The RTI team makes their picks for the Vols’ bowl game match-up with the Indiana Hoosiers. Managing editor Nathanael Rutherford and staff writer Ben McKee share their predictions for the Vols’ first bowl game since 2016.
Indiana is in the midst of their best season since 1994. Tennessee is the hottest they’ve been in several years, and they’ve managed to go 7-5 after starting the year 1-4. Neither team has beaten any big name teams, but there are a few things separating the two programs this season.
The Hoosiers have a potent passing attack on paper, averaging over 300 passing yards a game and boasting a 1,000-yard receiver and three other 500-yard pass catchers. Both their offense and defense have been good on third downs, and IU was ranked in the AP Poll earlier this season for the first time in well over 20 years.
But when you look at who Indiana has beaten and who they’ve lost to, it makes you take a lot of their accomplishments with a large grain of salt.
Indiana has faced four teams this season that finished with a 6-6 or better regular season record, and they lost to all four. Yes, they played Penn State tough and gave Michigan State a run for their money, but they were crushed by Ohio State and Michigan. Every other team on Indiana’s 2019 regular season schedule finished the year 5-7 or worse. In many cases, much worse.
The combined record of the eight teams Indiana beat this season was 25-71. The combined record of the seven teams Tennessee beat this season was 42-46. The Hoosiers own zero wins against teams with .500 or better records while four of the Vols’ seven wins this season came against teams that had .500 or better records in the regular season (five if you count FCS opponent Chattanooga, who finished 6-6).
Indiana has faced five teams with defenses currently ranked inside the top 50 in the FBS in yards allowed per game. The Hoosiers went 1-4 against those five teams, with their only win coming against a Northwestern team that finished 3-9 on the year.
Tennessee’s defense ranks 28th nationally in yards allowed per game, giving up 337.1 yards a contest.
Granted, the Vols haven’t exactly faced a lot of offensive juggernauts over the last month-plus, but UT’s defense has played sound and quality football regardless of the opponent over the last two months. Indiana’s offense will be a good test and will put Jeremy Pruitt and Derrick Ansley’s skills to the test.
On the other side of the ball, though, I don’t know that Indiana’s defense matches up well with the Vols’ offense.
Tennessee hasn’t been a high-scoring offensive machine this season by any means, but they have SEC athletes at wide receiver, a solid offensive line, and a group of running backs more than capable of picking up yards. The Hoosiers are going to have their hands full.
I think Indiana is better than a lot of Vol fans are giving them credit for, and I initially scoffed at the Hoosiers’ chances of beating Tennessee when the bowl match-up was first announced. But even though I respect Indiana more now than I did three weeks ago, I still don’t see them winning this game.
Tennessee will finish the season on a six-game winning streak and will go from 1-4 to an 8-5 football team.
Pick: 27-17, Tennessee
MVP: Nigel Warrior, Tennessee safety
I don’t know why, but I just have a feeling Nigel Warrior has a great game in his last game as a Vol. I don’t know if he’ll pick off any passes or not, because Indiana doesn’t throw many interceptions and does a pretty good job of keeping the ball away from opponents. But I have a feeling he’ll be crucial in limiting the Hoosiers’ success through the air, and he’ll make his presence felt in the run game, too.
Indiana’s coaches and players have referred to Tennessee this week as being similar on film to Penn State, a team the Hoosiers nearly upset in a 34-27 loss earlier this season. Now, that doesn’t guarantee Indiana will keep it close, or even win, but it is an interesting comparison in the sense that the Hoosiers just might be a better team than most anticipate.
From a Tennessee standpoint, the Vols will win this game if they control Indiana’s passing attack and strike a healthy balance on offense.
Indiana’s offense set records this season under offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer, who recently accepted the head coaching position at Fresno State. DeBoer’s offense scored at least 30 points in nine games this season, tying a program record. Indiana also eclipsed 500 total yards of offense in four games. The Hoosiers did so thanks to their passing game that ranks 13th nationally at 308.7 yards per game.
Tennessee’s secondary is much improved and is led by safety Nigel Warrior’s breakout senior campaign. Along with Jaylen McCollough, who is no longer playing like a freshman, Bryce Thompson, Shawn Shamburger, and the revived Alontae Taylor, the Vols’ secondary should be able to hold their own.
Coy Crunk, Indiana’s senior captain and starting left tackle, won’t be playing due to injury. Darrell Taylor has the opportunity to be very disruptive off the edge and help take pressure off the secondary.
Offensively, it comes down to Tennessee getting off to a fast start. The Vols have been one of the worst teams in the county at first quarter scoring, while the Hoosiers are one of the best first quarter teams in the country. The Vols will miss Jauan Jennings in the first half, but Marquez Callaway and Josh Palmer are NFL receivers and have the ability to replace his production.
Tennessee has better athletes and better team speed at the end of the day. As long as the Vols don’t turn the football over and they play fundamental football, they’ll be finishing the season as an eight-win team.
Pick: 28-24, Tennessee
MVP: Darrell Taylor, Tennessee outside linebacker
Thursday night won’t be the first time Indiana has played without its senior captain Coy Crunk at left tackle. But it’ll still be a tough match-up for the Hoosiers going up against arguably the best football player on the field. I expect Darrell Taylor to finish off his Tennessee career with a bang.