While the Indiana football program has established a nice pipeline of talent that flows north to Bloomington, that hasn’t always come at the expense of Southeastern Conference programs.
In fact, some Hoosier players hailing from the south were completely ignored by the football powerhouse conference.
Playing in SEC country at the Gator Bowl against a team from that league in Tennessee, more than a couple IU players are relishing the opportunity to show others what they missed out on.
As kids growing up in the southern part of the country, for some the Big Ten was out of sight and out of mind.
“Being from Florida all we really watched was the SEC and ACC,” senior linebacker Reakwon Jones said.
Indiana has not played a school from the SEC since a home-and-home with Missouri in 2013-14, meaning that no one on this IU roster has faced a team from that league. Prior to Missouri, the Hoosiers had not faced an SEC school since the Bourbon Barrel series with Kentucky ended in 2005.
For those from the SEC area, getting a chance to play against a school from that league, and especially one of its traditional powers like Tennessee, is something that has always been hoped for.
“I’ve always wanted to play an SEC team,” senior wide receiver Nick Westbrook said.
Hailing from St. Mary’s, Fla., just a couple hours south of the University of Florida, Westbrook took it personally when no schools from the SEC showed interest when he was in high school.
“I almost felt slighted because I didn’t really get any SEC attention being a guy from down south,” Westbrook said.
For both Westbrook and Jones, there are plenty of other things that come to mind first about Indiana’s appearance in The Gator Bowl, in their home state of Florida.
“Just the opportunity to have our families easily be able to travel to the game,” Jones said about what has him excited about IU’s first ever bowl game in The Sunshine State.
But like Westbrook, Jones hasn’t forgotten that those programs he grew up watching didn’t come calling.
“Coming out of high school I didn’t have any offers from any SEC teams, so just to be able to go back and end my career playing against an SEC team in my home state, in front of my family, it’s a blessing,” Jones said.
With 46 players on IU’s roster hailing from states with SEC schools within their borders, Jones suspects he and Westbrook aren’t the only ones placing a little bit of extra significance on this game.
“I bet a whole lot of other guys have that same chip on their shoulder. It’s just an opportunity that we’re not going to let slip through our fingers. I’ve been saying all season I want to play an SEC school, and I’m just so thankful and happy that I get the opportunity the last game of my college career,” Jones said.
Of course relishing an opportunity and executing on game day are two different things.
The SEC is a topic of conversation because it is an elite football conference.
“Playing the SEC, it’s one of the strongest conferences out there,” Westbrook said.
No one knows that better than head coach Tom Allen, who coached in the league with Mississippi from 2012 to 2014.
“Obviously a ton of respect for that conference,” Allen said. “I have coached in it myself several years ago. Just understand the kind of athlete we’ll be playing against, and really excited for that challenge and that opportunity.”
Jones knows that it will take a great effort for Indiana to pull out a win against a team of Tennessee’s caliber.
“I’m going to do everything I can to make sure I take hold of it,” Jones said.
Of course for Jones, Westbrook, and all of Indiana’s 16 seniors, the Gator Bowl is about much more than just a chance to play against the SEC.
For most of them, this will be their last football game, ever.
“It will be awesome, on that big stage, one last time for IU football,” Westbrook said.
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