result over UT on the recruiting trail.
What about a neutral site game?
If the Vols aren’t eager to set up a series with Memphis, then a neutral site game in the city is an option.
Fulmer and Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt have said that compelling home-and-home series take priority over neutral site games in scheduling. But they haven’t ruled out neutral site games, especially in markets that are important recruiting ground for UT.
Memphis is that. The Vols signed two Memphis-area prospects in each of the past two recruiting classes.
Fulmer referenced past neutral site games Tennessee played in Memphis against the likes of Mississippi, Mississippi State and even UCLA in 1965, the year Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium opened.
But those games occurred decades ago.
Tennessee hosts Mississippi State this season and is scheduled to make the return trip in 2024. Mississippi will host the Vols in 2021. There’s no reason to think the Mississippi schools would punt a home game in favor of playing in Memphis.
Nowadays, many neutral site games are played at NFL stadiums, something Memphis does not have.
The Vols opened last season against West Virginia at Bank of America Stadium – home of the Carolina Panthers – in Charlotte, North Carolina. In 2017, Tennessee opened against Georgia Tech at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the home of the Atlanta Falcons.
The most realistic option for Tennessee playing a football game in Memphis in the near future is a bid to the Liberty Bowl, which covets the Vols. Tennessee last appeared in the Liberty Bowl in 1986, when it beat Minnesota 21-14.
Although Tennessee might have some reservations about playing Memphis, Fulmer said he’s open to playing multiple quality nonconference opponents in the same season – especially if the SEC as a whole moves in that direction.
“I know that our fans expect to play more better teams,” Fulmer told WHBQ. “I think as long as everybody is doing that, I’m great with that, and I know Jeremy is. … Having those games are going to be important, I think, as people decide where they’re going to spend their discretionary dollars.”
What about basketball?
Men’s basketball is a different situation. The programs are in the midst of a three-year series. Tennessee played at Memphis last season, winning 102-92.
The Tigers will play at UT on Dec. 14 before the series concludes with a neutral site game in Nashville the following season.
And after that, is Tennessee interested in continuing the hoops series?
“I don’t know,” Fulmer told WHBQ. “We’ll have to talk through that.”
Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.