Purdue vs. Tennessee: 5 things to know about the Boilermakers' Music City Bowl opponent
Purdue is hoping it can erase memories of its last trip to Nashville, back in 2018 when the Boilermakers were walloped by Auburn — the final of 63-14 is one that Boilermakers fans like to ignore, rather than acknowledge — when it plays in the Music City Bowl to end this season.
The Boilermakers, who won 4 of their last 5 games to finish the year 8-4, will take on Tennessee in the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30. The Volunteers are 7-5 this season, having won 3 of their last 4, including probably the biggest victory of the season over then-No. 18 Kentucky 45-42 on Nov. 6.
Purdue and Tennessee have played only once previously, as they met in the 1979 Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston, which the Boilermakers won 27-22 to cap their only 10-win season in program history. A win this season would give Purdue its first 9-win season since 2003.
Here are 5 things to know about the Volunteers:
Offense leads the way
Led by first-year head coach and former All-America quarterback Josh Heupel, Tennessee’s offense has seen a revival in 2021.
The Volunteers are averaging 38.8 points per game, the 3rd-best mark in the SEC, while averaging 459 yards per game, which ranks 4th. And they’ve been balance, averaging 247 through the air (7th) and 212 on the ground (3rd). It’s not shocking that the UT offense has been markedly improved under Heupel, the former coach at UCF who had the Golden Knights ranked in the top 10 in scoring average the last 3 seasons.
The Vols put up at least 45 points in 3 of their last 4 games, including a 60-point performance against South Alabama.
Quite the turnaround
Heupel should be given a ton of credit for helping turn the Tennessee program around.
A relatively late hire — Tennessee made the deal official on Jan. 27, 9 days after it fired Jeremy Pruitt for cause amid allegations for recruiting violations — Heupel had to restock a roster besieged by departures. As many as a third of the roster was depleted through the offseason, leaving Heupel to scurry to fill his roster through high school recruiting and the transfer portal.
Two of the biggest transfers came at the QB position, where both Joe Milton (from Michigan) and Hendon Hooker (Virginia Tech) joined the Volunteers looking for new football life. Milton won the starting job out of training camp, but was replaced by Hooker during the Pitt game, when he nearly led Tennessee to a comeback victory.
Since then, the 5th-year senior has been outstanding, as the Davey O’Brien Award semifinalist has thrown for nearly 2,600 yards on a 69 percent completion rate with 26 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions. A dual-threat 6-foot-4, 220-pound quarterback, Hooker has also rushed for 561 and 5 more scores.
Hooker’s performance has helped the Vols exceed expectations, although perhaps only marginally. Vegas Insiders set Tennessee’s win total at 6, after it had only finished 3-7 in Pruitt’s final season in Knoxville.
Inside the schedule
Purdue’s 8-win résumé includes a couple of top-5 victories — over Iowa and Michigan State.
Although the Volunteers deserve a ton of credit for their turnaround — the bowl trip is only the program’s 2nd to the postseason in the past 6 seasons — they’ve got only the marquee victory over Kentucky. Tennessee’s other 6 wins came against Bowling Green, Tennessee Tech, Missouri, South Carolina, South Alabama and Vanderbilt.
The Vols had a chance to score another upset midseason, but their comeback bid against then-No. 13 Ole Miss fell short in the 4th quarter.
Questionable on D
The game in Nashville might be high-scoring.
The Volunteers’ defense gives up 27.5 points per game, the third-worst n the 14-team SEC, and 404.6 yards per game, the No. 11 mark in the league. Tennessee has given up more plays of 10 or more yards than anyone else in the SEC and can be beaten deep as well; it’s allowed 5 50-yard plays, one of the worst marks in the conference.
Tennessee has 13 takeaways this season, ranked in a tie for 10th in the SEC, including 10 interceptions.
Purdue’s red-hot passing offense against the UT passing defense will be one to watch: The Volunteers have the SEC’s 2nd-worse pass defense, allowing 251.4 per game.
The Volunteers can get after the quarterback on occasion, with 32 sacks; 4 players have at least 4 sacks, led by junior Byron Young.
Home field edge?
Expect the Volunteers to have an advantage in Nissan Stadium, home of the NFL’s Titans.
The University is only 180 miles, less than 3 hours of driving time, from Nashville. It’s about 360 miles from West Lafayette, Ind., to the Music City, or about a little more than a 5-hour drive.
The Volunteers played in the Music City Bowl in 2016, when they beat Big Ten representative Nebraska 38-24.