It was a rollercoaster of a season for the Vols. 2019 started with a 38-31 loss to Georgia State, which is arguably the worst loss in program history, but will end with their first winning season and first bowl appearance since 2016.
The Hoosiers had a solid season, but went 0-4 against Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State, and Michigan. They lost the MSU and PSU games by a touchdown in each game, but were eviscerated by a combined score of 90-24 games against the Buckeyes and the Wolverines.
With the regular season in the rearview, it’s time to look at the Hoosiers and what they bring to the table.
As I briefly mentioned, it was a very good season for the Hoosiers. To put it into context, their last winning season was back in 2007, when they finished 7-6 under Bill Lynch. Indiana also missed the collegiate postseason in 2017 and 2018, so they’re going bowling for the first time since 2016, as well.
The Hoosiers are anchored by their offense, which averages 32.6 points per game. They like to air the ball out and the guy who makes it all go is wide receiver Whop Philyor. The 5-foot-11, 178-pound junior is a dynamic playmaker with the ball in his hands. He leads the team in touchdowns (5), yards (1,001), and receptions (69). There are also three other receivers on the team with 35+ catches, 500+ yards, and 3+ plus touchdowns, so it’s not like Philyor is the only guy who can make plays.
One of those guys is tight end Peyton Hendershot, who is second on the team in receptions, yards, and touchdowns. He is a key figure in the offense and has six games with 50+ receiving yards on the season.
But who is throwing the ball and making things happen through the air?
Michael Penix Jr. upended Peyton Ramsey as the starter during fall camp and was playing pretty well until a broken collarbone prematurely ended his season. Ramsey took over and has thrown four touchdowns to one interception over the last three games. He’s also added five touchdowns on the ground.
The craziest part about Indiana’s offense is even though they’re an aerial attack, they still know how to keep the ball away from their opponent. They are fifth in the nation in terms of time of possession and that’s with the 100th-ranked ground game that averages 3.71 yards per carry.
The offense can also score points in the red zone. The Hoosiers average an 84.8% scoring rate that includes a 64.6% touchdown rate. They have more rushing touchdowns inside the 20 than LSU, TCU, Iowa, Purdue, and Alabama.
The defense is a decent unit, but they’ve struggled against better opponents, especially in defending the run. Indiana’s opponents ran 149 times for 730 yards (4.9 ypc) and seven touchdowns in their four losses. Even teams they beat - like Nebraska and Purdue - averaged over 200 yards on the ground.
That’s obviously a bright spot for the Vols, who love to run the ball, but that doesn’t mean they can avoid game planning for players like Micah McFadden and Demarcus Elliot. McFadden is arguably the best player - and the best playmaker - on the defensive side of the ball and leads the team in total tackles (55), tackles for loss (8), and is tied for the team lead in interceptions (1).
Elliot is a monster at 6-foot-3, 328-pounds who anchors the defensive line. He’s not just about size, though. He can get to the quarterback, as well. Elliot is second on the team with three sacks and was also given an All-Big 10 honorable mention for his play.
The secondary allowed just 211 yards per game through air, but has really struggled over the last couple of games. Michigan and Purdue both lit up the back end for a combined 774 yards and eight touchdowns throught the air. Purdue’s third-string (and former walk-on) quarterback Aidan O’Connell threw for over 300 yards and three touchdowns in the overtime loss to the Hoosiers.
The special teams unit is a good one and the Hoosiers have one of the best kickers in the country in Logan Justus, who is a 2019 Second-team All-Big Ten selection and was a Lou Graza semifinalist in 2018.
What To Watch For
- Whop Philyor vs. Tennessee’s secondary: We don’t know how the Vols will try to contain Philyor, but it will likely be through zone coverage. Regardless of the defensive scheme, the secondary has to be ready for this guy.
- Indiana vs. good defenses: All four of Indiana’s losses came against teams with a top 25 defense. Their only win over a team with a good defense was Northwestern, who is 26th in the FBS. Tennessee is currently 29th. Will the Vols continue the trend?
- Offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer: Fresno State lured DeBoer away from Indiana with the promise of a head-coaching gig, so the guys on offense should be amped up to play the last game with their coach.
- Jeremy Pruitt vs. Tom Allen: Both coaches seem to have their programs on the right track. It will be interesting to see how they’ve prepared their teams and how well their teams execute the game plan.
- Jarrett Guarantano and Peyton Ramsey: How these guys play will likely determine the outcome of the game for their teams.
- Tennessee’s run game vs Indiana’s run defense: Indiana can really give up yards on the ground, especially to teams that can run the ball. We all know how much Tennessee loves to run the ball, so it isn’t that hard to put two and two together on this one.
- QB Peyton Ramsey: His season has been similar to that of Jarrett Guarantano’s. First, he loses his starting job. Then, the guy who takes his job is hurt, so he gets his job back and proceeds to play well. Tennessee will do everything it can to make sure he doesn’t play well in Jacksonville.
- RB Stevie Scott: Even though Indiana’s ground game is effective as a whole, Scott is still a very effective back. He leads the team in yards from scrimmage (1,056) and touchdowns (11), while averaging 4.7 yards per carry. He can also catch the ball, evidenced by his 26 receptions on the year. He was injured during the Michigan game and had to sit out the Purdue game because of the injury, but should be able to play against the Vols.
- WR Whop Philyor: This cat is a baller and is having a breakout year. He didn’t even play a full year and has 1,000 receiving yards on the season. He’s a dynamic player with the ball in his hands and has the speed to take it the distance.
- DL Demarcus Elliot: He’s going to be a load to handle for whomever is lined up opposite of him. Elliot is strong and physical at the point of attack and will wear out offensive linemen as the game goes on.
- LB Micah McFadden: I’m sure you’ll hear McFadden’s name called plenty of times during this game. He knows how to find the ball through all of the chaos and isn’t afraid to take on any assignment.
- CB Taiwan Mullen: The true freshman has developed into arguably the team’s best cornerback. His 12 pass deflections on the season has him tied 15th nationally.
I’ll be completely honest: I haven’t watched one iota of Indiana football this year.
I have watched a lot of Tennessee football, though. I also looked up a lot of numbers/information on both teams while researching this article, so, at least I have that perspective.
But I still have no clue how this game is going to turn out.
Both teams are young and the majority of the rosters have zero bowl experience. Jeremy Pruitt has never been a head coach in a bowl game and Tom Allen has just one bowl game as head coach under his belt. When you throw in two inconsistent quarterbacks, it becomes clear as to why this one is a head-scratcher to predict.
This should be a fun game to watch. Each team’s strength is the opposite of the other, which usually makes for good football.
If the Vols can come out and run the football and play their style of defense, then they should win the game. Guarantano holds the key, here, though. If he is ineffective and doesn’t play well, then it will likely spell disaster for the Vols.
The same goes for the Hoosiers. If they can come out and play their style of offense while limiting Guarantano, then they should avenge the 1988 loss.
I’m gonna let my homerism take the wheel and say Tennessee takes this one in a 35-30 burner that will get the New Year started off right.