PAY TO PLAY
A look at UT football’s non-conference payouts for the past five seasons:
Southern Miss $600,000
Arkansas State $625,000
Northern Illinois $725,000
Western Kentucky $700,000
Ohio U. $750,000
UT Martin $350,000
Middle Tennessee St. $750,000
Starting with a $500,000 check for Saturday's football season opener against the University of Montana, the University of Tennessee will pay its four nonconference opponents a combined $3.1 million, which is at least $1.1 million more than what it has doled out per year since 2007.
That figure is higher than normal this year because the Vols do not typically shell out high, six-figure guarantees to four schools in a single season.
The biggest payout will come next week, as the University of Cincinnati will receive $950,000 for its trip to Neyland Stadium. Middle Tennessee State will receive $750,000 to serve as the homecoming opponent in November.
Buffalo, which was a controversial late replacement for a road game at the University of North Carolina on the 2011 schedule, will net $900,000 for playing the Vols on Oct. 1.
Last August, UT bought out of its home-and-away contract with the Tar Heels for $750,000 because UNC was unwilling to move the game to a "later date in the decade," former athletic director Mike Hamilton said at the time. The goal behind the decision was to lessen the pressure on head coach Derek Dooley in his second year with the Vols by breaking up a schedule front-loaded with tough competition.
UT has yet to announce what team will replace North Carolina on the 2012 schedule.
The combined $1.65 million it took to buy out of the series will be offset by what UT will earn for hosting an extra game this season. The average revenue generated at Neyland Stadium when hosting a Mid-American Conference team such as Buffalo is approximately $3 million, Hamilton said last year.
This season's tally is the highest since 2009, when the Vols paid a combined $2 million to Western Kentucky, UCLA, Ohio and Memphis. Last year's sum of $1.45 million paid to UT Martin, UAB and Oregon was the lowest over the five-year span.
High six-figure payouts between major schools such as UT and lower-tier schools like the ones that dot the Vols' schedule this season are commonplace in college football. Because most major programs only seek out one major nonconference opponent per season, it continues to be a seller's market, and the prices for these games continue to skyrocket.
In 2009, Ohio State paid Navy $1.4 million to play at Ohio Stadium. Last year, Auburn paid Arkansas State $1 million to open the season at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Kent State will receive $1.2 million to play at Alabama on Saturday.
Football Championship Subdivision schools such as Montana do not command as high of a price tag as a lower-tier school in the Football Bowl Subdivision — such as Buffalo or MTSU — because an FBS school can only count one victory against an FCS school toward its minimum of six required to qualify for a postseason bowl game.
Speaking to the Knoxville Rotary Club last month, Dooley said UT's schedule would "always include a I-AA opponent," such as Montana. He has since backed off that stance in subsequent interviews.
This year's schedule, though, is a unique one, as UT will usually try to face at least one nonconference opponent that doesn't require a paycheck for its presence per season. Games like the 2012 Chick-fil-A Classic in Atlanta against North Carolina State and a 2013 trip to Oregon, which came to Neyland Stadium last season, are expected to lighten the load on UT's wallet in the near future.