Tennessee football: Remembering the last time Vols played Indiana Hoosiers

This year’s Gator Bowl will be the second meeting between Tennessee football and Indiana. Here’s a look at the last time the Volunteers faced the Hoosiers.

Jan. 2, 2020 will mark 32 years to the date since the only other time in history Tennessee football faced the Indiana Hoosiers. Just like this year, Indiana entered the game as an eight-win team, and just like this year, the Vols entered that game after going undefeated in November.

The two met in the Peach Bowl in Atlanta, which is obviously a College Football Playoff game now. Rocky Top came in with a 9-2-1 record and ranked No. 17 in the nation. Indiana, meanwhile, came in with an 8-3 record.

At the time, the Vols were slowly turning into a powerhouse. Johnny Majors spend eight years rebuilding UT, and it finally culminated with an SEC Championship, top five finish and Sugar Bowl win over the Miami Hurricanes in the 1985 season. However, the long rebuild made for a major drop-off in 1986, and the Vols got off to a 2-5 start only to finish 7-5, like this year.

In 1987, UT was proving it was still trending upward as a program, as their only losses were at the Alabama Crimson Tide and in an upset loss at the Boston College Eagles. They also tied the Auburn Tigers, but they opened the season with a win over another Big Ten team, the No. 16 Iowa Hawkeyes. At this point, they had a chance for them to reach 10 wins for the first time since 1972.

Indiana, meanwhile, was seeing some of its best years under head coach Bill Mallory. This was his fourth season, and he took them from 0-11 in 1984 to 4-7 in 1985 to 6-6 in 1986 before this 8-3 season in 1987. So they were riding high relative to what they had done in the past and simply thrilled to be in the game.

Motivation is a key factor in bowl games, but the Vols were the ones to show it early. Tennessee football jumped out to a 21-3 lead and appeared to be en route to a blowout. Instead, this turned into one of the most memorable bowl games in UT history.

After making it 21-10 with a touchdown before the half, the Hoosiers fought back with a touchdown in the third quarter and a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Two missed two-point conversions put them up 22-21.

But the Vols responded. They drove down the field and scored on a nine-yard touchdown run by Reggie Cobb, who was named the game’s MVP, with less than two minutes to go. As a result, they pulled away for a 27-22 win, getting them that 10-win year and also a top 15 finish in both polls.

On the other side, Indiana finished ranked No. 20 in the Coaches Poll at 8-4. They would have a similar season in 1988, going 8-3-1 and finishing in the top 20 in both polls, and they would also make bowl games in 1990, 1991 and 1993. But in 13 years on the job, Mallory could never direct the Hoosiers to more than nine wins in a season.

Meanwhile, Tennessee football had one more bad year under Majors, in 1988, as they started the season off 0-6. But they won out to finish 5-6. And just as 1987 showed they were trending upward, Majors’ rebuilding project was complete by 1989.

UT arrived that year and began its historic run of 16 straight bowl appearances, 13 straight top 25 finishes, four SEC Championships and a national championship. This bowl game helped set the stage for that even if a bad season followed. Could the same thing happen for Jeremy Pruitt entering the 2020s? Everybody on Rocky Top hopes so.