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2021 Music City Bowl Preview: Tennessee vs. Purdue

The Vols get a virtual home game against Purdue.

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

It’s bowl game time! Purdue is fresh off of its first 8-win regular season since 2006 (when the toughest team it beat was a 6-7 Minnesota team). It was a year where Purdue exceeded expectations, and it is headed back to the Music City Bowl in significantly better shape than it did in 2018. Back then the Boilers were beaten up and, despite the win over Ohio State, didn’t have a great year in going 6-6 with a number of close calls. That team was absolutely annihilated by Auburn in one of the worst bowl game losses you will ever see anywhere.

Once again, we’ll be facing an SEC team. Purdue has a 13-9 all-time record against the current make-up of the SEC, but that includes 1-0 against Texas A&M long before they joined the league and 7-3 against Missouri, of which only two (a home and home split) occurred since they joined the conference. That brings Purdue down to 6-7 against the league, and it is 1-3 all-time in bowl games against them.

That one victory? 27-22 on December 31, 1979 against the Tennessee Volunteers in the Bluebonnet Bowl in the old Astrodome down in Houston.

The truth is, we just don’t play the SEC that much. The 2019 home win over Vanderbilt and the 2017 and 2018 games against Missouri were our first regular season games against the conference since 1942. In addition to the Tennessee win, Purdue lost two bowls to Georgia, both in overtime, in 2000 and 2003, as well as the 2018 bloodletting. This game is a good measuring stick though. There is very little question SEC teams are talented. Historically the Vols have won 2/3rds of their games and they are regularly in a bowl game with this being their 54th such game compared to this being Purdue’s 20th.

Oh, and both teams have shown they can score some points, so this could be fun.

2020 Record: 3-7

2021 Record: 7-5, 4-4

Bowl Result: None

Blog Representation: Rocky Top Talk

Series with Purdue: Purdue leads 1-0

Last Purdue win: 27-22 in Bluebonnet Bowl (Houston, TX) on 12/31/1979

Last Tennessee win: None

Head Coach: Josh Heupel (7-5 in first season at Tennessee, 35-13 overall)

Their Season So Far

Tennessee may be 7-5, but their losses are not bad. They lost a non-conference game at eventual ACC Champion Pittsburgh 41-34, but that was long before Pittsburgh caught fire and rolled through the ACC. They were 2-2 after a 38-14 loss at Florida, but they always lose to Florida just like we always lose to Wisconsin. Their other three losses were to Ole Miss (31-26), Alabama (52-24) and Georgia (41-17). There is no shame in any of those, as Ole Miss is in one of the big money bowl games and the other two are probably the best two teams in the country. Their worst loss is to a 6-6 Florida, while Purdue’s is to an 8-4 Wisconsin.

Their best win was 45-42 at then #18 Kentucky in a game where they broke math. They somehow won a game despite having the football for only 13:52 of actual game time. A couple of TDs of 70+ yards and a long pick-six will do that, but it was one of the bigger statistical oddities in all of college football this season. The other six wins are over a bunch of middling teams, but they left little doubt in such games by putting up a bunch of points. In six of their seven wins they scored at least 45 points, and the exception was 38-6 over Bowling Green.

This is a very good offense that will test Purdue. Only Ohio State has been better. They are 16th nationally in total offense and 8th in scoring offense. That is while having great balance at 247 yards passing and 212 rushing. Purdue’s pass defense has been good, but I fear that comes from facing some very poor passing offenses, as Iowa, Northwestern, Indiana, Minnesota, UConn, Wisconsin, and Illinois all rate 110th or worse in passing. This is more like facing a lesser version of Ohio State, which did not go well.

Who to Watch on Offense

Hendon Hooker – QB – The senior QB has been very, very good this year. He has 2,567 yards passing with a 69% completion percentage. He also does not turn the ball over with 26 touchdowns against only three interceptions. The teams that picked him off were Pitt, Alabama, and Georgia, so it takes a very good team to pick him off. He is also adept at running the ball with 561 yards and 5 TDs. This has been his only year at Tennessee after playing three seasons for Virginia Tech, but it has gone very well.

Cedric Tillman – WR – Along with Velus Jones Jr., Tennessee has a great 1-2 punch at receiver much like our own David Bell and Milton Wright. The duo have combined to catch 109 passes for more than 1,600 yards and 15 touchdowns. They are going to test a secondary that did very well against awful passing teams, but was absolutely scorched by Ohio State. Tennessee is not on the same level as the Buckeyes, but they are still one of the best offenses in the country. Both receivers were all-SEC caliber.

