Two years and at least two lifetimes ago, Tennessee almost went back to the Music City Bowl. The last minute switch to the Gator Bowl was a welcome one, carrying January prestige and tradition.
I don’t know if there’s a clear answer to the idea of that switch this year; leave the opponents the same and you do get a shot at a ranked foe from Wake Forest. I do know it’s good for our mental health to look forward, not back, so I’m glad to not be writing on how to stop the Clawfense, now that it’s had enough time.
But with college football in flux, I also think so many of these traditions are what we make of them. The New Year’s Six stretches back to December 30, the same day the Vols and Boilermakers will meet in Nashville. Even the Gator Bowl is on the 31st this season. And the league office seemed true to its word, at least this season: rewarding Top 25 Kentucky, Arkansas, and Texas A&M with the slots typically thought of as more prestigious is a decision I fully respect. It makes the most sense for this Tennessee team to be in Nashville at the end of this season.
There are all these words that go in this next blank about how we weren’t sure we’d be anywhere at the start of this season, and weren’t sure how long it’d be until we were anywhere or who we’d be there with around 11 months ago. The work Josh Heupel and these guys have done in one year gets one more data point, a 13th game with a chance to get an eighth win. Purdue may not feel like an opponent that can elevate the narrative, but it can certainly reinforce it. And most importantly, it can continue to build the path to the future for this program.
We’ll say more about Heupel along the way, both before and after this game 25 days from now. Whatever is left to build in this season, Purdue and Jeff Brohm are a fitting opponent. If Heupel gets to 8-5, he’ll best the year one records of Kiffin (7-6), Dooley (6-7), Jones (5-7) and Pruitt (5-7). Meanwhile, Brohm has Purdue at eight wins right now for the first time since 2007, the same year we use as the “remember when” benchmark. If they beat us to get to nine, it’ll be the first time since 2003 (shout out Kyle Orton & Jim Chaney).
Purdue had two separate fortnights of beating a Top 5 team by double digits, getting in the poll, getting blown out by another good team, and getting thrown out of the poll. They won at #2 Iowa 24-7 on October 16, jumped into the poll at #25, then got busted up by Wisconsin 30-13 at home the next week. On November 6, they beat #3 Michigan State 40-29. Back in the poll at #19, then they went to Ohio State, where they lost 59-31, back out of the poll. They’re 30th in receiving votes, so a win in Nashville could get them their first ranked finish since 2003.
It’s now year five for Brohm, who you’ll remember maybe/maybe not considering a jump to Tennessee after year one in the midst of 2017’s disaster. Purdue was so thoroughly non-competitive under his predecessor, he was able to make significant strides even going 17-21 in his first three seasons. We used Brohm as a template for one of our favorite exercises during our coaching search last season: progress over predecessors in SP+. And in that regard, this fall he’s looked to move Purdue from Point B to Point C.
The Vols were combustible and self-destructive under previous administrations, but they weren’t flat out non-competitive year-over-year like Purdue, so Heupel’s climb wasn’t quite as steep in that regard. Coming into the year, we thought getting from Point A to Point B would just be putting a better product on the field than three of the last four seasons. Instead, Heupel and this team gave us one of the best seasons we’ve seen at Tennessee in 14 years post-Fulmer. For us to start thinking about Point C at a much faster rate, the Vols need a strong finish. And Nashville should be a friendly venue.
When I think back to that 2019 bowl, it was the final performance for Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway, Daniel Bituli, Nigel Warrior, and Darrell Taylor. These were guys who stayed through turmoil, led by example, and really saved the 2019 season when we were such a mess that September. Beating Indiana in that winning streak, especially in dramatic fashion, was a nice send-off. But what you really wanted for them was for what they did to be the start of something, a link in a chain that held strong. Instead, Jeremy Pruitt’s chain went all to pieces in 2020.
For all the guys who are playing their last game at Tennessee against Purdue, I’m thrilled they got the chance to experience 2021. You want to send them out the right way. And if we do, we’ll feel even more that they might be remembered not just for an 8-5 season, but for being the first link in a new chain. One that ultimately stretches back to the kind of football that regularly shows up in January.
This year has been a joy to watch. And if we finish if off the right way, we’ll spend an off-season feeling like the future will be too.