JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Every game matters in college football, especially big-stage bowl games. But it matters even more when there's a close personal connection.
There's a lot of that surrounding Indiana's football team here in Jacksonville. When Indiana takes on Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl Thursday night (7 p.m.; TV: ESPN), there are plenty of players with Tennessee and SEC ties on the Hoosiers' roster.
Take Indiana wide receiver Ty Fryfogle, for instance. The Lucedale, Miss., native grew up in SEC country. His dad played at Ole Miss, and his grandfather and his brother played college football in the South, too, Even his great-grandfather, Bruce Fryfogle, was a running back at Tennessee.
So, yes, he's surrounded.
"It means a lot to me playing an SEC team when you're from SEC country,'' Fryfogle said Monday morning before the Hoosiers practiced at Fernandina Beach High School. "My great-grandfather played for Tennessee and my dad played in the SEC, too. I rooted for both Mississippi schools growing up, so I saw a lot of Tennessee, too. And when you're from where I'm from, SEC football is the only football you know.''
He's not alone. Indiana linebacker Cam Jones is a Memphis native, and his brother, LaRon Harris, played at Tennessee in the early 2000s. His family has been all about wearing Tennessee orange, but that changed a little when Jones signed with Indiana two years ago. It changed for good three weeks ago when it was announced that Indiana and Tennessee would be hooking up in the Gator Bowl.
"It means a lot for my family,'' Jones said. They were die-hard Tennessee fans, and my brother actually played at Tennessee. When they found out the news, they told me they were all Indiana Hoosiers fans, wearing Indiana jerseys. It means a lot, especially playing against guys I was playing against when I was really young. It means a lot, and I'm excited."
Freshman Matt Bedford, Indiana's starting left tackle, is from Cordova, Tenn., a little east of Memphis, and is one of six Tennessee natives on the Indiana roster. He grew up surrounded by Tennessee fans as well. What he wasn't surrounded by, surprisingly, was recruiters from the University of Tennessee, the 3-star recruit said.
"At the end of my recruitment in December last year, I talked to their tight ends coach once,'' Bedford said, rolling his eyes. He loves being at Indiana, but he also understands the slight from his in-state school. "When I was younger, I didn't watch a lot of Tennessee when I was a kid, just a couple of games. I remember, in my hometown, everybody wore Tennessee, and everybody's either Memphis or Tennessee. It's a rich culture there with. Peyton Manning, a lot of great quarterbacks out of there, a lot of great running back and a lot of great guys who've come out of that program. ''
Monday's practice was the second in Florida after the Hoosiers arrived on Saturday afternoon. Sunday's working was done in a light rain, so Monday's sun-splashed sky and temperatures in the high-70s were welcomed by the Hoosiers.
"It's been really great just being here in Florida with this weather,'' said Fryfogle, a sophomore who's had 42 catches this year, third-most on the team, and will get more playing time in the bowl game with senior Donovan Hale out with a knee injury. "We're staying at a really nice resort, just having fun and enjoying out time with the seniors mostly, who won't be here next year. When it's time to work, we're going to work."
Fryfogle,whose father played at Ole Miss with current Indiana wide receivers coach Grant Heard, will start in Indiana's three-receiver sets against Tennessee, along with senior Nick Westbrook and junior Whop Philyor. He's really stepped up his game this year, a big piece in the Indiana passing attack that averaged 308 yards per game, 14th-best in the country.
"I feel like I've really improved a lot during the course of the season, especially with my route-running and knowing the game inside-out,'' Fryfogle said. I can play any position now. It's a very complicated offense, and it takes everybody to get this offense to come together. And we've done that.''
They've also done it with two different quarterbacks, Michael Penix Jr. and Peyton Ramsey. Both were great when they played, but Penix, named the starter in August, couldn't stay healthy. He got hurt three different times, and each time, Ramsey came in and played well.
"Peyton's done a great job, but that didn't surprise me any,'' Fryfogle said. "I knew when he came in for Mike, we were still going to be just fine. Both quarterbacks and great and I always had confidence in both of them.
Fryfogle and Jones said bowl-prep practices are going well and that everyone is focused on putting on a show Thursday night. It's the only football game in America that night ± pro and college — so millions of eyeballs are going to be on the Hoosiers.
"I'm really excited about this game, and being on this stage, playing in an NFL stadium,'' Fryfogle said . "And it's not about just being here. We're totally focused on winning this game. That was always our goal, winning a bowl game, not just being here.
"It means a lot to all these guys right now, and it means a lot for the program in the future, too. Winning would help a lot with recruiting and help set the stage for bigger things next year.''
Jones said practices, both here in Jacksonville and back in Bloomington, have been crisp.
"The irst practice (on Sunday) felt amazing just to be back out here on the field with my guys, competing, learning and attacking," Jones said.
Bedford agreed. He's been nursing a bad ankle that he hurt in the Michigan game on Nov. 23. He missed most of that game and all of the Purdue game, but declares himself "100 percent now.''
He's looking forward to getting after it Thursday against Tennessee's vaunted defensive line, the strength of their 7-5 team,
"It's the perfect way to end the season for me, with a bowl game against Tennessee,'' Bedford said. "It was hard to sit out that Purdue game, and not be out there, but I felt emotionally I was in the game, taking those mental reps as much as possible.''
"I've stayed engaged, I'm all good to go for Thursday night.''
Related Story: Get to Know Matt Bedford
Matt Bedford, Indiana's freshman left tackle, was the spotlight or Sports Illustrated Indiana's Sunday Extra series this week. Here's the complete takeout on the Cordova, Tenn., native. CLICK HERE.