Football vs. Georgia

Tennessee Quarterback Hendon Hooker lines up before snapping during the Tennessee vs. Georgia football game on Nov. 13, 2021 in Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, TN.  

Tennessee offensive coordinator Alex Golesh summed up the Vols’ season in just a few words Wednesday morning.

“They weren’t supposed to be here.”

Expectations for Tennessee football preseason certainly did not see the Vols in a bowl game against a respectable Big 10 program in late December.

“You talk about adversity, they've fought through it, both on the field and in the off-season,” Golesh said. “There's a lot of people and a lot of noise around Knoxville that maybe told them you shouldn't be here, and those guys that stayed, man, I give them a lot of credit because it has not been easy.”

It’s hard to think of a program that has seen as much success as Tennessee has in the past be labelled as underdogs heading into the 2021 season from an outside perspective, and perhaps even harder to picture, a venue such as the Music City Bowl as a token of perseverance in a 7-5 season.

Don’t tell that to Vols players, though. One Vol who stuck around after an offseason of turnover is senior defensive lineman Matthew Butler, who will suit up in the Orange and White for the last time Thursday night.

“This is my last game, but I was just thankful to be a part and I am thankful to be a part of this really wonderful program and then pave the way for this program to go places that are above and beyond anything that we can think,” Butler said. “You think championship, but how do you win that championship and the culture around the program and all these great things.”

“I'm just thankful to be a part of setting that standard so there's no negative thoughts like, 'oh gosh, this is my last game.' Just go out there and ball.”

Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker will not play his last game as a Vol Thursday night but echoes the sentiment of Butler. The standout man under center has been the definition of calm and collected this season, posting the highest quarterback rating in the SEC at 182.16.

Hooker has proven to be the SEC’s most reliable quarterback under pressure as well, throwing for 26 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. Hooker’s 5 rushing touchdowns are most in the SEC behind Ole Miss’ Matt Corral and Kentucky’s Will Levis.

“In a sense, I just feel like when I come out and I am relaxed, I just take care of business,” Hooker said. “I take care of my simple reads. It helps the offense move smoothly and move the ball a little bit better and operate a little bit better so it slows down my thinking.”

Keeping calm in the big moment is crucial for Tennessee because the Boilermakers have shown their ability to kick into another gear on the big stage. The Boilermakers scored wins over Michigan State and Iowa behind a ferocious passing attack spearheaded by quarterback Aidan O’Connell.

O’Connell will have his work cut out for him, though. Purdue’s second ranked passing attack among Big 10 schools will be without the services of David Bell and Milton Wright, their No. 1 and 2 options.

The loss of Bell is particularly brutal for the Boilermakers offense. Bell is a projected late first, early second round prospect and leads the Big 10 with 1, 268 receiving yards.

“We’re down quite a few (receivers), but that’s the nature of football,” Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm said. “Whether it’s your last bowl game or your first game of the next year, new guys are going to have to emerge, and this will be a great environment to see how some of these guys respond.”

A next man up attitude is commonplace among teams that win football games. The Boilermakers have seen worse odds this season.

“You always want to finish what you started, and I know our guys have worked real hard to get to this point,” Brohm said.

Tennessee coach Josh Heupel made it known Tennessee will share that mentality.

“I think if you're a great competitor, and those are traits that we try to build and recruit, too, and have inside of our building every single day in what you do, it does matter,” Heupel said Wednesday. “It matters how you perform. It matters to you individually and collectively as a team. So certainly, this is a game that our players have pushed towards, and it matters a great deal inside of our program.”

Sophomore running back Jabari Small took his reasoning a step further.

"I think it's a big deal, just so people can get a glimpse of what we can be next year and starting off on the right foot for 2022,” Small said. “It's just important, finishing off strong, just finishing what we started." 

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