Are you as hyped as I am for this game?
Jeremy Pruitt and the Vols ended two years of residency in football hell with a 7-5 record and a trip to the Taxslayer Gator Bowl. While a 7-5 record isn’t ideal when it comes to Tennessee standards, it’s a hell of an accomplishment considering how the season started.
The Indiana Hoosiers are interesting opponent. They can move the ball through the air, but also have a really good running back in Stevie Scott (he missed the last game of the year, but should be OK for the bowl game). Their defense has the potential to play well at times, but can be taken advantage of on the ground.
So which matchups will be the ones you should keep an eye on?
Well, it just so happens that I’ve got what ya need.
1. What to do with Whop?
Even though he plays for the enemy, Whop Philyor should be pretty fun to watch.
Indiana’s best offensive playmaker will likely be the focal point of the Tennessee defense on Thursday, and with good reason. He leads the team in receptions (69), yards (1,001), and touchdowns (5). The yards are good for fifth-best in the Big Ten and would be good enough for fourth-best in the SEC, ahead of players like Jerry Jeudy and our own Jauan Jennings.
But it’s not just about the stats. Indiana uses this kid in a variety of ways. Just watch the following examples below and you’ll see what I’m talking about. He’s no. 22:
You can see how he’s used in the flat, out of the backfield, and the intermediate post route in those three examples.
“But, Evan. He doesn’t look like he’ll be too much trouble for Tennessee. They should be able to keep him in front of the defense like Michigan State did in those examples.”
Don’t let those examples lull you to sleep. Philyor can sneak by the defense at any point, and if he does, he’s going to make you pay. And yes, he’s wearing the #1 jersey against Rutgers/Purdue and the #22 jersey against Michigan State:
See what I mean?
It’s going to be interesting to see how the Vols defend this guy. Indiana loves to throw the ball, evidenced by the fact that the Hoosiers have the 14th-most passing yards and 35th-most passing attempts in the country, so you know he’s going to get his opportunities.
Will Jeremy Pruitt have Bryce Thompson shadow him or will he play Tennessee’s usual corner rotation? Will he drop more zone coverage or will he man his guys up?
Regardless of how Pruitt decides to defend Whop, it will ultimately be on the players to make sure that he doesn’t make plays.
2. Jarrett Guarantano and the big stage
I mean, let’s face it. Guarantano has never started at quarterback in a big game while playing for the Vols.
Sure, he’s played against big-time opponents like Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, but those were just games on the schedule. There wasn’t any playoff-seeding or a SEC Championship berth on the line. They were just games that had to be played.
But, obviously, this one is different. This is the first time we will see him play outside of the confines of the regular season and even though it’s not the top level of all of the bowl games, there is a chance to win some hardware and to keep the momentum from 2019 moving forward.
Will Guarantano take advantage of this moment and play well or will he struggle like we saw at times throughout 2019? What will it mean for either scenario? Would he be more apt to come back to Tennessee in 2020 with a good performance? Would he want to go ahead and jet if he flounders?
It will be very interesting to see how he plays on Thursday. Even though it’s just the Gator Bowl, it’s important that Guarantano end his tumultuous season on a high note.
3. Tennessee’s ground game vs. Indiana’s run defense
Jim Chaney has to be salivating at the opportunity at hand when you talk about Indiana’s run defense.
Let’s just put it this way: it’s not very good.
The Hoosiers are 45th in the country, allowing just 139 yards per game on the ground and are 42nd in the country, allowing just 3.93 yards per carry, but don’t let the numbers fool you. Those stats are beefed up thanks to good performances against inferior opponents such as Ball State, Eastern Illinois, UConn, Northwestern, and Rutgers. Those four teams averaged around 73 yards per game, with Ball State the only team to top 100 yards.
But those teams’ combined record is a whopping 13-47. When Indiana faced the tougher opponents on the schedule - your Ohio States, Michigan States, Nebraska, Penn State, and even Purdue and Maryland - it was a completely different story.
Those six teams averaged around 203 yards per game and around five yards per carry. Indiana did have success defending the run against Michigan, but that appears to be the anomaly based on the overall body of work.
We know how much Tennessee wants to establish the run. This is a prime opportunity against a team that can be taken advantage of in the trenches.
A side note in all of this that will be interesting to watch is how the offensive line performs. Everyone should be back and healthy. With the extra time to prepare, this unit should be ready to go and should be effective come Thursday.