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Music City Bowl Prediction and Preview: Tennessee vs. Purdue

TransPerfect Music City Bowl Prediction and Preview: Tennessee Volunteers vs. Purdue Boilermakers

Volunteers, Boilermakers clash in Music City with both teams looking to end their seasons on a high note

The Tennessee Volunteers and Purdue Boilermakers are set to face off in the 23rd edition of the Music City Bowl on Thursday afternoon in Nashville. This intriguing SEC vs. Big Ten matchup will mark just the second meeting all-time between the two schools, and the first since Purdue knocked off Tennessee 27-22 in the 1979 Bluebonnet Bowl.

Related: College Football Picks for Every Bowl Game in 2021-22

Tennessee (7-5, 4-4 SEC) entered the season facing as much adversity as any team in the country. And yet, thanks in large part to first-year head coach Josh Heupel and his prolific, fast-paced offense, Tennessee managed to eclipse expectations on its way to a successful regular season campaign. The Vols will now look to extend that success into the postseason and close out the year on a high note with win No. 8. The Volunteers also will be in search of their fifth bowl victory in a row against a Big Ten opponent, dating back to 2014.

Purdue (8-4, 5-3 Big Ten) came into the 2021 season with the bar set pretty low as well. And much like the Vols, the Boilermakers surpassed expectations en route to their first eight-win regular season since 2006. It also marked their best regular season yet under fifth-year head coach Jeff Brohm. Purdue even managed to knock off a pair of top-three teams in Iowa and Michigan State along the way to earn the nickname "Spoilermakers." The Boilermakers hope to live up to that nickname once again on Thursday, as they pursue their first nine-win season since 2003 and their first bowl victory in four years. Purdue also will be in search of redemption after suffering an embarrassing 63-14 loss at the hands of Auburn in their last Music City Bowl appearance in 2018.

TransPerfect Music City Bowl: Tennessee (7-5) vs. Purdue (8-4)

Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 30 at 3 p.m. ET
Where: Nissan Stadium (Nashville, Tenn.)
TV: ESPN
Spread: Tennessee -6

When Tennessee Has the Ball

Quarterback Hendon Hooker is the driving force behind Tennessee's fast-paced spread attack that ranks 15th nationally in total offense (459.0 ypg) and ninth in scoring offense (38.8 ppg). Hooker has been nothing short of brilliant since taking over the starting job early in the season — completing 69.0 percent of his pass attempts for 2,567 yards with 26 touchdowns against just three interceptions. He leads all SEC quarterbacks in passer rating (182.2) and ranks third nationally in passing yards per attempt (9.8). Hooker leans heavily on a pair of veteran wide receivers in Cedric Tillman (57 rec., 931 yds., 9 TDs) and Velus Jones Jr. (52, 722, 6). Tillman has recorded at least one touchdown catch in each of his last six games while averaging an impressive 122 receiving yards per contest over that stretch. Jones, a first-team All-SEC selection, ranked third in the conference with 1,515 all-purpose yards and led the nation in punt return average (16 ypr).

While the Vols' passing game can be explosive, pass protection has been a major liability for an offensive line that surrendered an SEC-worst 42 sacks during the regular season. And with Cade Mays, Tennessee's best offensive lineman, doubtful for Thursday's game, it remains a concern. That said, Purdue will be without its top defensive player and best pass rusher in George Karlaftis — who is preparing for next year's NFL Draft, where he's a projected top-10 pick by some analysts. The Boilermakers also will be without one of their best cornerbacks in Dedrick Mackey, which should further help a Tennessee passing attack that, outside of Ohio State, might be the best that the Boilermakers have faced all season. Nevertheless, Hooker and Co. will have their work cut out for them against a Purdue defense that allows just 194.6 passing yards per game (21st in the FBS). The Boilermakers also had just as many interceptions (13) to their credit as passing touchdowns allowed (13) during the regular season.

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The Volunteers' passing game is plenty dangerous. But a Tennessee rushing attack that ranks 19th nationally, churning out 212.0 rushing yards per game, may actually be the strength of this offense. The Vols did lose star running back Tiyon Evans to the transfer portal. However, the ground game should be relatively unfazed by Evans' departure. That's thanks to a pair of talented running backs that both average more than five yards per carry in Jabari Small (114 att., 612 yds., 8 TDs) and Jaylen Wright (68, 355, 4) to go along with Hooker's own running ability (561 yds., 5 TDs on the ground). Tennessee appears to have the edge on the ground against a good, but not necessarily great, Purdue run defense that allows 142.6 rushing yards per contest (56th in the FBS).

When Purdue Has the Ball

Quarterback Aidan O'Connell leads the way for a Purdue offense that averages 423.4 yards and 27.5 points per game. There's no question that the bread and butter of this attack lies in a passing game that ranks eight nationally, generating 340.2 yards per game. O'Connell is the primary catalyst for that success — completing a Big Ten-best 73.5 percent of his pass attempts for 3,178 yards with 28 touchdowns and eight interceptions. The second-team all-conference honoree was particularly dominant down the stretch — completing 77 percent of his passes for 1,627 yards (407 ypg) with 14 touchdowns and no interceptions over the Boilermakers' final four games of the regular season. 

That bodes well heading into a favorable matchup against a lackluster Tennessee pass defense that allows 251.4 yards per game through the air. The Vols also will be without their best cornerback in Alontae Taylor, who is recovering from a foot injury and preparing for the NFL draft. That said, the Purdue passing attack will struggle to reach its full potential without its top two wide receivers in David Bell and Milton Wright. Bell, a first-team All-American and the Big Ten Football Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year, opted out to focus on the draft. Wright, who led Purdue in touchdown catches during the regular season, did not make the trip to Nashville for undisclosed reasons. The Boilermakers will likely be without starting left tackle Greg Long as well. The silver lining is that O'Connell still has a handful of solid pass catchers at his disposal — led by wide receivers Jackson Anthrop (48 rec., 496 yds., 5 TDs) and Tennessee native TJ Sheffield (33, 264, 4), to go along with tight end Payne Durham (40, 382, 4).

The Boilermakers can only hope that their passing game continues to thrive without some of its key pieces because they probably can’t expect much help from a run game that generates just 2.78 yards per carry (worst in the FBS) and has accounted for only seven touchdowns all season. Tennessee gives up 153.2 rushing yards per contest, which ranks 68th nationally. But in terms of yards allowed per carry (3.7), the Vols look better (44th nationally), at least on paper. Regardless, Purdue will need to at least try to establish the run game. And running backs Zander Horvath (74 att., 262 yds, 3 TDs) and King Doerue (125, 488, 2) will need to step up in this matchup to help bolster an otherwise one-dimensional offense that won't be at full strength.

Final Analysis

Despite missing some key pieces on offense, O'Connell and Purdue's offense should be able to find some semblance of success against a fairly generous Tennessee pass defense. Unfortunately, the Boilermakers' lack of a running game will allow the Volunteers to focus their efforts on putting pressure on the quarterback and limiting the damage done through the air. Meanwhile, Tennessee's quick-strike offense features a prolific passing attack coupled with a potent run game. And it's led by one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation in Hooker. And while the Purdue defense has been strong throughout the season, the Vols' tempo and big-play ability pose a challenge unlike any other the Boilermakers have faced all season. The absence of two of their best defenders (Karlaftis and Mackey) certainly doesn't help matters. The fact that this game will be played in Nashville also gives the Volunteers a de facto home-field advantage. Purdue's passing game should keep this one close, but it won’t be enough to come out on top against a more complete Tennessee squad.

Prediction: Tennessee 38, Purdue 31

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— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.