KNOXVILLE - The proud University of Montana football program isn't done making trips to East Tennessee, after all.
The Grizzlies, a common name to Chattanoogans who saw them play in several NCAA Division I FCS championship games in Finley Stadium, will open the 2011 season in Neyland Stadium against Tennessee.
UT was initially scheduled to host FBS opponent North Texas in the Sept. 3, 2011, opener.
Montana has played in seven of the last 15 FCS championship games, winning titles in 1995 and 2001. The Grizzlies lost championship games in 1996, 2000, '04, '08 and '09.
"This will be one of the biggest games we've played in our history, not to mention that we will be playing in front of the biggest crowd ever to watch a Grizzly football team play," Montana athletic director Jim O'Day said. "Our student-athletes really enjoyed the opportunity to play Oregon (2005) and Iowa (2006) the past few years, and this is another chance to get them in front of a big crowd and give them a taste of big-time football."
UT men's athletic director Mike Hamilton said the Volunteers had to replace North Texas because the Mean Green wanted to play their 2011 opener in their new stadium. Hamilton said the Vols will host North Texas "in a future year that we have had trouble filling," but he didn't give a specific date.
Montana has ties to Tennessee beyond playing in five of Finley's 13 FCS title games. Former Grizzlies linebacker Brandon Fisher is the son of Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher. Former Montana All-America defensive back Tim Hauck is on the Titans' coaching staff, and former All-America receiver Marc Mariani is on the NFL team's roster.
"We have connections down there," O'Day said.
The Grizzlies have been an FCS powerhouse the past two decades. They've had 24 consecutive winning seasons, winning at least 11 games eight times in the past 10 years. They've won or shared the last 12 Big Sky Conference championships and won 119 games since 2000 - 18 more than second-place Appalachian State.
UT's 2011 schedule hasn't been finalized, but the unofficial task looks tough. After opening with Montana, the Vols are scheduled to host Cincinnati before traveling to Florida and North Carolina. From there, they'll host Georgia and LSU before traveling to Alabama and hosting South Carolina.
Those schedules, at least for now, won't include Southern California. The Vols turned down an invitation from the Atlanta Sports Council to play the Trojans - coached by former UT boss Lane Kiffin - in Atlanta to open the 2011 season.
UT has scheduled home-and-home series in the next decade with Oregon (2010, '13), North Carolina (2011, '12), Oklahoma (2014, '15), Connecticut (2015, '16), Nebraska (2016, '17) and Ohio State (2018, '19). The Vols also have a game scheduled with North Carolina State in 2012.
"The reality is you want to give the fans some good games, but you've got to win some games, too," Hamilton told the Times Free Press on July 7. "We're trying to get our program back where we want it, and we've already bitten off plenty to chew. We've already scheduled several great out-of-conference games for our fans."
Other contacts for Wes Rucker are www.twitter.com/wesrucker and www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.