Tennessee returns to a bowl game Thursday afternoon for the first time since 2016 as the Vols are preparing to face off with Indiana in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl.
Indiana finds itself in Jacksonville after putting together an 8-4 season that saw the Hoosiers go 5-4 in Big Ten play with wins over Nebraska and Purdue.
Three of the Hoosiers’ four losses came against teams in the top 25 as they dropped games to Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State as well as dropping a shootout at Michigan State.
Indiana’s offense led the way for the Hoosiers successful season as they were sixth in the Big Ten averaging 32.6 points per game.
“Well, when you look at them to start with offensively, they very well-coached,” head coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “They are balanced. They create a lot of mismatches. They have got play-makers on the outside. They find ways to get the tight ends the ball. They are committed to running the football. They have kind of won some games a lot of different ways, but they have a very good imagination when it comes to their offensive philosophy.”
Indiana stays relatively balanced on offense, but the strength is clearly in the passing game where the Hoosiers were second in the Big Ten with 308 passing yards a game.
Indiana has done it with two different quarterbacks as the season’s starter Michael Penix, a former Tennessee commit, suffered a broken collarbone earlier this season. Penix was replaced by Peyton Ramsey who has thrown for 2,227 yards, 13 touchdowns and four interceptions on the season.
The Hoosier’s passing attack will give Tennessee’s pass rush an opportunity to make a difference and for senior Darrell Taylor to end his Tennessee career with a boom.
“I think we get really excited, just to get an opportunity to rush the passer,” Taylor said. “We can't do that until we stop the run. So once we do that, we get to rush the passer all day. I think that's going to definitely give us an opportunity to create some negative plays.”
Indiana’s defense puts up solid defensive numbers as they rank ninth in the Big Ten giving up 24.5 points per game, but the numbers are slightly skewed as Indiana gave up just three points Northwestern and Connecticut while shutting out Rutgers and Eastern Illinois.
When you take out the matchups with Rutgers and Northwestern, the Hoosiers are giving up 37 points per game in Big Ten play.
“They play hard,” Pruitt said. “They keep the ball in front of them. They keep the ball contained. They make you block them. They don't give up a lot of explosive plays and they find ways to create turnovers.”
Indiana’s defense ranks in the middle of the league in both run and pass defense. Tennessee will look to continue its strong second half of the season passing attack, but they’ll have to do it without star receiver Jauan Jennings for the first half as the senior serves a suspension.
Jennings, along with seniors Marquez Callaway, Nigel Warrior, Darrell Taylor and Daniel Bituli will serve as Tennessee’s captains after being voted on by the team.
“For these five gentlemen that are up here, I can't say enough about them, about their leadership,” Pruitt said. “When you find out a lot about yourself and the people around you when you face adversity, and I think the way our football team has responded from the point in the season when we were 1-4 to be 7-5 now, winning our last five games, six out of our system last seven, you know, can be attributed to the men that are up here, their character, their leadership, and how they helped hold the team together.”
Those five, who deserve a great deal of success for Tennessee’s in-season turnaround, will look to end their Tennessee career on a positive end by giving the Vols a bowl win and ending their careers on a six-game winning streak.
“I appreciate the relationships that I have been able to create with these guys up on the stage here right now,” Bituli said. “I just want to send us off with the win, and the way we've prepared these past couple weeks, these past couple months, has really been good. I'm really excited to be able to attack this game with these group of guys.”
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on ESPN.