The Indiana Hoosiers and Tennessee Volunteers are set to square off in the 75th edition of the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida, on Thursday night, marking the first appearance in a bowl game for both schools since 2016. It also marks just the second all-time meeting between Indiana and Tennessee. The only previous matchup between the two schools took place in the postseason as well, with the Volunteers edging out the Hoosiers 27-22 in the 1987 Peach Bowl.
Following back-to-back five-win campaigns, third-year head coach Tom Allen finally managed to get Indiana (8-4, 5-4 Big Ten) over the hump, leading the Hoosiers to their highest win total since 1993. They now have an opportunity to make more history on Thursday by scoring their first bowl victory in almost three decades. If successful, Indiana will reach the nine-win mark for the first time since 1967.
Tennessee (7-5, 5-3 SEC) was given less than a five percent chance to make a bowl game after starting the season 1-4, according to TeamRankings.com. But the resilient Vols would proceed to defy those nearly impossible odds under second-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt, rallying to win six of their next seven contests. Tennessee will now look to ride that momentum into the Gator Bowl, where a victory over Indiana would extend the Vols' winning streak to six games and provide a big head of steam into the 2020 season.
TaxSlayer Gator Bowl: Indiana vs. Tennessee
Kickoff: Thursday, Jan. 2 at 7 p.m. ET
Where: TIAA Bank Field (Jacksonville, Fla.)
Spread: Tennessee -2
When Indiana Has the Ball
Indiana received some good news with offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer deciding to stick around to call the plays one last time in the Gator Bowl despite recently being named the new head coach at Fresno State. DeBoer brings an impressive offense to Jacksonville, averaging 443.6 yards (No. 31 in the FBS) and 32.6 points per game. The Vols bring an equally impressive defense, which allows 337.1 yards (No. 27 in the FBS) and 21.7 points per game. That makes for a very intriguing — strength vs. strength — matchup. The most compelling aspect being a potent Indiana passing attack that ranks 14th nationally (308.7 ypg), paired against a stout Tennessee pass defense that ranks 16th (191.3 ypg).
The Hoosiers' pass-happy attack hasn't really missed a beat since junior quarterback Peyton Ramsey permanently took over the starting job midseason in place of the injured Michael Penix Jr. In 10 games (six as a starter), Ramsey has completed an impressive 69.2 percent of his pass attempts (second in the Big Ten) for 2,227 yards with 13 touchdown passes and four interceptions. And while Ramsey isn't exactly a dual-threat quarterback, he is somewhat elusive and has found success with his legs in the red zone with six rushing touchdowns.
Junior wide receiver Whop Philyor is Ramsey's go-to target, along with being the star of the Indiana offense. Philyor earned second-team All-Big Ten honors after a stellar regular season that included 69 catches for 1,001 receiving yards and five touchdowns. Senior wide receiver Nick Westbrook (38 receptions, 524 yards, 5 touchdowns) and sophomore tight end Peyton Hendershot (46, 555, 4) figure prominently in the Hoosiers' game plans as well.
Pass protection has been a strength for an Indiana offensive line that has allowed a respectable 23 sacks on the season. However, eight of those sacks came in the last two games alone. And a formidable Vols pass rush that has accounted for 30 sacks, led by outside linebacker Darrell Taylor with seven, could prove to be a handful on Thursday night.
Running back Stevie Scott III spearheads the Indiana ground game. The bruising sophomore back leads the Hoosiers with 845 rushing yards and 11 total touchdowns. Unfortunately, Scott is still dealing with a leg injury that could limit him or possibly even keep him out of the Gator Bowl altogether. That’s potentially bad news for an Indiana run game (99th in the FBS) that is by no means the strength of this offense anyway. And with or without Scott in the backfield, running the football will be challenging against a solid Tennessee run defense, led by linebackers Daniel Bituli and Henry To'o To'o. The Vols allow just 3.8 yards per carry and have steadily improved against the run throughout the season.
When Tennessee Has the Ball
Tennessee's prospects for a successful offensive outing in the Gator Bowl, or lack thereof, will depend largely on which Jarrett Guarantano shows up. The junior quarterback lost his starting job after a string of poor early-season performances, only to regain that role after several strong outings coming off the bench for the Vols. For the season, Guarantano has passed for 1,937 yards with 16 touchdowns against six interceptions, averaging a strong 8.6 yards per pass attempt. But his lack of consistency remains an area of concern.
Consistency is not an issue for a standout group of physical Tennessee receivers. That group is headlined by seniors Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway. Jennings (57 receptions, 942 yards, nine total touchdowns) is the heart and soul of the Tennessee offense, and the tough-as-nails wide receiver ranks among the best in school history. Callaway leads the SEC and ranks fifth nationally in yards per reception (21.2).
Unfortunately, Jennings is suspended for the first half of the Gator Bowl. And upon his return in the second half, he will likely be paired against cornerback Tiawan Mullen, who earned Freshman All-American accolades after leading the Big Ten with 12 pass breakups this season. Regardless, this is a matchup that Jennings should win. And while the Indiana pass defense has been solid overall this season, allowing 211.7 passing yards per game, the Hoosier secondary has been vulnerable against the deep ball. And that just so happens to be the strength of Tennessee’s passing attack.
It's fair to say that Tennessee's run game has not been a strength either this season, at least not on a regular basis. The Vols do feature a trio of capable running backs in Ty Chandler, Eric Gray, and Tim Jordan and each has shown flashes. Gray in particular, who just set a Tennessee freshman rushing record with 246 rushing yards and three touchdowns in the regular-season finale against Vanderbilt. However, big games for Tennessee running backs have been more of an exception than a rule. And running room could prove difficult to come by on Thursday night against an Indiana defense that has held up well against the run, allowing 138.8 rushing yards per game.
On paper, Indiana looks to be the superior team in this matchup. But the numbers don't always tell the whole story. And perhaps the most important stat here is that the Hoosiers did not beat a single team that finished the season with more than five wins. In fact, Indiana's eight victories have come against opponents that have a combined record of just 25-71. That seems to bode well for a seven-win Tennessee team in the midst of a five-game winning streak.
The Hoosiers will likely have some success throwing the football in this matchup. However, Indiana is 0-2 this season in games against opponents that feature top-20 pass defenses. The Volunteers fall into that category, and it will be difficult for a largely one-dimensional Indiana offense to dominate through the air against a Tennessee defense that matches up extremely well in that regard. And while the Tennessee offense will have its work cut out for it, as usual, the Vols do have a knack for explosive plays that put points on the scoreboard when they need them most. Meanwhile, an Indiana defense that has allowed 53 plays of 20 yards or more this season has a knack for giving up big plays. That will be the difference.
Prediction: Tennessee 30, Indiana 24
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.