Jabari Small – RB – Small gives the Volunteers balance that Purdue has lacked in the running game. He has a modest 612 yards and 8 TDs, but with Hooker’s ability to also run they have a significantly better ground game than Purdue. Tiyon Evans also has 525 yards and 6 TDs, giving them more depth. Compared to Purdue’s rushing attack, this is a gigantic strength.

Who to Watch on Defense

Purdue is about as one-dimensional as they come. Yes, we had our best rushing day of the season against Indiana, but that’s Indiana. We barely got over 1,000 yards as a team. Zander Horvath should be as healthy as he has been all year, but we have seen that the ground game is not something to rely on. Purdue is going to throw early and often, but with the way Aidan O’Connell has played the last five games, who can blame us. Any chance at winning relies on him staying hot.

The good news is this: Tennessee has a bad pass defense. They are 103rd nationally, but have 10 interceptions on the year. In terms of pass defenses we have faced only UConn and Michigan State are worse, with Michigan State’s being the worst in the entire country. The run defense isn’t much better at 69th nationally, but we don’t run anyway.

Jeremy Banks – LB – The junior linebacker is a tackling machine with 108 on the season, plus an interception. He did some of his best work against the best teams on the schedule with 15 tackles each against Georgia and Mississippi, plus 12 against Alabama. He can also get into the backfield with 4.5 sacks. With Aaron Beasley and Byron Young (5.5 sacks) they have some very good linebackers that can cause problems.

Trevon Flowers – DB – Flowers is the type of player you want in a safety. He has 79 tackles with both a sack and interception, so he can play all over the field. He’s also another senior with a lot of experience. He had a huge game against Florida with 15 tackles.

Jaylen McCollough – DB – McCollough has been a playmaker with a team-high three interceptions, a sack, and a forced fumble. He also has 45 tackles and is in his third year as a starter with Flowers. Tennessee may struggle against the pass, but they have some athletes that can make a play when necessary.

Who to Watch on Special Teams

Velus Jones Jr. – KR, PR – If you’re looking for another area in which the Volunteers have an advantage it is the return game. Jones has returned a kickoff for a score and averages 16 yards per punt return. That’s a lot more dynamic than anything we have.

Paxton Brooks – P – Brooks is an all-SEC level punter at nearly 45 yards per game. Purdue has tried three guys and can’t average more than 38 yards per kick.

Chase McGrath – K – McGrath has been decent, going 11 of 14 with a long of 48. He formerly had the job at USC before transferring to Tennessee.

Game Outlook

Can Purdue’s defense continue to play well against teams not named Ohio State? Purdue held four teams under 10 points this season. Yes, it was just UConn, Illinois, Iowa, and Indiana, but you have to go back to 2007 for the last time Purdue did that to even two opponents (and one was FCS Eastern Illinois that year). In 1998 we did it three times (Central Florida, Illinois, Indiana), but four times? You have to go back to 1978 when Purdue had three shutouts and held Wake Forest, Iowa, and Indiana to seven points each.

Purdue’s defense is not Georgia, but it is significantly improved over the past two seasons and can at least make some big plays. It will have to against a powerful and explosive offense. To have a shot at winning Purdue probably need to hold the Volunteers to 30 or less. That gets them into range for an offense that has played extremely well the last five weeks. Gone are the days where Purdue scored exactly 13 points in four of five games. In the final five games of the year Purdue scored 28, 30, 31, 32, and 44. We’ll have to continue to play smart on that side of the ball.

The other large questions involves Purdue’s two stars. Will George Karlaftis and David Bell play? Both are headed to the NFL as high round draft picks. It is completely understandable they would not play, and given the large amount of money they are about to make, I wouldn’t blame them if they sat. You don’t lose two guys projected in the top 50 of the draft and get better though. I would argue Purdue needs Karlaftis more than Bell.

He is the person the entire defense revolves around simply because of the attention he demands. If he is not there drawing double teams, causing pressures, and generally being the No. 1 focus of the offensive line, the Purdue defense is a lot worse. The offense can still move without Bell (though it moves a lot better with him). I fear the defense without big George.

I think Tennessee should be favored here. They have the more balanced offense and they can make some big plays, but if we have our two big guns that can equalize things a bit. If both Karlaftis and Bell play this should be a fun game.