After back-to-back five-win seasons, the No. 13 Northwestern Wildcats (10-2) are on the verge of making history.
This is just the fourth time in Northwestern’s 125-plus year tenure that it recorded 10 wins in a season. A win at the Outback Bowl would give the Wildcats their highest-ever win total. Northwestern has never won more than 10 games.
This has already been a special season for the Wildcats -- they should end the season ranked for just the second time in 19 years -- but a win would guarantee this Northwestern team becoming one of the most-accomplished in school history. The Cats have won just two bowl games despite playing through 24 U.S. presidents.
Here’s our first glance at Northwestern’s matchup against the No. 23 Tennessee Volunteers (8-4) in the Outback Bowl:
One ESPN analyst compared Dobbs to Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, so there’s a lot to like about the Tennessee signal-caller. He’s a dual threat who averaged 64.1 rushing yards per conference game -- the most of any SEC quarterback -- and posted similar numbers this season to an earlier Northwestern opponent in Duke’s Thomas Sirk. (Dobbs has 623 rushing yards and nine TDs; Sirk has 648 yards and six TDs.) That’s where Walker comes in. His best game this season arguably came against Duke when he had a season-high 19 tackles. Walker was the Wildcat who really helped neutralize Duke’s dual-threat. Of Sirk’s 16 runs, Walker stopped him seven times. Walker was named Big Ten defensive player of the week after that performance, and he could play a big role once again in stopping Dobbs.
Northwestern breakout candidate: RB Justin Jackson
Even Jackson isn’t quite sure how this works, but he somehow gets stronger as the season moves on. He was sore around Weeks 2 and 3, but he feels great now -- even after picking up 72 carries in the last two games of the regular season. “I just feel better with the pounding I get,” he told ESPN.com two weeks ago. “My body just reacts well to it, I guess. I don’t know. It’s weird. It’s a weird thing.” Only two players in the FBS -- Alabama’s Derrick Henry and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey -- have carried the ball more than Jackson (298 rushing attempts), so he should get every opportunity to shine against Tennessee. The Vols have a mediocre rush defense, which is ranked No. 49 nationally, so Jackson once again has the potential to carry this offense. Against Illinois, which allows just 0.02 yards more per carry than Tennessee (4.25 ypc), Jackson had a season-high 37 carries for 172 yards.
Keys to victory: Who will rush for more yards? Northwestern rushes 64 percent of the time, while the Vols do so 62 percent. Northwestern is ranked No. 14 nationally in stopping the run and trumps Tennessee in that area, while Tennessee is ranked No. 21 nationally in rushing and averages more than a half-yard better per carry than the Wildcats. Outside of that, kickoff returns and punt returns have the potential to be deciding factors here. The Vols have six return touchdowns this season -- and are the best in the nation at returns -- while Northwestern boasts an elite punt return defense and two kick return TDs.