The location wasn’t going to matter to the players and coaches on the University of Tennessee football team. Just being eligible to compete in a bowl game and getting extra practices was worthy of celebration.
The Vols will be heading to a warmer climate to take the field for the final time this season after being selected to play Indiana in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl in Jacksonville on Jan. 2 at 7 p.m. ET (ESPN).
Tennessee will be making its first bowl game appearance since 2016, and its first under second-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt.
The Vols rebounded from a 1-4 start to the season to finish 7-5 overall and 5-3 in the SEC to earn a bowl berth. Tennessee enters the Gator Bowl on a five-game winning streak, and having won six of its final seven games.
“We had a disappointing start early in the year, and I feel like our seniors and our coaching staff did a fantastic job keeping this group together,” Pruitt says. “We have a very young and inexperienced team and they stayed together and showed a lot of resiliency and fight and hung in there and we found a way to win ballgames down the stretch.
“I’m really proud of the opportunity this team has presented itself with and giving these seniors the opportunity to play one more time.”
The programs have only met once before, with Tennessee beating Indiana 27-22 in the 1988 Peach Bowl.
The Gator Bowl marks the 53rd bowl appearance all-time for the Vols, which ranks tied for fifth in the nation. Tennessee has a 28-24 record in bowl games.
The Vols are participating in the Gator Bowl for the seventh time, tying with the Sugar Bowl for the most appearances in a bowl for Tennessee.
Indiana is making its 12th bowl appearance in program history, and third in the last five seasons.
The Hoosiers finished 8-4 overall and 5-4 in the Big Ten, with three of those losses coming against ranked Big Ten teams Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. Indiana reached eight wins for just the eighth time in program history, and first since 1993.
The Hoosiers are led by quarterback Peyton Ramsey, who threw for 2,227 yards and 13 touchdowns. Indiana averaged 32.6 points per game and had the nation’s 13th-ranked passing offense (308.7 yards per game).
The Hoosiers will be facing a Tennessee pass defense that ranks No. 16 in the nation (191.3 passing yards allowed per game). The Vols were even stingier during the month of November, allowing only 137.3 passing yards per game.
“Their D-line, I think is very aggressive and physical and athletic, and they got some good size at ‘backer and they run well,” Indiana head coach Tom Allen says. “It’s a typical SEC team. Very impressive physically, a lot of athleticism.”
Tennessee landed five players on the All-SEC postseason team, the most for the Vols since they also had five in 2012.
Junior offensive lineman Trey Smith was a first-team selection, while senior safety Nigel Warrior, senior linebacker Daniel Bituli, senior wide receiver/kick return Marquez Callaway and junior kicker Brent Cimagila were second-team selections.
At the team banquet, senior wide receiver Jauan Jennings was honored as Team MVP, Callaway was named Offensive Player of the Year and Bituli was named Defensive Player of the Year.
Jennings won’t be on the field for the first half of the Gator Bowl after being suspended by the SEC for his actions in the season finale against Vanderbilt.
Jennings hit Vanderbilt punt returner Justice Shelton-Mosley as he was heading out of bounds with just over three minutes remaining in the Tennessee victory. Video showed Jennings’ cleat hitting Shelton-Mosley’s head as Jenning was getting up after the play.
No penalty was called on the play, but SEC officials say a video review by the league office showed Jennings had committed a flagrant personal foul.
In anticipation of Tennessee’s return to a bowl game, some fans tried to get ahead of the rush and purchase tickets before the official announcement.
They saw rumors projecting Tennessee may return to the Music City Bowl in Nashville and placed their orders. Once the final bowl destinations were released, they were stuck with tickets to a bowl game featuring Mississippi State and Louisville.
The resale market hasn’t been vibrant, leaving Vols fans with money wasted.
Tennessee athletic director Philip Fulmer was asked about the confusion regarding Tennessee’s bowl destination in the final hours before the announcement.
“Nashville would have been a fantastic destination, they’ve done a great job with their bowl and again, it’s another great venue and a great place. Obviously, it’s in state as well,” he points out. “The conference commissioner in the end makes the decision and asks for our preferences, and we’ve been back and forth a couple of times as to what was best, and I think at the end we landed in the right place for this football team at this particular time.”
Fulmer is joining a distinctive club as one of the only people to play, coach and be an administrator for a major bowl game. Fulmer played on the 1969 SEC Championships team that lost to Florida in the Gator Bowl. As a head coach, he led the Vols to a win over Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl in 1994.
“I remember my first experience as a sophomore in high school. I was watching the Syracuse-Tennessee game,” Fulmer says of the 1966 Gator Bowl. “Since I was a kid this bowl game has meant a lot to me and we’re glad to bring our team here. Obviously a very passionate fanbase will be here to support Coach Pruitt and his Volunteers.
“As we look toward the future, this is one of the next opportunities to show our wares and our team is taking that approach.”
Despite some early ticket-purchasing regrets, Pruitt still expects to see a stadium filled with orange at the Gator Bowl.
He is glad to have the extra December practices to grow for the future while sending the seniors out on a high note. Pruitt wants bowl eligibility to become the minimum expectation again, with even more prestigious invitations to come.
“Jacksonville is a fantastic city and I know our fans will travel and support us,” Pruitt adds. “We’ve had a great second-half of the season, winning five straight, but we are not done yet.”