If Purdue can get a victory against Tennessee in Thursday’s Music City Bowl in Nashville, then the Boilermakers will have their first 9-win season since 2003.

Not a bad reward for a team that got off to a slow start — it was only 3-2 headed into its Week 6 bye — then rallied behind a solid defense and resurgent offense in the second half of the year. But it won’t be an easy task against the Volunteers.

That said, Purdue has a good chance to win its first bowl game since 2017. Let’s take a look at the reasons why the Boilermakers will beat the Vols:

Purdue has good, young depth

Aside from the punter, Purdue wasn’t forced to put any of its true freshmen on the field this season, at least enough for any of them to burn redshirts.

Yet that doesn’t mean the Boilermakers are without young talent. And that’s a good thing for Purdue, considering it might be without a number of veterans, particularly at impact positions, when it takes on Tennessee on Thursday. All-Americans David Bell and George Karlaftis are out, as each has declared for the NFL Draft and announced they won’t play in the bowl game. But there could be others absent as well, because of early departures, the transfer portal, academics or perhaps Covid.

In preparation for the game, Jeff Brohm has repeatedly alluded to the likelihood of seeing newcomers at wide receiver, leading to speculation that not only is Bell out, but so are others. Perhaps true freshmen Deion Burks and Preston Terrell, or redshirt Collin Sullivan, get rotated in.

Junior Jack Sullivan will start in Karlaftis’ spot at defensive end, but he’s unlikely to take all the snaps. Maybe another true freshman, 6-4, 265-pound Khordae Sydnor, gets an introduction.

Purdue didn’t have to play its youth during the 8-win regular season, but it almost certainly will Thursday.

O’Connell on target

Purdue has one of the hottest quarterback in the Big Ten, if not the country, in senior Aidan O’Connell. And not only has the QB been great — he has 16 touchdowns without a pick in Purdue’s last 5 games, when the Boilermakers went 4-1 — but he has the ability to elevate the level of play of those around him.

If Purdue is down skill players, then O’Connell will have a chance to make others into stars. Veteran Broc Thompson, for example, might get extra opportunities in place of Bell. Although Thompson has been banged up most of the year — and probably won’t get healthy until the offseason — he’s been productive too, with 23 catches for 240 yards and 2 touchdowns.

And the Tennessee pass D

Of course, Brohm wants O’Connell to sling the ball around the yard, and that’ll be the MO Thursday no matter who the receivers are.

It could help Purdue that Tennessee’s pass defense is questionable, to say the least. The Volunteers’ pass D is ranked 104th in the country (out of 130 teams), allowing 251.4 yards per game. UT does have 10 interceptions, which is ranked in a tie for 55th in the nation.

But the Boilermakers should be able to take advantage of a Tennessee defense that hasn’t shown a consistent ability to slow passing offenses. Purdue’s passing game is 8th in the country, average 340.2 yards per game, and the Boilermakers have 9 interceptions this season, although none in the last 5 games.

Eager for a redo

Purdue returns to the scene of the crime.

It was the end of the 2018 season, in the Boilermakers’ most recent bowl appearance, when they were boat-raced by Auburn in the Music City Bowl. It wasn’t only a loss; Purdue was dismantled by the Tigers, falling behind 21-0 in the first 8 minutes, then 56-7 at the half.

It was ugly.

Purdue fans like to pretend the game never happened, but it most certainly did. The Boilermakers were embarrassed by an SEC opponent, not measuring up physically, athletically or in any other way and getting run out of Nashville. They want another chance to show the program is in a better place right now, and a return to the Music City, against an SEC opponent, gives them the opportunity. One would think the Boilermakers, who still have holdovers from the game in late 2018, are plenty motivated.

Defense the difference?

Purdue and Tennessee have many similarities: They’ve got upperclassman quarterbacks who have turned in great seasons after starting the year as backups. Each has solid skill position teammates. Both programs are still building, with Purdue under 5th-year coach Brohm and Tennessee under 1st-year boss Josh Heupel.

But if there’s a difference, at least statistically, it’s that the Boilermakers’ defense has been better this season. Purdue ranks 19th in scoring D and 29th in yardage, allowing only 20.5 points and 340.8 yards per game, respectively. Meanwhile, Tennessee gives up 27.5 points per game (78th in the nation) and 404.6 yards (No. 86 overall).

If those trends hold, then the Boilermakers win based on their superior defense.