This is of no concern to you, but I was in New Orleans recently and tried alligator for the first time. It really does taste like chicken, so that overused expression was actually true in this case. It has no bearing whatsoever on the Gator Bowl between Tennessee and Indiana, but I can confirm that fried alligator is good and you should try it if you get the chance.
The Gator Bowl is in Jacksonville on January 2 and will showcase the 1.5-point favorite Volunteers against the Indiana Hoosiers. Indiana offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer was hired to be the head coach at Fresno State, where he was the offensive coordinator the previous season, but he will be coaching the bowl game for Indiana, so don’t let that be a negative in your handicap.
The fact that DeBoer is staying also had a positive impact for bettors on the total, which has shot up from 48.5 to as high as 52 in the market.
Tennessee got hot at the end of the season with five straight wins and actually won six of the last seven to get comfortably into a bowl. The Volunteers lost to Georgia State and BYU to open the season. After that, the only teams they lost to were Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. That seems to be a reasonable set of defeats. The five straight dubs to finish the season were South Carolina, UAB, Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt. That isn’t exactly a murderer’s row of teams and only two of the five are bowling, but slowing down the freight train that is the Kentucky running game was very impressive.
Indiana’s four losses are all reasonable. The Hoosiers got clubbed by Ohio State and then lost to Michigan State, Penn State, and Michigan. Winning the games that you are supposed to can go a long way.
Which is what makes this handicap so intriguing. Indiana beat everybody that they should have and made a bowl at 8-4. Tennessee did not and made a bowl at 7-5. Tennessee played the 49th-ranked schedule per Sagarin. Indiana played the 63rd-ranked schedule. We don’t have a big discrepancy here, despite the annual bloviating about the SEC. Playing in the Big Ten East is no fun these days.
After some uncertainty early in the season, Tennessee settled on Jarrett Guarantano at QB. He wasn’t great, but he wasn’t awful with 1,937 pass yards, a 59.3% completion rate, a 16/6 ratio, and only 14 sacks taken. He was certainly better than Brian Maurer, who filled in when Guarantano was hurt and also got a start of his own. The truth is that Jauan Jennings bailed out this offense multiple times. The Volunteers ran a little bit of wildcat with Jennings and he was the team’s leading receiver by a large margin with 942 yards on 57 catches. No other player had more than 29 grabs.
Unfortunately, Jennings is suspended for the first half of this one. In the interest of next season, Tennessee seems to be focused on getting freshman Ramel Keyton a lot of reps in the bowl prep, so the Vols could be running the youngster out there with Marquez Callaway in the first half of this one. Jennings could certainly come back with a vengeance in the second half, but who knows where the game will be at that point.
Indiana’s two-headed QB monster was one of the more interesting stories in the Big Ten this season. Peyton Ramsey got the lion’s share of the work with 106 more pass attempts, but he had a 13/4 ratio to a 10/4 ratio for backup Michael Penix Jr. Penix is a more dynamic runner, but Ramsey is a better passer. Unfortunately, Penix suffered a season-ending injury in November, but this will be fun to watch next year, even with DeBoer gone.
Stevie Scott efficiently ran for 845 yards with 10 scores. Whop Philyor had 1,001 yards in the regular season. Indiana has some nice skill position guys and DeBoer’s influence has allowed head coach Tom Allen to stick with his specialty on the defensive side of the ball.
As exciting as some individual numbers are for Indiana, the team still finished 50th in yards per play. But, everything has to be judged on a relative scale. Indiana was 86th in YPP last season at 5.48. The Hoosiers improved by 0.6 YPP on offense this season. That will be a challenge to replicate without DeBoer next year.
Tennessee, on the other hand, was 69th in YPP with 5.82. That, too, was an upgrade from last season when the Vols managed just 5.44 yards per play.
Tennessee’s defense was quite strong under longtime defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Pruitt bounced around to some elite programs as a DC and his influence is now showing through in Knoxville. The Vols were 26th in YPP allowed during the regular season at 5.04. The Hoosiers weren’t bad at 48th with 5.36, but Tennessee’s defense really came on strong late in the year.
This is a tough one for me in all honesty. My pure power ratings line is Indiana -1, but Tennessee still recruits at a pretty high level and has more talent. The fact that DeBoer wanted to see things through with the Hoosiers players is a credit to him and credit to Fresno State for allowing him to do that. That really does help, otherwise I would be all over this Tennessee defense in this spot.
I’m still going to lean to Indiana. The loss of Jennings for the first half really neuters what Tennessee can do on offense. Indiana has a multi-dimensional offense with a good running back in Scott and a top receiver in Philyor. Plus, I trust Ramsey over Guarantano. Tennessee’s defense is great, but DeBoer’s parting gifts for the Hoosiers program could go over really well in this one.
Pick: Indiana +1.5