Heupel hoping Vols can snatch the 'carrot' of the week

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee receiver Velus Jones (1), quarterback Hendon Hooker (5) and receiver Cedric Tillman (4) would like to experience a few more celebrations during Thursday afternoon's Music City Bowl against Purdue. Despite the game being in Nashville, the Volunteers will be the visiting team and will wear all white.

The Southeastern Conference entered this college football bowl season with the best 15-year track record in the sport's history.

Alabama, Auburn, Florida and LSU combined to win 11 of the past 15 national championships, and two seasons ended in all-SEC finals, with Nick Saban's Crimson Tide topping LSU for the 2011 title and Georgia for the 2017 crown. Yet the league also repeatedly showcased its depth by compiling a sparkling 97-55 bowl record, but that aspect has been noticeably lacking this time around.

A snapshot of the SEC postseason landscape so far has Texas A&M having to pull out of the Gator Bowl for COVID-19-related issues and an 0-4 mark in games that have been staged.

"It doesn't matter what league you're playing in, I think your preparation leads to how you play on game day," Tennessee first-year coach Josh Heupel said during Wednesday's final news conference before Thursday afternoon's Music City Bowl against Purdue. "From the time we started bowl preparation, you've heard me say that when it's not football time, you've got to enjoy the two- to three-week buildup to the bowl game and enjoy the opportunity to have camaraderie and create memorable moments. When it's time to be in the building - whether it's lifting or football or meetings or walkthroughs - you've got to be focused on that.

"This group has been good in its preparation when it's time to be focused on the football side of it."

Auburn, Florida, Mississippi State and Missouri had multiple players opt out of their respective bowls before suffering defeat, but senior cornerback Alontae Taylor is Tennessee's lone player to announce he's bypassing Thursday's game for an early start to the NFL draft process. Heupel did reveal Wednesday that senior right tackle Cade Mays would not be available due to the ankle injury he sustained in the 11th game against South Alabama.

The motivational aspect of those SEC teams that already have lost was being questioned before those games kicked off, but Heupel insists that's not the case with his 7-5 Volunteers.

"If you're a great competitor, and those are traits we try to build and recruit to and have inside of our building, this does matter," he said. "This is certainly a game our players have pushed toward, and it matters a great deal inside of our program. A bowl game is unique in that it's important to enjoy the experience, but the carrot of the whole week and the thing that you'll remember most about the experience is the game itself."

Tennessee actually will be the second SEC team Thursday trying to stop the league slide, with South Carolina and North Carolina meeting for a lunchtime start in the Duke's Mayo Bowl in Charlotte. Scott Ramsey, the president and CEO of the Nashville Sports Council, said Wednesday that the Music City Bowl is just several hundred fans away from a sellout.

The Boilermakers are not lacking for drive, either, as they could go 9-4 for the first time since 2003 and could avenge their last trip to Nashville in 2018, when Auburn raced out to a staggering 56-7 halftime lead before cruising 63-14.

"It was one of those games you would just like to wash away," Purdue coach Jeff Brohm said. "We learned a great deal. We played a tremendous Auburn team that had a lot of talent, size and guys who moved on to the National Football League. We got exposed in many areas."

Hoping to avoid getting exposed Thursday are the game's two defensive coordinators, Tennessee's Tim Banks and Purdue's Brad Lambert. The Boilermakers are among just four Bowl Subdivision teams that failed to rush for 1,000 yards during the regular season, but they have a top-10 aerial attack nationally and don't hide the fact they have a pass-first and pass-often preference.

"Coach Brohm has done a great job everywhere he's been as it relates to offense," Banks said. "We understand that we're going to have to be at our best to be able to defend a team such as Purdue. They've got good skill, but it always starts with quarterback play, and their quarterback seems to be playing pretty good at this point."

For Lambert, the obvious challenge is stopping Tennessee's tempo. The Vols lead the nation in plays (2.94) and points (1.61) per minute.

"Normally you make 60 to 70 calls in a game, and you get about 30 seconds in between each play," Lambert said. "With these guys, you get about six seconds in between each play. We've tried to replicate that, and our offense has helped us with that by playing fast in practice."

Next men up

Redshirt sophomore Dayne Davis and junior-college transfer Jeremiah Crawford could see action at right tackle against Purdue in the absence of Mays. Davis started against Alabama and Vanderbilt during the regular season.

"Dayne has been the same guy every day," Vols offensive coordinator Alex Golesh said. "He got a level of confidence when he started against Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and I thought did a really fair job of hanging in there and continuing to get better as the game went on.

"I'm excited for both of those guys. They've been splitting the first-team reps the last three weeks."

Contact David Paschall at [email protected] or 423-757-6524.