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AP photo by Mark Humphrey / Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel yells to his players during the first half of Thursday's Music City Bowl against Purdue at Nissan Stadium in Nashville.

It didn't take long for SEC Network studio host Peter Burns to become the Big Orange Nation's all-time favorite talking head at the close of the University of Tennessee's gut-wrenching, heart-stopping, highly controversial 48-45 overtime loss to Purdue in Thursday's Music City Bowl.

One tweet from Burns was all that was needed after an Atlantic Coast Conference officiating crew refused to overturn a call denying the Volunteers a touchdown on fourth-and-goal in the extra period in Nashville.

Wrote Burns, his words sure to be repeated by every Volniac the nation over in the days, weeks and months that will pass until Tennessee's 2022 season kicks off in Neyland Stadium against Ball State on Sept. 3: "That is one of the worst calls I've seen in the history of college football. Absolute garbage in the Music City Bowl."

The Boilermakers would no doubt dispute that, and for all the moaning and groaning about Vols running back Jaylen Wright scoring the touchdown he'll never get credit for — and he did score — the Vols' offensive line was repeatedly penetrated by a gritty and determined Purdue defense, never more so than on UT's final snap of the season.

Even frustrated Vols coach Josh Heupel admitted his line could have blocked better on the play, telling the Vols' radio network after the game: "That play could have been different. We could have executed a few things different."

That Wright somehow got the ball across the goal line in spite of that lack of execution before the whistle blew was a huge credit to his determination not to be denied the end zone. Yet that's just what the official who ruled his forward progress was stopped shy of the goal did.

No touchdown. No win before a Music City Bowl record crowd of 69,469 in Nissan Stadium, most of it dressed in pale orange, after the Boilermakers kicked a 39-yard field goal for the win. No warm, fuzzy feeling to the end of a season that had been warm and fuzzy and surprisingly successful until that moment.

And more than putting a damper on the Vols' offseason, it continued a quite disturbing trend for a Southeastern Conference that loves to trumpet its usual successes to the notion that "It just means more." But if that's the case, what does the league's abysmal 1-5 bowl mark after UT's defeat mean for Friday's College Football Playoff national semifinal games between league champion Alabama and Cincinnati, as well as SEC runner-up Georgia against Michigan?

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Tennessee vs. Purdue at Music City Bowl on Dec. 30, 2021

Are those two regular-season giants headed for semifinal defeats? Is college football's most storied conference now SECond to everyone?

And if that's the case, what has gone suddenly wrong for a league that has won 11 of college football's past 15 national championships?

To be fair, bowl games are always dicey affairs, and never more so than this year, what with COVID-19 protocols, players opting out to prepare for the NFL draft — aka, "I don't want to risk injury unless a national championship's on the line" — and the long-held belief that some teams are disappointed to be in said bowl while others are excited.

Attitude is everything this time of year.

But this was a game that seemed to have two teams equally determined to win, and it produced what just may go down as the most exciting bowl of the 2021 season.

Both teams had more than 625 yards of offense. Both teams scored at least 45 points. Both teams came from behind in the final period with highlight-reel efforts. That the finish will be marred by such a controversial call — at least controversial from the Big Orange perspective — almost seems unfair.

What would be most unfair, however, is for UT fans to forget the joy so much of the rest of this 7-6 season delivered in Heupel's first year on the job. The stunning blowouts of Missouri and South Carolina. The win at nationally ranked Kentucky. The leads, however fleeting, against Alabama and Georgia. None of this was expected, and all of it, as Heupel noted Thursday night after the loss to Purdue, is a "great corner piece to build on."

Indeed, the bitterness of this bowl defeat may even carry a positive if one believes the tweet released by offensive lineman Dayne Davis from the UT locker room: "It didn't end the way we wanted it to end, but guarantee that we're gonna work hard to make sure it never happens again!"

So as 2021 gives way to 2022, let Vols Nation shower Burns with Big Orange love for his emotional and truthful tweet about the Jaylen Wright touchdown the refs got wrong.

But also let it warm its cold winter nights with these words from Heupel: "We'll give the kids a couple of weeks off, then it's time to get back to work. There's a whole lot left out there for us (to accomplish)."

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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