(utsports.com) JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – On behalf of the Tennessee football program, Vice Chancellor and Athletics Director Phillip Fulmer attended the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl coaches meeting to receive the Vols official invitation to play Indiana on Jan. 2 at 7 p.m. ET, from bowl committee members and city representatives, Wednesday evening.
To open the ceremony Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry gifted each team with a key to the city before Indiana head coach Tom Allen gave media an opening statement, followed by Fulmer. Tennessee was designated the home team for the bowl game, which will mark the 75th anniversary of the Gator Bowl.
“We’re very excited to have this opportunity and play here in the Gator Bowl and all of the committee have historically done a great job of making this one of the best destinations of all the bowl games,” Fulmer said before congratulating Coach Allen, who Fulmer knew from his recruiting days. “Being a part of this historical event in its 75th year is something we’ll take great pride in, having had a history here a number of times.”
The Tennessee football team finished 7-5 overall and 5-3 in the SEC during the 2019 regular season, tying for its best mark in conference play since 2007. Led by head coach Jeremy Pruitt and a 13-member senior class, the Vols rebounded from a 1-4 start to win six of their final seven games and will take a five-game win streak into the bowl game. Tennessee is undoubtedly one of the hottest teams in the nation and collected nine SEC weekly honors during the season, the most since 2004.
The Vols have also tabbed five Coaches All-SEC honors, two AP All-SEC first team and 247Sports True Freshman All-America selections.
UT’s surge in the second half of the season was largely due to a strong showing from its upperclassmen. The Vols became bowl eligible after a historical performance in Columbia, Mo., against the Missouri Tigers where three different receivers – Marquez Callaway (110), Jauan Jennings (115) and Josh Palmer (124) – surpassed the century mark, to become the first trio in Tennessee history to do so. Callaway recently picked up All-SEC honors as voted on by coaches as a consistent threat on special teams. Callaway also leads the league in yards per catch (21.24), which ranks fourth nationally. Jennings leads the Vols wideouts with 57 receptions, 942 receiving yards and eight touchdowns.
Touted offensive lineman Trey Smith has picked up first team honors on both the AP and Coaches All-SEC Teams and a pair of SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week nods during the regular season as the starting left guard for the Vols. He led the team with 46 knockdowns.
Seniors Daniel Bituli, Nigel Warrior and Darrell Taylor have spearheaded an astounding turnaround by the UT defense. Bituli led the team for the third straight season in tackles (82) putting him in the top 50 in the nation. Taylor added 7.0 sacks and ranks third in the SEC among active players with 18 career sacks, while Warrior co-led the conference with four interceptions in the regular season and picked up AP and Coaches All-SEC honors as well.
Newcomers Henry To’o To’o and Wanya Morris had impressive starts in their freshman campaigns both starting 11 games for the Vols, picking up All-America nods from 247Sports.
Indiana, coached by Tom Allen, finished 8-4 overall in the regular season and 5-3 in the Big Ten. Led by quarterback Peyton Ramsey (2,227 yards and 13 touchdowns) and wide receiver Whop Philyor (69 receptions for 1,001 yards and five touchdowns), Indiana averaged 32.6 points per game and had the nation’s 13th-ranked passing offense (308.7 yards per game).
The high-powered Indiana passing attack will match up against a Vols’ pass defense that ranks No. 16 in the nation (191.3 pass yards allowed per game) and has been even better over the last month, allowing only 137.3 passing yards per game in November – the third-best mark in the nation over that span.
Running back Stevie Scott finished fifth in the Big Ten in rushing (845 yards) and third in touchdowns (11), while Philyor finished fourth in the conference in receiving yards and second in receptions per game (6.3).
The 2020 TaxSlayer Gator Bowl will mark the 53rd bowl appearance all-time for the Vols, which ranks tied for fifth in the nation. The Vols will play in the Gator Bowl for the seventh-time, tying with the Sugar Bowl for the most appearances in a bowl for Tennessee.
Fulmer will actually be a part of his fourth TaxSlayer Gator Bowl, becoming one of the only people to play, coach and be an administrator in the tradition-rich bowl game. Fulmer played on the 1969 SEC Championship team that fell to Florida, 14-13, in Doug Dickey’s last game as the Vols’ head coach and was a student coach in 1973 in a loss to Texas Tech. As head coach, he guided Tennessee to a 45-23 win over Virginia Tech in a Gator Bowl that was moved to Gainesville due to stadium renovations. The 1994 victory served as Peyton Manning’s first bowl game and a featured an MVP performance from running back James Stewart, who rushed for 85 yards and three touchdowns and also tossed a touchdown pass.
“I remember my first experience as a sophomore in high school,” Fulmer said. “I was watching the Syracuse-Tennessee game. Since I was a kid this bowl game has meant a lot to me and we’re glad to bring our team here. Obviously a very passionate fanbase will be here to support Coach Pruitt and his Volunteers. As we look toward the future, this is one of the next opportunities to show our wares and our team is taking that approach.
“We’re thrilled to be here. Each time that I’ve been here as a player, as an assistant coach and head coach and now as an athletics director, its been one of the best experiences we’ve had.”