BLOOMINGTON – The breaks fell Indiana's way, with both Wisconsin and Penn State joining Ohio State in New Year's Six bowl games, but confusion reigned.
The Hoosiers were confident in their own landing spot in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida, but their potential opponents changed places.
Initial reports had Indiana facing rival Kentucky in the Gator Bowl before a late arrangement between SEC teams sent the Wildcats to the Belk Bowl in North Carolina.
The shifting pieces meant Tennessee will travel to Florida to face the Hoosiers in the 75th edition of the Gator Bowl on Jan. 2.
Indiana athletic director Fred Glass received a call from Gator Bowl executive director Rick Catlett around 4 p.m. Sunday to officially offer the Hoosiers their bowl bid, one Glass gleefully accepted.
Next month's bowl marks Indiana's first-ever postseason game in Florida, and it will also be only the third time Indiana has played a football game in January.
Glass emphasized the strong IU alumni base in and near Jacksonville (23,000 alumni within 300 miles), the 26 players on the IU roster from Florida and the prestige associated with the Gator Bowl, which is the only bowl game played that Thursday night.
“The stage you're going to play on, the fact that we'll be playing when everyone will be watching, it's a very, very powerful thing,” coach Tom Allen said. “But we're going there to win.”
“It's a national stage that you get to play on, against a nationally recognized football program and a nationally recognized bowl. You know, you just sit there, you dream of one day being in that situation, to be a part of one of those either as a player, a coach.”
The benefits for Indiana of both the game itself, and the preparation for it, are obvious.
It's an extra month of practice for a Hoosiers team that is made up of more than 70% underclassmen but also one full of seniors and fifth-year players eager to complete the program's first nine-win season since 1967.
“We came all the way up here to make change,” fifth-year linebacker Reakwon Jones said. “So we're going in with a chip on our shoulder, with something to prove.”
Indiana and Tennessee have met just one time before, in the 1988 Peach Bowl in Atlanta, a game the Volunteers won 27-22.
This year's Tennessee team enters the postseason on a five-game winning streak, and the Volunteers haven't lost since the middle of October.
“A lot of respect for their program. Obviously, a ton of respect for that conference,” Allen said. “Just understand the kind of athlete we'll be playing against, and really excited for that challenge and that opportunity.”
Allen and the coaching staff have already mapped out a bowl practice schedule for the Hoosiers, which includes a break that lets players return home for Christmas and several normal days of practice in Jacksonville.
In terms of health, Allen is optimistic that freshman offensive lineman Matthew Bedford (lower leg), freshman running back Sampson James (ankle) and sophomore running back Stevie Scott (lower leg) will be available for the bowl game.
Fifth-year senior wide receiver Donavan Hale had a lower body procedure done and won't be available.
The bowl game announcement comes on the heels of Allen's new seven-year contract. Announced on Friday morning, the contract guarantees Allen nearly $20 million and provides coaching stability for the Hoosiers program.
It's the latest step taken by Glass to raise the profile of football at the university, following renovations to Memorial Stadium, a new locker room for the team unveiled prior to this season and the implementation of beer and wine sales at games.
“Two ways for Indiana football to be excellent, continuity of leadership and continuity of major investments,” Glass said, squeezing the forearm of Allen as he spoke.
“It is exciting that the new locker room is a game changer. Closing the stadium, it is a game changer. I think this contract is a game changer, but we're not done and we continue to make those investments.”
TaxSlayer Gator Bowl
Indiana vs. Tennessee
Where: TIAA Bank Field, Jacksonville, Fla.
When: 7 p.m. Jan. 2