As we start a new decade of college football in 2020, the Taxslayer Gator Bowl provides an intriguing matchup between the SEC and the Big Ten. The Tennessee Volunteers (7-5) are set to take on the Indiana Hoosiers (8-4) in Jacksonville. This is the first time either team has reached a bowl game since 2016. There’s plenty of pride on the line in this matchup, so we will take a preview of the 2020 Taxslayer Gator Bowl.
2020 Gator Bowl preview: Tennessee vs Indiana
What: 2020 Taxslayer Gator Bowl
Who: Tennessee Volunteers vs Indiana Hoosiers
Where: TIAA Bank Field, Jacksonville, FL (ESPN)
When: Thursday, January 2nd, 2020, 7:00 PM EST
What to Expect from the Volunteers
Do not let Tennessee’s 7-5 record fool you. This team is playing much better at this point in the season that a .500 team. Tennessee’s season has been a tale of two halves: an embarrassing 1-4 start and an exciting 6-1 finish. The latter along with a top 10 recruiting class has the fan base buzzing. This is good news for the Gator bowl, as excited Vol fans tend to travel well.
Tennessee’s offense has been inconsistent, to say the least. This starts with inconsistent quarterback play for the Volunteers. Coming into the season, most expected redshirt junior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano to take the next step in his development and lead the team to new heights. However, he was benched during the aforementioned embarrassing start to the season. He was given the opportunity for redemption via an unfortunate injury to freshman Brian Maurer and has taken full advantage. During a cold night in Missouri, he became only the third Vol to throw for over 400 yards in a game. While he will be without his top receiver, Jauan Jennings, for the first half, he has the tools to lead his team to a stellar offensive performance.
Tennessee does have some size and talent in the trenches. They have four former five-star linemen in Trey Smith, Wanya Morris, and Darnell Wright. Behind this strong offensive line, the stable of running backs including Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan has been able to find plenty of running room. Also, look out for freshman running back Eric Gray. Gray is coming off a career game against Vanderbilt in which he rushed for 246 yards and three touchdowns. He may be the most explosive player in orange and white come gametime.
Tennessee’s defense has become the strength of this team. They have a nasty front seven led by senior linebacker Daniel Bituli and true freshman Henry To’oto’o. Teams have struggled to run the ball against the Vols, especially during their recent winning streak. The defensive backfield is nothing to scoff at either. Corner Bryce Thompson has played exceptionally well. Senior safety Nigel Warrior has finally developed into the ball-hawking safety many expected him to be. As of today, he is tied for second-most interceptions in the SEC at four. In total, the defense averaged a mere 14.2 points allowed over the last five games. That would have ranked as eighth in the nation and second in the SEC in scoring defense during that period.
Who are the Hoosiers?
Indiana is in the midst of its best season of the decade. This season marks the first time since 2007 the Hoosiers have posted a winning record. They are a dangerous team, as they were one possession away from upsetting Penn State on the road back in November. However, all of their victories have come against unranked opponents, and they lost to Ohio State and Michigan by a combined score of 90-24. They are looking to cap off this season with a signature win over a prestigious opponent in Jacksonville.
The Hoosier’s offense runs through their quarterback position. Many were concerned with the outlook of the season after losing their starting quarterback to injury early in the year. However, junior quarterback Peyton Ramsey has emerged as a leader of this team and taken the offense to new heights. He has accounted for 2,227 passing yards, 13 passing touchdowns, and only 4 interceptions. While more comfortable in the pocket, he has shown he can run if needed. He already has six rushing touchdowns on the season. Tennessee will have to be disciplined in containment while pressuring the talented quarterback, or he could be in for a big day.
In the backfield, the Hoosiers are led by Sophomore running back Stevie Scott III. He has rushed for 845 yards and 10 touchdowns on the season. With a stellar performance, it is possible he could get to 1,000 yards by the end of the day. However, he is listed as questionable with an undisclosed injury at this time. If he were unable to play, freshman running back Sampson James would likely take over lead-back duties for the Gator Bowl.
Indiana’s defense has more questions than their offense. In passing defense, they surrender an average of 308.7 yards per game over the course of the season. They also average nearly 150 yards on the ground per game (134.9). This has resulted in a scoring defense averaging 32.6 points per game. Against the inferior competition, this mark is much better. They did shut out Rutgers earlier in the season, but there are still more questions than answers.
The defense is led by sophomore linebacker Micah McFadden. He has 55 total tackles including 1.5 sacks on the season. McFadden plays sideline to sideline and pursues the football extremely well. The young linebacker has even has shown prowess in coverage, as he has an interception on the season as well. If left unaccounted for, he can be a playmaker for this Indiana defense. In the trenches, senior lineman Allen Stallings IV leads the team with five sacks. He will look to rattle Tennessee’s quarterback throughout the contest. The front seven is the strength of the Indiana defense, and they will look to eliminate Tennessee’s running game and make their quarterbacks and receivers beat them through the air.
This is quite an intriguing matchup to dissect. Both teams come in confident they can win this and start the new year with a bowl victory. As emphasized, this is not the same Tennessee team that lost at home to Georgia State at the beginning of the season. they are a much-improved team, especially on defense. Just their presence in a bowl game proves that after the disastrous start. However, Ramsey may be the best passer this team has seen since Tua Tagovailoa went out of the game against Tennessee with an injury. Still, with Indiana’s best running back questionable, they may struggle to run against this stout Tennessee front. Indiana will struggle more in this game to avoid being one dimensional, and this could be the difference in the game. For our 2020 Gator bowl preview, we will predict a Tennessee win 38-24, as the Vols start off the new year on the right foot.