For Tennessee Vols, the Big Ten is the bowl gift that keeps giving | Adams

·3 min read

Tennessee's recent football problems haven't extended to the postseason. If it can get there, it can succeed.

Never mind that the Vols just completed only their second winning regular season in five years. They're doing just fine in bowl games.

That's not the only reason they should be encouraged about the bowl game to come. They will be matched against another mid-level Big Ten team.

The five-word response from the UT football complex should be: How lucky can we get?

Tennessee players defend against a field goal attempt by Indiana in the fourth quarter during the Gator Bowl game between Tennessee and Indiana at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Fla. on Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020.
Tennessee players defend against a field goal attempt by Indiana in the fourth quarter during the Gator Bowl game between Tennessee and Indiana at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Fla. on Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020.

You could ask five different people what they look for in a bowl opponent and get five different answers. But for a Tennessee fan solely interested in winning another game, the answer should be simple: You want a Big Ten opponent.

So, the Music City Bowl matchup with Purdue should spark a celebration among the Tennessee faithful.

That's not to slight the Boilermakers (8-4). It's simply an acknowledgment of the recent bowl history for the Vols (7-5).

They have won four consecutive bowl games. All four victories have come at the expense of the Big Ten, and only one of the games was close.

Tennessee's last trip to the Music City Bowl is just one example of why this matchup seems beneficial to the Vols. They beat Nebraska 38-24, but don't let the score fool you. The outcome was apparent every time Nebraska's quarterback took a first-half snap.

Ryker Fyfe, a fifth-year senior and former walk-on, started for the Cornhuskers in place of injured Tommy Armstrong. Fyfe looked overwhelmed at the outset but finished strong with a couple of touchdown passes. By then, the game was decided, and then-UT coach Butch Jones was trying to figure out which players he would ask to carry him off the field.

I don't remember who they were, but he must have paid them.

The Vols began their four-game bowl winning streak at the expense of Iowa, 45-28. Even during game-week interviews, the Hawkeyes seemed disinterested in being at the Gator Bowl. Their indifference was reflected in the first half, which ended with the Vols leading 35-7.

UT's next bowl game was even more one-sided. Tennessee's speed advantage over Northwestern was evident on virtually every play as the Vols rolled to a 45-6 victory in the Outback Bowl.

In Tennessee's four bowl victories, only Indiana offered a challenge. The Vols scored 14 points in the last five minutes for a 23-22 victory in the 2020 Gator Bowl against the Hoosiers, who were playing without their best running back and quarterback.

A few things stand out about UT's next Big Ten opponent: most notably that Purdue finished the regular season strong. It won four of its last five games, including a much publicized victory over top-10 Michigan State.

Something else worth noting: The Boilermakers don't spend much time trying to establish a running game. They have averaged just 2.8 yards per carry, which helps explain why they rely heavily on the pass. Quarterback Aidan O'Connell has completed 73.5% of his passes.

The Vols shouldn't complain about that mode of attack. They pride themselves in running as many plays as they can. And they won't have to worry about Purdue working the clock with a ball-control running game.

It's another favorable bowl matchup for the Vols. But if it ends with a Tennessee victory over a Big Ten opponent, don't expect to see Heupel leaving the field on the shoulders of his players.

He's not that kind of coach.

John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or john.adams@knoxnews.com. Follow him at: twitter.com/johnadamskns.

This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: For Tennessee football, the Big Ten is the bowl gift that keeps giving

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